Every so often, a new law or court ruling crops up to remind us that the fight for reproductive autonomy is far from settled. This year, that reminder came from the Supreme Court, which recently made two key decisions regarding reproductive rights: one that protects abortion clinics from increasingly draconian restrictions, another that refuses to guarantee employees’ access to contraception. Like many others, I reacted to the former with relief, the latter with apprehension. As always, my reproductive autonomy remains a continuous question mark.

In the common narrative surrounding these freedoms, access to abortion and contraception dominate. Abortion, in particular, is the primary issue highlighted on the fronts of the Center for Reproductive Rights’s website and the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom page. A quick Google search of “reproductive rights” yields innumerable photos of women, clad in pink, holding signs with big, bold lettering: “Keep abortion safe and legal,” they read, above crossed-out sketches of coat hangers. “Abortion is healthcare.”

Stories and histories, opinions upon opinions, have been shared about the validity of their protests. We ought to respect women, trust their abilities to navigate the complex and difficult realities of bearing children. But something else sticks out to me about these images on Google: beneath their pink shirts, most of the protesters are white.

For people of color, no compact slogan or singular demand can capture the intersecting layers of oppression that restrict reproductive freedom. 

“I can’t focus on abortion access if my people are dying,” Black organizer Brea Baker ’16 told The New York Times in a June story about young adults’ shifting priorities in activism in the age of Black Lives Matter. “The narrative around abortion access wasn’t made for people from the hood.”

In this column, I want to clarify the deep historical underpinnings of Baker’s words for those who have never had to live with their painful effects personally. Because while reproductive autonomy—access to abortion and contraception included—should be a given, and while all child-bearing people have faced reproductive oppression, BIPOC have had to fight harder to have children, to raise their children safely, and at the most basic level, to be heard. Reproductive freedom does not end with abortion, and ignoring its other dimensions can be incredibly dangerous. Reproductive justice, a specific BIPOC-led framework for reproductive health, understands this intimately.

Throughout history, a pernicious narrative has falsely insisted that women of color are hypersexual, hyper-fertile, and threatening because of it. With this idea in mind, 20th century eugenicists and “family planning” advocates, who feared overpopulation from women of color’s purportedly out-of-control birth rates and who sought to eliminate their undesirable genes from the population, enacted widespread sterilization policies under the guise of public health. From 1929 to 1974, North Carolina’s state-run eugenic program sterilized thousands of “delinquent” and “unwholesome” people—40 percent of whom were Black. Sterilization in Puerto Rico was so widespread that an estimated 37 percent of childbearing women had undergone such procedures by 1976. The Indian Health Service also sterilized over 25 percent of Indigenous women of childbearing age. And in California, eugenic sterilization laws led to over 20,000 forced procedures, disproportionately targeting Black, Latinx, and immigrant women.

In many cases, physicians obtained “consent” through coercion or misinformation, and women agreed without understanding the weight of their procedure. Sometimes, they did so while delirious with pain. The landmark 1976 Madrigal vs. Quilligan lawsuit, brought by ten Mexican American women against the Los Angeles hospital that forcibly sterilized them, saw the callous brutality of these practices come to light. “You want the pain to go away? Well, sign this [sterilization consent] paper!” one physician recalled seeing her colleague say to a Black patient in labor.

Sterilization not only invaded women’s autonomy, but also isolated them from their communities. “I was ashamed,” recalled one Madrigal vs. Quilligan plaintiff of her post-operation trauma, upon realizing she could no longer bear children.

Amidst this profound loss, white, upper-middle class reproductive rights activists, for whom autonomy represented the ability to avoid children only, rose to prominence. The most celebrated figures in the 20th century movement—such as Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger who lobbied aggressively for birth control and radical feminist groups like the Redstockings who fought to legalize abortion—tended to share one skin tone. Their privilege often blinded them to the struggles of those facing further layers of oppression. 

For example, though the nature of her intentions are debated, Sanger intertwined her pro-birth control arguments with their eugenic value with such conviction that this July, the Greater New York branch of Planned Parenthood officially distanced itself from her. When the pill Sanger so vehemently fought for came to fruition in the 1960s, in part due to exploitative experimentation on Puerto Rican women, some white male lawmakers tried to push it upon poor Black women, whose promiscuity they blamed for an increasingly strained welfare system. Never mind the racist forces that economically oppressed Black women, and never mind that white people were by number the largest users of welfare. Sanger’s groundbreaking step forward for white women’s autonomy continued the practice of eugenic sterilization, packaged into an easily ingestible form.

To be clear, the right to abortion and contraception are undoubtedly essential in any understanding of reproductive health. Everyone deserves the right to choose to refuse children, and our history of denying that right is gruesome and tragic as well. We owe a lot to 20th century reproductive rights activists, Sanger and radical feminists included. Their perspective, however, was often harmful in its one-dimensionality, given that medical, racial, and socioeconomic injustice had forcibly blocked thousands of women of color from choosing to have children at all.

Historical inequalities endure. Today, BIPOC seeking reproductive autonomy contend with ever-restrictive policies on abortion and contraception like their white peers. But they also face much more. They face the coercive sterilization practices that still exist in prisons, which our broken criminal legal system has disproportionately populated with Black and Brown people. They face double or triple the maternal mortality rates of their white counterparts. They face racism and its collateral effects, face centuries of socioeconomic oppression and infrastructural neglect, face the added layers of stress, fear, and danger associated with being non-white, and more. All of which make it harder for women of color to raise and protect their kids.

BIPOC have pushed for an expanded definition reproductive health since long before the 20th century rise of the abortion-focused reproductive rights movement. Black midwives, for example, served their communities for centuries as knowledge-bearing leaders, public health advocates, and liaisons to white health professionals, in addition to the essential pre-natal, post-natal, and birthing assistance they provided for Black women barred from white medical care.

Continuing these legacies, Black women at a 1994 Chicago gathering formalized a revolutionary intersectional framework: reproductive justice. SisterSong, founded in the aftermath of this gathering and now the foremost reproductive justice advocacy organization in the country, defines the concept as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” In other words, reproductive justice cares deeply about abortion and contraception—and the unique challenges low-income women of color face in accessing those services—but also pushes for a holistic understanding of health beyond that. The women and LGBTQ people of color behind SisterSong run national conferences and training programs, support artists, and create empowering spaces that help spread knowledge of the movement. Affiliated activists have founded other reproductive justice-centered organizations such as the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, which fights for “a world where Black mamas have the rights, respect, and resources to thrive before, during, and after pregnancy.” When we support the Center for Reproductive Rights, or the ACLU, or Planned Parenthood, we ought to support organizations that fight for reproductive justice, too.

In 2020, the perennial debate over reproductive freedom joins an arena already saturated with the injustice of a pandemic, a failing economy, and a national reckoning with systemic anti-Blackness. More than ever, intersectionality is the essential lens through which we must view all advocacy. With this in mind, we have to move beyond pushing for “reproductive rights” in its current form—focused on abortion and contraception only—to support reproductive justice instead. Centuries of uniquely cruel oppression have forced BIPOC to shape this movement. It is more than time for their painstaking labor to be universally acknowledged.

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