When you think of reproductive rights, what comes to mind? I’d bet you thought of the right to a safe and legal abortion. At least I hope you did, because that’s a central part of reproductive liberty. Before I read Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, I perceived reproductive freedom as the ability to get safe and effective birth control, age-appropriate sex education, and reproductive healthcare, which includes abortion. However, for over a hundred years, poor Black women have viewed reproductive justice as much more than just abortion rights.
Killing the Black Body changed the way I saw reproductive justice. Before reading this book, I thought that my advocacy for abortion rights was intersectional and that I was standing up for Black women. I knew that abortion restrictions disproportionately affect Black women and that white feminists need to stop centering ourselves and our needs in this conversation. What I didn’t know was that there was a whole other world of reproductive injustice that Black women have faced that I had no idea about.
The book contains only seven chapters. They are:
- Reproduction in Bondage
- The Dark Side of Birth Control
- From Norplant to the Contraceptive Vaccine: The New Frontier of Population Control
- Making Reproduction a Crime
- The Welfare Debate: Who Pays for Procreation?
- Race and the New Reproduction
- The Meaning of Liberty
The only thing that made me wish for more detail was that Killing the Black Body was released in 1997. Granted, mine was the 2017 twentieth anniversary edition with a new preface by the author—although I felt that the update would have been more appropriate at the end rather than at the beginning of the book.
Beyond that, this book was packed. My copy is a small, unassuming paperback that doesn’t look that big. It’s only 312 pages, but in my defense, the text is very small and fills each page to the edge. Each chapter averaged 42 pages and seemed to stretch on forever.
I’m grateful to have had my eyes opened and to have learned so much, but I did feel at times that Roberts was attempting to convince me of things that she had already convinced me of long ago with her incredibly thorough arguments. I try to always have my mind and heart open when listening to the experiences of Black women, so I didn’t need much convincing when Roberts told me of her sisters’ suffering. Even for those who might be more skeptical of her words, Roberts was ready to change minds with her abundant sources and extensive knowledge.
The information in Killing the Black Body is extremely important. I want to give a quick summary of each chapter here, not to speak for or over Roberts but because I thought that each chapter could have been easily and succinctly summarized for those who might not have the time, patience, or privilege to pore over Roberts’ details.
Chapter one, Reproduction in Bondage, discussed what reproductive life was like for enslaved women. We today can only imagine the horror of slavery, but rarely do we consider how bondage shattered families, pregnancies, and childhoods. Never before had I made the (obvious) connection between subjugation of enslaved women and the line that one can directly draw to reproductive injustice today.
Slave masters’ control of Black women’s reproduction illustrates better than any other example I know the importance of reproductive liberty to women’s equality. Every indignity that comes from the denial of reproductive autonomy can be found in slave women’s lives—the harms of treating women’s wombs as procreative vessels, of policies that pit a mother’s welfare against that of her unborn child, and of government attempts to manipulate women’s child-bearing decisions through threats and bribes. Studying the control of slave women’s reproduction, then, not only discloses the origins of Black people’s subjugation in America; it also bears witness to the horrible potential threatened by official denial of reproductive liberty.Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body, p. 23
There were many examples of the ways that enslaved women were denied motherhood, but this was not a great surprise. I never expected enslaved people to have had control over their families or destinies. What was shocking was Roberts’ irrefutable connection between a practice of enslavers and a common tactic that anti-abortion activists use today: “maternal-fetal conflict,” or pitting pregnant people against their own unborn babies.
The conflict between mother and child was most dramatically expressed in the method of whipping pregnant slaves that was used throughout the South. Slaveholders forced women to lie face down in a depression in the ground while they were whipped. A former slave named Lizzie Williams recounted the beating of pregnant slave women on a Mississippi cotton plantation: “I[‘]s seen [n—r] women dat was fixin’ to be confined do somethin’ de white folks didn’t like. Dey [the white folks] would dig a hole in de ground just big nuff fo her stomach, make her lie face down an whip her on de back to keep
from hurtin’ de child.”
This description of the way in which pregnant slaves were beaten vividly illustrates the slaveowners’ dual interest in Black women as both workers and childbearers. This was a procedure that enabled the master to protect the fetus while abusing the mother. It was the slave-holder’s attempt to resolve the tough dilemma inherent in female bondage. As far as I can tell, the relationship between Black women and their unborn children created by slavery is the first example of maternal-fetal conflict in American history.
. . .
The whipping of pregnant slaves is the most powerful image of maternal-fetal conflict I have ever come across in all my research on reproductive rights.Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body, p. 40-41
Chapter two, The Dark Side of Birth Control, covers the eugenics era of the early 1900s and the horrific attempt to sterilize Black and disabled women. Readers also meet the mother of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger. First, we admire her for her advocacy of birth control and then we feign surprise that of course an early white “feminist” did not have non-white women’s interests in mind. While many have argued that Sanger was “not like the other eugenicists,” Roberts demonstrates that her views reached the same harmful end as others’.
Sanger nevertheless promoted two of the most perverse tenets of eugenic thinking: that social problems are caused by reproduction of the socially disadvantaged and that their child-bearing should therefore be deterred. In a society marked by racial hierarchy, these principles inevitably produced policies designed to reduce Black women’s fertility. The judgment of who is fit and who is unfit, of who should reproduce and who should not, incorporated the racist ideologies of the time.Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body, p. 81
I don’t remember if Roberts made an explicit connection, but this theme of eugenics felt to me like the basis for almost every way that Black reproduction has been repressed going forward. Besides the era of chattel slavery when we bred women like cattle, we have not stopped trying to keep Black people from reproducing. And the worst part is that the focus of reproductive freedom continues to focus on white people’s ability to choose not to have children and not equally on Black people’s freedom to choose to have children.
This theme takes full swing in chapter three in which Roberts discusses the way that medical professionals have forced Black women to take the contraceptive Norplant. Advocates claim to be caring for Black women’s reproductive freedom but in reality Norplant works more as population control.
Readers might not immediately understand that Norplant is harmful. It’s an extremely effective, removeable contraceptive device offered—coerced—to Black teens and adults and often subsidized or covered by Medicaid. Norplant is implanted in women’s arms and doesn’t need to be taken daily like the pill or used during sex like a condom.
This convenience is used as a selling point, but Roberts makes it clear that it is a way to control Black women’s fertility. Yes, pills and condoms are inconvenient, but they are worth it because they allow people to control their reproductive decisions each time they have sex. With Norplant, you cannot choose to try and have a baby when you want to.
And conveniently for racist medical professionals, many doctors that know how to insert it don’t know how to, or refuse to, take it out—even when its side effects show to be detrimental to patients’ health. What’s more, the cost of removal is not always covered, especially if someone wants it removed before the five years it is intended to stay in the patient.
Cases like this are the reason why we simply cannot conflate “birth control” with “reproductive freedom.” When we refer to “a woman’s right to choose,” we should not imply that “abortion” ought to be the next word. Normalizing use of the word abortion would help with this; we ought to call abortion rights abortion rights. But we need much more than that. Those of us who can reproduce must be able to choose what happens in our wombs and families every step of the way.
Chapter four, Making Reproduction a Crime, is about how Black women who smoke crack while pregnant have been unjustly persecuted for their reproductive choices. Even for me, this chapter contained the biggest hurdle towards sympathizing with the women mentioned. Obviously, no one should be using illegal drugs while pregnant. But once again Roberts exposes the sexism and racism that are at play here.
If we were really committed to the well-being of Black mothers and babies, then we would do better at treating drug-addicted women, but we do not. If criminalizing smoking crack while pregnant is our way of caring for Black families, then why don’t we criminalize the illegal drugs that are rampant in rich white households the same way? Black women know by now that the healthcare industry is not always looking out for their best interests. Medical professionals don’t suddenly care more about Black babies harmed by crack than about white babies harmed by cocaine.
If this didn’t show you the hypocrisy of the fake concern surrounding “crack babies,” then consider why most cases against crack-smoking pregnant people are cases of child abuse and not drug use. Prosecutors pretend to be more concerned with the fetus’s health than with the mother’s health. In many cases, if the defendant wasn’t pregnant, then it’s unlikely that they would be seen guilty at all. Plus, the women are expected to quit smoking crack on their own and without any treatment. Roberts argues that this shows that the real crime was not smoking crack while pregnant, but becoming pregnant while already addicted to crack. Once again, reproduction is criminalized.
This chapter on the “welfare debate” is when the book began to feel very repetitive. Of course, it’s not Roberts’ fault. She is only explaining historical truths which, when combined, all drive home the fact that for the last century white people have been trying our hardest to make sure that Black people do not reproduce. Our obsession with eugenics has never died, only taken on different names and methods.
Chapter five refutes the argument that hinges on the racist stereotype of a “welfare queen,” who supposedly has babies only to keep the welfare benefits she receives from each one for herself. (This and other stereotypes were outlined in the book’s introduction.)
Legislators have been fighting against these imaginary women by implementing “family caps,” which means that a parent can gain a measly increase in monthly welfare benefits for every child born—but only for the amount of children that the state determines is appropriate. Women can continue having more children, but their welfare benefits will no longer increase. Roberts shows that all this does is give parents less money per child for each child they have. Family caps are another way that Black women are incentivized to not grow their families.
Surrogacy and IVF
I won’t lie to you: around chapter six, Race and the New Reproduction, I started to lose interest. I had been reading the book for longer than I planned and I knew more about these issues than I felt I needed to in order to form an opinion. Plus, I was facing a hurdle that I sometimes find when reading about reproductive justice as a childfree person. Discussions of reproductive justice tend to get into a lot of detail about parenting, families, and children—as they should.
But when Roberts was examining the ethics of IVF and surrogacy, I wanted to follow along but also knew that this wasn’t an issue I was likely to ever come face to face with or be expected to know about. I mean, neither were the issues of pregnant people smoking crack. I think my impatience toward the end of the book was my own fault. I was convinced that this world is built against Black women’s reproductive freedom long before reaching this chapter, and I lacked the motivation to get through it.
The argument boiled down to how the new reproduction is viewed as a way for white people to have children they are genetically linked to, when they otherwise may not have been able to. Roberts rightly takes issues with “contract pregnancy arrangements because they exploit women and commodify women’s reproductive capacity.”
The final chapter, The Meaning of Liberty, was the hardest for me to get through. Roberts’ language got increasingly technical and difficult to follow as she pitted the values of privacy and liberty against each other, and applied their meanings to reproductive justice. A central question was whether the government was obligated to pay for someone’s abortion procedure if that person could not afford one when it was a constitutionally protected right.
This argument may have gone over my tired head, but in my view it all comes down not to equality but to equity. Equality could mean that everyone has the ability to end a pregnancy. It would allow someone to elect to have an abortion or use birth control. However, for many of the Black women discussed in Killing the Black Body, the ability to refrain from childbearing is not what they need. They need the freedom to bring children into the world as they desire to.
Equity means that Black women have the freedom to have children while they have traditionally not been allowed to, white women have the freedom not to when traditionally they have been forced to, and vice versa. It is not about everyone having children or everyone not having children but every single person making their own reproductive choices. Having a child is a deeply personal and life-changing choice. We must give everyone that choice as well as the resources to actually make it a reality. That could mean providing the money to obtain an abortion, providing childcare while a pregnant person meets with a doctor for treatment for a drug addiction, or countless other ways of providing support.
Finally, Killing the Black Body and other intersectional feminist books I have read have made me consider reluctance that white women have in liberating our darker sisters. The truth is that many of the disadvantages Black women face, Black men and Black nonbinary people also face. We will not have reproductive justice and gender justice while we still have abusive police and an abusive prison system, or poverty and hunger, or a number of other injustices that racist policymakers have brought onto Black communities.
My suspicion is that white women are unwilling to face these issues that plague the Black community—which are undoubtedly feminist issues because they plague Black women—because we might be helping *gasp!* men as well. We must dispel this notion that if something helps men as well, then it’s not feminism. We have to keep in mind that true feminism and reproductive justice benefits society as a whole
When we liberate Black women, we liberate Black men, white women, Black and white nonbinary people, and yes, even white men. We liberate LGBTQ+ folks, disabled people, and poor people. True justice and true feminism mean equity for all, and the ability of everyone to make choices for themselves.