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Reproductive Oppression Against Black Women

Reproductive oppression refers to the regulation and exploitation of individuals’ bodies, sexuality, labor, and procreative capacities as a strategy to control individuals and entire communities. Reproductive oppression against Black women is rooted in the US history of commodification of Black women’s bodies, sexuality, and reproductive lives. During slavery, Black women were treated as factories of property and producers of wealth for their masters, and were often encouraged to bear children, subjected to systemic rape, and punished for the failure to procreate. In fact, the very economic value of an enslaved woman was attached to her fertility. Yet, in spite of the expectation to bear children, enslaved Black women had no rights to claim motherhood as well as care for and protect their off-spring.

Factsheet: 3X higher, the ratio of Black women pregnancy-related mortality when compared to white women; Babies born to Black mothers died 2-3 times more than babies born to white mothers; 2X higher the likelihood of Black women experience severe maternal morbidity when compared to white women; 31% of Black women of reproductive age are enrolled in Medicaid; 18% of women who are denied access to needed abortion care are Black women; 83% of Black women use some form of contraception; 2X higher the likelihood of Black women to be incarcerated and serve longer sentences when compared to white women.

While much of mainstream discussion and organizing about women’s reproductive live are centered on issues of choice and access to safe and legal abortion. Black women’s reproductive lives are impacted by multiple social conditions that interfere in their right to not have children, but also in their right to have children, and raise them with dignity in a safe, healthy, and supportive environment. Some of these conditions include the health neglect and incarceration of Black women and the overpolicing of Black communities. Black women are disproportionately more likely to experience pregnancy-related health complications, and to become gravely ill or die in childbirth regardless of education and economic means. In fact, pregnancy-related mortality rates are higher for Black women with college degrees than for white women without a high school diploma. Black women have less access to prenatal care, as well as are less likely to receive adequate health care during labor (including medication for pain management) and postpartum care (including access to mental health services). Lastly, children born to Black women are two to three times more likely to die than children born to white women (see fact sheets).

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The history of involuntary, non-consensual and coerced sterilization in the US had and continues to have profound impacts on the lives of Black women. Throughout 20th century, eugenic ideologies that positioned non-whites, people with disabilities, and poor as intellectual and moral inferior  aligned with controlling images that positioned Black women as promiscuous (jezebel) and Black mothers as lazy (welfare queen) provided social and scientific rationale that legitimized medical practices, policies, and laws aimed at controlling the population growth in Black communities. Eugenics state laws that legitimized the involuntary sterilization of people with disabilities and instituitionalized individuals disproportionality impacted young and poor Black women often diagnosed as mentally ill because they were seen as promiscuous, had children outside marriage, or engaged in interracial sex. For example, during the 30’s and 40’s, the North Carolina’s Eugenics Commission sterilized approximately 8,000 people, 5,000 were African American and the overwhelming majority were women under the age of twenty. The sterilization of Black women has also been legitimized by welfare policies. For example, in addition to a cap number of children one could have in order to receive government assistance in the 60’s and 70’s, Black women who had more than one child were also required to “consent” to sterilization if they wanted to receive welfare assistance. In our current time, the state continues to promote the involuntary sterilization of Black women. For example, between 2006 and 2010,  two California state prisons had sterilized 148 incarcerated women without their knowledge and consent, most of whom were Black and Latinas, and close to 1,400 sterilizations had been performed in incarcerated women in the state between 1993 and 2013, .

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Indeed the incarceration system has detrimental impacts on Black women’s sexuality and reproductive lives. Black women represent 44% of the women incarcerated population. Their involvement with the incarceration system is often related to overpolicing and criminalization of the larger socio challenges they face such as poverty, drug abuse, and mental illness. Once in the system, Black women continue to be exposed to forms of violence that fringe their right to control their bodies, sexuality, reproduction-related decisions, and ability to parent. For instance, incarcerated women are more vulnerable to sexual harassment and rape, have little to no access to contraceptives, are either denied abortion care or subjected to involuntary sterilization. Pregnant incarcerated women are denied prenatal and postnatal care, and even though shackling (the use of handcuffs, leg irons and waist chains) in pregnant women have been banned in 18 states, such practice continues to take place in at least 23 states. More than 80% of women in the criminal justice system are either mothers (79%) or pregnant when they arrive (5%). Black women’s incarceration, even if for a short period of time, has long-lasting impacts on their families and children.  According to the National Resource Center on the Incarcerated, “parental incarceration significantly increases the risk of children living in poverty, experiencing household instability, and dealing with behavioral issues”. Thus, beyond not being able to be physically present with their children, Black women’s incarceration exacerbates structural conditions their families are already experiencing. Lastly, the overpolicing of Black communities and the police murders of Black children deny Black women’s right to raise their children in healthy and supportive environments. Black women caretakers are in a constant state of worry, subject to the emotional turmoils that come with the fear of their children not being allowed to come back home and the pain of mourning the children who were taken away from them. The disregard for Black motherhood is also evident in the ways in which Black mothers become targets of violence when protecting and fighting for the lives of their children.

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