Race, Poverty, and Reproductive Rights

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Reproducing Patriarchy: Reproductive Rights Under Siege
by Pam Chamberlain and Jean Hardisty
The Public Eye Magazine - Vo. 14, No. 1

In the case of abortion, the various sectors of the anti-abortion movement treat all women equally. No matter what race or class, women should not have abortions. But in the larger sphere of reproductive rights-the rights to conceive, bear, and raise children-pro-life strategists apply a double standard. Middle and upper class white women should bear children and stay at home to raise them. Single, low-income women (especially low-income women of color), and immigrant women should limit their childbearing and should work outside the home to support their children.

Even a cursory examination of the right's policy agenda demonstrates that, when the focus is changed from abortion to broader reproductive freedom, the right applies race and class criteria that distinguish between the rights of white, middle-class women and low-income women of color. The right has viciously attacked welfare mothers for their "sexuality" and immigrant women for bearing "too many" children.34 In its worldview, "excessive" childbearing by low-income, single women causes poverty. To eliminate poverty, it is necessary to prevent that childbearing.35

Right-wing activists reserve their most vicious attacks for these groups of women, promoting negative stereotypes of low-income women of all races as dependent, irresponsible, prone to addictions, and inadequate mothers.36 They use these stereotypes to inflame public opinion against all sexual behavior that lies outside the narrow parameters of right-wing ideology.

The right advocates policies that discourage childbearing by depriving low-income women of the means to support a child. In the 1990s, using stereotypes such as the "welfare queen," the right successfully promoted the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the "welfare reform" bill. As part of that policy initiative, the right has sought to discourage women on welfare from becoming pregnant by punishing them when they bear children. This form of punishment known euphemistically as a "family cap," which is increasingly popular with state legislatures, denies any increase in payments to women who become pregnant or give birth to a child while on welfare. Another right-wing policy that discourages or prevents childbearing by low-income women mandates or encourages women to use Norplant, Depo-Provera, or the newest form of contraception, contraceptive vaccines such as quinacrine.

These policies designed to control the child-bearing of poor women are but the latest in a series of practices that date back to the eugenics movement of the 19th century, which promoted, racial theories of "fitness" and "unfitness." During this time of a significantly declining birth rate within the white population, politicians and eugenicists raised the specter of white "race suicide." The eugenics movement, which was adopted briefly by the birth control movement in the early 20th century, advocated a higher birthrate for white, middle class, "fit" women and a lower birthrate (aided by birth control) for poor women, especially poor "unfit" women of color and immigrant women.37

The best-known method of denying a woman her right to have children is sterilization abuse. Sterilization is a medical procedure that, like abortion, often is experienced differently in low-income communities of color and in middle-class white communities. Historically, doctors have made it difficult for white women, especially middle-class white women, to choose to be sterilized: insisting, for example, that they come back a second time after they have taken time to "think about it." The attitude of the same medical professionals toward women of color and poor white women has been dramatically different. In these instances, many doctors have long encouraged the procedure, sometimes sterilizing these women without their consent through manipulation or actual deceit. By 1968, for example, a campaign by private agencies and the Puerto Rican government resulted in the sterilization of one-third of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age. A similar campaign in the 1970s resulted in the sterilization of 25 percent of Indian women living on reservations.38

Such a history of sterilization abuse (which is still practiced in other countries, with US public and private complicity) shapes the consciousness of many women of color. Especially among Native American and African American communities and in Puerto Rico, the history of sterilization abuse represents a major legally-sanctioned human rights violation.39 Some doctors still encourage sterilization for women in low-income rural areas, especially on Indian reservations and in pockets of rural poverty across the US mainland and in Puerto Rico, despite rules issued in 1978 by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare restricting sterilizations performed under programs receiving federal funds.40 The committed efforts of Helen Rodriguez-Trias of the New York City-based Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (CESA) and other activists have not been successful in convincing the larger women's movement to expand its concern with reproductive rights much beyond the issue of abortion.41

Aware of the history of sterilization abuse and racial repression in the United States and in other countries, many people of color are suspicious of the contemporary pro-choice movement. Some see abortion as a vehicle for genocide within their communities. The right has taken full advantage of the wedge that such a history of sterilization abuse (and the overall failure of white feminists and other progressives to confront it) has driven between the pro-choice movement and many people of color. The right's leaders and politicians sometimes court people of color by appealing to their perceived opposition to abortion. They claim to be the allies of these communities by pointing to "shared values" on abortion and other social issues. The right has used this recruitment strategy repeatedly over the last two decades. Just two examples are the Christian Coalition's courtship of African Americans in the mid-1990s with its now-defunct Samaritan Project and, more recently, the predominantly white conservative evangelical men's organization, the Promise Keepers' outreach to men of color under the theme of "racial reconciliation."

While low-income women have argued that they are denied the right to bear children and the means to raise them, their cause has not been near the center of the pro-choice movement. Further exacerbating the tension between the pro-choice movement and poor women is the occasional appearance within the movement of the right-wing argument that abortion is beneficial to society because it will limit the number of women and children on welfare. This argument attempts to win support for abortion rights by portraying welfare recipients as undesirable. Although pro-choice advocates rarely use such arguments any longer, such positions have left a heightened level of distrust of the pro-choice movement among some women of color.

In the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, reproductive rights activists - predominantly from communities of color- attempted to expand the scope of the pro-choice movement to include the right to have children, a right to quality reproductive health care and access to authentic economic opportunities that would enable women to raise and support children.42 Other activists, such as the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment (CWPE), drew attention to the threat posed by the population control movement to the reproductive rights of women of color, especially those living in Third World countries.43 Others, such as Byllye Avery of the National Black Women's Health Project, Marlene Fried and her colleagues at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College; and the women of the Reproductive Rights Network (R2N2), have called for the predominantly white women's movement to resist more actively the elimination of access to abortion by the Hyde Amendment and other factors affecting low-income women.44 But too often the pro-choice movement has used the lens of middle-class white women - those most likely to have access to other reproductive rights - to defend abortion rights as if they represented all reproductive rights.

The right has been extremely successful in keeping the primarily white and middle-class women of the pro-choice movement and their male allies pre-occupied with responding to the escalating strategies of the pro-life movement. These have included legal challenges in state and federal courts, feverish activity in state legislatures, a proliferation of "crisis pregnancy centers," and the increase of clinic violence. The right has successfully created a "box" for low-income women- they must renounce their sexuality altogether by neither bearing children nor having an abortion. Abstinence, the opposite of their perceived promiscuity, is the approved right-wing choice. Because the right, with the acquiescence of the voting public, has successfully shredded the social safety net, it is increasingly unlikely that women of color and poor women will be guaranteed the means to bear and raise children. Without that means- in other words, without control of their reproductive lives- even the preservation of legal abortion does not guarantee all women's reproductive rights and reproductive freedom.

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