Behind the Billboards

Photo of billboard with a young black child's face and the words "black children are an endangered species"

My latest article for Colorlines went up today, an in-depth look into the black anti-choice movement behind the recent billboard campaigns. The subtitle reads:

On more than 170 billboards nationwide, a campaign is exploiting America’s racist medical history to foster the belief that abortion is black genocide.

The research for this piece was intense–it required a lot of time spent on anti-choice websites, reading their rhetoric and language. It also required wrapping my mind around 100 plus years of history of eugenics and discriminatory policies on behalf of the US government toward women of color, low-income women and disabled women’s reproduction.

It also included the opportunity to interview Dorothy Roberts, an amazing activist and researcher and expert in this arena. If you haven’t read her seminal work, Killing the Black Body, drop everything and go find a copy. Seriously. Her work lays out so extensively how the battle for reproductive rights in this country has been racialized from the start–a fact that our movement often neglects.

This book should be required reading for all doulas and birth workers. The history of the treatment and manipulation of women of color’s reproduction by the medical community, the government and the social system is so hugely important and so often neglected by our movements. As doulas, it’s our obligation to understand this background and use that understanding to provide sensitive and compassionate care to the folks we work with.

From my article:

Women’s reproduction has long been at the mercy of state control, particularly for women of color. For black women, this history dates back to slavery. As Dorothy Roberts outlined in her seminal 1998 book, “Killing the Black Body,” women held in bondage had no control over their fertility whatsoever, and they were relied upon and manipulated in order to produce the next generation of labor. Even after emancipation, eugenics and paternalistic ideas about who was fit to reproduce influenced government policy in the U.S. These policies overwhelmingly impacted the lives and health of women of color, as well as low-income women, women with disabilities and others deemed “unfit.” There is a deep history of forced sterilization across communities of color—some of which actually did result in the near elimination of certain Native American tribes.

These practices are not ancient history, and many incarnations still exist today: primarily through economic and social welfare programs that limit women’s access to certain forms of contraception or place caps on how many children they can have when receiving welfare. For example, undocumented women I worked with in Pennsylvania were able to get coverage for sterilization as part of their emergency medical coverage during pregnancy, but could not receive coverage for other forms of birth control since their Medicaid ran out shortly after giving birth. Women’s reproduction—but more specifically, the reproduction of women of color and low-income women—remains a practice in which the government is invested and deeply entwined.

I’ll leave you with one of Robert’s quotes from the piece:

“They are essentially blaming black women for their reproductive decisions and then the solution is to restrict and regulate black women’s decisions about their bodies,” Roberts says of the burgeoning black anti-abortion movement. “Ironically, they have that in common with eugenicists.”

Read the whole thing here.

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