Reproductive Abuses and Population Control

From page 44 in Defending Reproductive Rights 2000 Edition


Because abortion services are targeted so heavily by the Right, they may at first appear to be the only aspect of reproductive freedom that the Right opposes. But various sectors of the Right also seek to restrict a range of reproductive freedoms for many women, especially women of color, disabled women and low-income women. These issues include forced sterilization, coerced contraception, or caps on the maximum number of children under welfare “reform.” Different sectors of the Right approach these issues differently, ranging from overt race or class biased prejudice to more subtle stereotyping. An examination of the Right’s support for these issues also reveals the underpinnings of how the Right strategically uses reproductive rights issues to serve its own ends.

The more blatant and obvious denial of reproductive services other than abortion for women has focused on women from minority communities and on low-income women. The deliberate promotion of racial and class-based stereotypes has been a successful strategy for the Right to fuel public opinion about who deserves reproductive freedom and who should receive governmental support to exercise it. Sometimes efforts to affect public policy for certain reproductive rights services are blatantly prejudiced, as in the case of the Hyde Amendment for Medicaid funding for abortions, or the history of sterilization abuse and the use of Depo-Provera and Norplant among communities of color. (For more information on these campaigns, see the article, “Reproducing Patriarchy” in this kit.)

More often the call to curtail certain reproductive rights is more subtle. Some groups on the Right call for compassion towards minority communities and the poor, because they have been the victims of policies that limit their freedom. Many anti-choice groups claim they are opposed to sterilization abuse and coercive population control. In fact, strategists for the Right have capitalized on the ambivalence of some people of color towards the reproductive rights movement by claiming such compassion. Anti-choice forces will assert that they are sympathetic to how such groups have been wronged in the past. They frame a position that appears to support people who have been victimized by governmental interference in their reproductive lives. At the same time, though, these voices refuse to compromise on their own conservative ideals, setting the tone and direction for the public policy decisions that follow. In reality, they are only trying to develop support from people of color by appealing to their fears as a way to expand their anti-choice influence. In this way, they can simultaneously oppose the use of public funds for reproductive services such as abortion and appear to embrace racial diversity.

This argument extends beyond abortion to include positions on immigration and population policy as well. Some right-wing intellectuals such as Charles Murray continue to claim that racial minorities are naturally inferior, mirroring earlier arguments from the eugenics movement. Far-Right leaders like David Duke and his sympathizers use these arguments to justify the call for rigid anti-immigration policies and sanctions on welfare mothers who bear too many children. Other groups take a very different approach. In keeping with an absolute opposition to abortion and other family planning issues, some groups, especially Catholic organizations like Human Life International, are forced into a circular argument that there is no population problem at all. The need for population control is a myth, they say, cultivated by those who want to use the immoral interventions of birth control, sterilization, and abortion to alter the birth rate. They demand compassion for poor people around the world who have been victimized by these public policies. They vehemently oppose taxpayer support of Planned Parenthood nationally and internationally. And they engage in a persistent campaign to try to discredit family planning organizations and the US government by accusing them of being modern supporters of eugenics and selectively targeting minority groups for coercive contraception.

What the Right Says About Reproductive Services and Population Control

Virtually all anti-choice groups agree that abortion should be prohibited for all women, whether their position is based on religious principle or political perspective. But attitudes range widely among various groups on the Right about the related issues of other reproductive services and population control. The most extreme perspectives advocate direct intervention in the reproductive lives of certain “undesirable” women, despite their opposition to abortion. Some hard-Right groups and individuals claim that attempts to control the birth rate of lowincome women or women from communities of color (such as mass sterilization programs) have been justified because these women are having too many children and are contributing to the population problem. David Duke: “To solve America’s poverty problem, the soaring illegitimate birth rate must be curtailed.”

Other groups express shock at the history of reproductive abuses in the Third World and among low-income women in the US. They condemn US foreign aid policy that supports the use of Norplant and other contraception abroad, and many are opposed to birth control in this country. The Family Research Council, for example, has been highly critical of such practices.

In reality, America’s population imperialism has abused and harmed people worldwide, trampled on the religious and cultural values of other nations, and placed America at risk for retaliation by foreign countries. Muslim terrorism is already a threat to American foreign policy, and the official US zeal for population control only increases those threats. Furthermore, the US government is straining relations with the Catholic Latin American countries as well as many African countries because of its contemptuous actions against their moral beliefs and cultural traditions. (Family Policy, Volume 10, Number 4, July, 1997)


Many anti-choice opponents are interested not only in prohibiting abortion but in controlling the reproductive lives of women in other ways as well. The focus of these additional restrictions is on low-income women, disabled women and women of color. The fact that these women are targeted exposes these efforts as ones laced with race and class bias and fear. These strategies include both overt and subtle support for such issues as the abuse of contraception and sterilization and the denial of expensive reproductive services to these groups that remain accessible to middle class white women, such as high tech fertilization procedures. No matter what the opposition looks like, it is all part of an effort to control a woman’s sexuality and restrict her reproductive freedom.

Many parts of the Right, from religious and social conservatives to those with more extreme opinions, hold very traditional views about the value of women in society. Such views of women justify restricting access to reproductive services and punishing women for being sexually active or for having children. This perspective must be challenged and overcome. All women have the right to control their reproductive choices, including when, if and how to bear children. Often people with conservative gender values also harbor deep-seated prejudices against communities of color, people with disabilities and poor people, based on the deliberate cultivation of beliefs about the inferiority of these groups. This helps account for their restrictive positions on immigration policy and population control.

When anti-choice groups connect their ideas about women’s reproductive rights to their opinions about immigration policy and population control, they are revealing their overall conservative agenda. Scapegoating immigrants and people of color and blaming these groups for social problems plays to an uninformed public’s fears. Besides being inaccurate, it exposes hypocrisy in the message some groups transmit about being compassionate towards the poor. They use race and class bias to build their conservative movement and splinter the pro-choice one.

Their range of opposition to women’s reproductive freedom is very broad and extends far beyond their attack on abortion. Perhaps the strongest reason for pro-choice activists to look at the big picture of the attack on the full range of reproductive rights is that the Right already has defined the conflict in these larger terms and has been organizing on several simultaneous fronts. All attempts to restrict a woman’s right to choose need to be seen as part of this larger vision and confronted as an attack on women’s freedom.