Black Resistance: Reproductive Justice

Freedom Center Voices

April 14, 2023

Black Resistance: Reproductive Justice

Content advisory: The following post includes references to historic events and policies that may be emotionally challenging, including instances of sexual assault.

Women have been fighting for the right to make decisions about their own bodies for longer than the nation has been a union. The battle has been even harder for Black women and other women of color. Black women have historically been subjected to great reproductive injustices that have had lasting effects.

Starting during chattel slavery, enslaved women had little to no control of their reproductive systems. Female enslaved people were bought for their bodies: for sex or for ability to produce more bodies. Women were advertised and sold for the purpose of creating more labor, comparable to cattle or livestock.

Did you know?

 J. Marion Sims, credited as the “Father of Gynecology” carried out his experimental operations on enslaved women – often without an anesthetic. Between 1845 and 1849, he performed repeated operations on these Black women that he quartered in a small hospital behind his house in Alabama. His misuse and unethical treatment of these non-consenting women have led many in the scientific community to denounce Sims for his work.


"Scenes in Memphis, Tennessee, during the riot—shooting down negroes on the morning of May 2, 1866 [Sketched by A.R.W.]" | Alfred Rudolph Waud; Harper's Weekly, 26 May 1866, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Colonial laws prohibited interracial marriages but not fornication, which gave white enslavers incentive to sexually exploit, abuse and control their enslaved property. It was seen as a wealth maximizing strategy that completely disregarded the mother for the sole purpose of creating labor and wealth for the enslaver. There are stories of enslaved women giving themselves abortions or killing their infants so their child wouldn’t be born into the exploitative practice of slavery or to prevent their daughters from sharing their fate. 

It is believed that the first women in the United States to publicly break the silence around rape and sexual violence were the African American and Black women who testified before Congress after the Memphis Riot of May 1866. In the three-day race riot, 48 people were killed, over 100 Black homes, churches and schools were burned down and five Black women reported being raped.  

Six formerly enslaved women who had relocated to Memphis testified to Congress about the riots. They are often cited as the first victims of sexual assault to testify in public. Their horrifying testimonies and that of the other atrocities led to the eventual passage of the 14th Amendment. Their names were Lucy Tibbs, Harriet Armour, Lucy Smith, Frances Thompson, Elivra Walker and Rebecca Ann Bloom 

Frances Thompson was later arrested after it was discovered she was a transgender woman. 

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
– 14th Amendment, Section 1

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. 

Toni M. Bond Leonard, Reverend Alma Crawford, Evelyn S. Field, Terri James, Bisola Marignay, Cassandra McConnell, Cynthia Newbille, Lorretta Ross, Elizabeth Terry, ‘Able’ Mable Thomas, Winnette P. Willis and Kim Youngblood were the 12 women. Later they would become the Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice (WADRJ). They came together to plan a response to President Clinton’s healthcare reform effort, feeling the reforms did not address critical issues. 

The reproductive justice framework recognizes that reproductive health is impacted by social, economic and political factors, and that reproductive rights are human rights. It emphasizes the importance of centering the experiences of marginalized communities, including people of color, low-income individuals and LGBTQ+ individuals. 

The recent reproductive justice movement has focused on several key issues, including access to comprehensive sexual education, birth control, abortion and maternal healthcare. Black women have played a leading role in advocating for these issues, using their voices and experiences to call attention to the systemic barriers that limit their reproductive freedom. 

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