Fannie Lou Hamer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
When owners could no longer profit off the “use” of Black women’s bodies after emancipation, a different view on Black pregnancy began to form. White society and pro-slavery individuals shifted from forcing reproduction on Black women to trying to stop it at all.
In the late 19th century, the eugenics movement in America began to take shape. Lying medical professionals would perform sterilization procedures on unknowing or unwitting Black females resulting in them unable to reproduce. The laws that permitted hospitals and doctors to perform these procedures had broad and ever-changing labels like “feeblemindedness” and “mental defective.” These forced sterilization campaigns combined disability with racism and xenophobia and worked on dehumanizing, typically, targeted minority groups. These groups were deemed less worthy of reproduction and of family formation. Eugenicists applied new theories in biology and genetics to human reproduction but this gave a very subjective opinion on who was “fit” and “unfit.” Anyone who didn’t fit their mold of genetic perfection, which included most immigrants, Black and African American people, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and poor whites, were deemed “unfit.” Some doctors told patients they needed a particular operation and some doctors performed sterilizations during other types of operations, without the patient’s knowledge or consent.
Famed Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer underwent surgery for removal of a fibroid and, in addition, was given a hysterectomy. She found that almost 60% of Black women in her community had undergone similar surgeries. It was so common she coined the term “Mississippi Appendectomy.” Among other things, Hamer went on to protest for bodily autonomy and is quoted as saying a “Black woman’s body was never hers alone.”
The term “reproductive justice” was created by a group of 12 Black women in 1994. They defined it as a “human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent their children in safe and sustainable communities.” This provided the framework that sparked social movements across the country.