The idea that women should be able to have babies when they want to doesn’t seem as controversial as the idea that women should be able to NOT have babies when they don’t want to, especially when the latter involves abortion. And yet it is not a right that has been consistently protected. But, while abortion rights are denied to the poor via practical obstacles, like people saying they don’t want their government funds to go to something they oppose and therefore poor people not being able to afford abortion, people have purposely targeted the poor and minorities when it comes to denying people the right to reproduce. So instead of arguing that the denial of this right is wrong, like I did with abortion rights, I’m going to assume that you can see how it’s wrong already and that I just need to show that it has happened a lot and keeps happening, although nowadays often in more subtle ways. I can’t cover every single incident, but here are some basics.
Forced sterilization (without consent, sometimes even without knowledge):
Targeted groups have included the Roma (gypsies), African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, the mentally ill, and criminals. I’m also betting on Australian aboriginals.
Forced sterilization has been the law in Peru, Japan, Sweden, Australia, and the US and more.
States (27) that had sterilization laws still on the books (though not all were still in use) in 1956 were: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah,Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin.
This is the story of two allegedly forced abortions in the US. I’m skeptical because the source is a pro-life(tm) organization, and they’re not always into telling the truth about abortions. But if this is true, it is wrong, and ties into the way doctors should respect their patients’ ownership of their bodies more, which I mention below.
Coercive sterilization (taking advantage of someone’s limited options):
Undocumented women in Pennsylvania were allowed access to tubal ligations (without cost) but no help for other shorter term birth control methods. (This blogger thinks that was a reference to this story, which still classifies as what I consider “coercive” while not “forced” or “compulsory.” The laws may not exist in the US anymore, but the attitudes still do, and that is my point. Here’s more on what’s wrong with that story.)
Justice Now says there are still unnecessary hysterectomies performed on women of color in prison (this, on the other hand, may count as forced.) In fact, unnecessary hysterectomies are common in general, which ties into the problem of the medical community not always respecting women’s ownership of their bodies and making choices based more on convenience or payment for them than on results for the patient (example 1, 2 of this – more coming when my computer stops fighting with me.)
In 1989 free tubal ligations were offered to poor women in rural South Carolina. How much you wanna bet the same offer was not being given for reversible forms of birth control? (This link also points out an interesting legal phenomenon with implications for both sides of reproductive justice: a person is not SUPPOSED to be able to be forced to undergo surgery for the sake of someone else, and yet women are.)
With the stigma of teen or unwed pregnancy, sometimes pregnant women can be pressured by others or just feel pressure from their culture to abort a fetus that they would otherwise keep. Violence against pregnant women is also a serious problem and is often an attempt at inducing an abortion. Additionally, in some cultures (here’s an article on India) there is pressure to abort female fetuses because institutionalized sexism creates financial and social privileges to having sons and disadvantages to having daughters. Sex-based privileges and disadvantages are not unique to those cultures; think of the naming system we have in the US (no female juniors or the thirds), think of the way the parents of daughters worry more about rape, pregnancy, and “purity” than the parents of sons, think of the European rulers ( Henry VIII, Napoleon) who got rid of wives who didn’t bear sons to be heirs. But in some places, these differences are more directly tied to finances because of dowries, limited career options for women, and patrilineal systems (where women become part of their husband’s family, leaving their own), which puts more pressure on couples to eliminate female fetuses, especially if they are pressured by law or by financial limitations to only have a certain number of children.
Needless to say (actually, with some people it is needed), outlawing abortion doesn’t fix these problems. Especially the violence one! Sexism is the main problem here.
Barriers to childbirth:
Maternal and infant mortality rates are a big problem where people are too poor to afford good health care, where discrimination leads health care workers to give substandard care to certain people, and where health care infrastructures just aren’t there. Here’s reproductiverights.org on this issue in Nigeria, in Brazil, and in the US among African American women: African American women are four times more likely than white women to die in childbirth.
The new trend is looking at birth rates in Western countries, and the immigration rates into Western countries from Muslim and other countries, and fretting that Team White is going to lose the population game. The racism inherent in this fretting is hardly even veiled, as people imply that there really is a race-based Us and Them, and that the consequences of Them outnumbering Us in our countries would be catastrophic. Though they don’t often explain why. I do think it would suck if Western countries adopted Islam-based laws, but I also think it sucks when Western countries adopt Christianity-based laws, and the people who I see fretting here are in favor of the latter, so it’s not the separation of church and state that’s bothering them – it’s losing their dominance. Meanwhile, encoding the separation of church/mosque and state real deep in our legal institutions would mean there would be very little to fear from changes in demographics, unless you fear brown people and their culture. Back then, “President Coolidge said that “America must remain American,” which is in relation to the fact that some of those targeted for sterilization were immigrants (Piotrowski, 2000).” That sounds a little too much like what people are saying now.
Someone I actually like read a book about this, possibly this one but I’m not sure, and said jokingly “I want to kill as many Muslims as possible.” Replace “Muslims” in that sentence with “Jews.” Sound familiar? Now explain to me why feminists like me are the ones who get called Nazis, while conservatives like him are the ones calling people Nazis. He’s not going to start any death camps, but still.
As you can see, this is an issue that ties a lot of things together: ableism, racism, sexism, poverty, several aspects of healthcare (from doctors treating patients as human beings to ways of adequately funding pregnancy care), and more. It’s even an issue that those who disagree on abortion rights can agree on, although sometimes they still don’t. We need to start by asserting that all women own their own bodies, and then focus on making that principle work in practice, despite obstacles like racism and poverty.