To understand how the United States of America became a country without the constitutional right to abortion, look to the history of Black women’s long fight for reproductive autonomy.
The reproductive coercion of Black women is a thread running through American history, one that predated and presaged the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Dobbs that overturned Roe v. Wade. Enslaved Black women were forced into pregnancy to help build America’s budding economy. Pregnant Black moms are criminalized or excluded from abortion on the basis of poverty. The state takes away Black children from Black mothers at a disproportionate rate.
Legal scholar Dorothy Roberts chronicled this history in her seminal book Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. Roberts defines reproductive justice as the human right not to have a child; the right to have a child; and the right to parent your child in a supportive, humane, and just society. Her latest book is Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families — And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World.
For Roberts, reproductive rights and the fight for abortion access shouldn’t just be about the existence of a choice, but about the right to live in a society that allows for the freedom to make it. “Just having a legal choice that you don’t have the means to effectuate is not true freedom,” Roberts told me.
I reached out to Roberts to talk about the key moments throughout history, like the passage of the Hyde Amendment — barring federal funds from paying for abortions — that suggested abortion rights were never fully secure. We talk about why adoption is not and has never been a solution to inequality, why Black women have historically used abortion as resistance, and why American history is a better source of analogies than The Handmaid’s Tale. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
As someone who has studied the historic fight for reproductive justice, particularly through what Black women have experienced, what was your reaction when you saw the leaked draft opinion in May and then when the Supreme Court officially overturned Roe in June?
I can’t tell you how many panels I’ve been on over the last couple of decades where the issue was what to do in the post-Roe world. So there was a lot of preparation for it, but I was still shaken by it. I happened to be with my daughter and her two best friends — they’re all in their 30s — and my thought was, “My goodness, they have fewer rights to autonomy over their bodies than I did at their age.” When I was their age, I thought that I had good control over my body.
At the same time, though, there’s a reproductive justice movement that’s so much stronger than it was when I was their age. We are in a contradictory time because with the fight for justice, it seems like we’re going backward while at the same time building movements that are so much further than we were when we were growing up.
You had more autonomy over your body in the past than your daughters do now. But was there something you observed back then that suggested that reproductive rights were not actually secure?
I could see that even though we were legally protected from government laws that barred abortion, there was no legal right to demand government support for abortions due to the Hyde Amendment. So we had the legal right to an abortion, but it excluded funding for women who were poor. This was all happening while there was a bipartisan effort to end the federal entitlement to welfare. Plus, in the late 1980s, I watched the prosecutions of Black women for being pregnant and using drugs.
Those two aspects of reproductive regulation, which disproportionately affected Black women, made me think the fight wasn’t over.
The advocacy around abortion was focused mostly on the framework of being able to make a choice, without taking into account these structural impediments to having reproductive freedom.
It also didn’t take into full account the devaluation of Black women’s childbearing and the punitive policies surrounding it. I was an advocate for abortion rights, but I was more concerned about the failure to advocate with the same force for the human rights of impoverished people, or Black people and other people of color in the United States. Once I started thinking about the Hyde Amendment and the prosecutions of Black women who were pregnant and using drugs, I began to see a whole host of reproductive violations that weren’t at the forefront of the mainstream reproductive rights movement. That really changed the narrative about progress toward reproductive freedom in America.
I can see today how those infringements of human rights are coming together to create the moment we’re in now, where pregnancy is criminalized and where we are going to see the arrests and incarceration of people who manage their pregnancies, have miscarriages, or have stillbirths. They’re all going to be punished under one agenda of controlling women’s autonomy over their bodies and participation in society, and also punishing anyone who’s capable of being pregnant.
I’d like to back up then. It sounds like there’s almost a straight line from the 17th century to now that has long told us that these rights were never fully secure. And it sounds like it is specifically bound up in a struggle that Black women have faced for reproductive freedom. Can you walk me through some key historical moments that you think speak directly to the Supreme Court’s decision and the ensuing trigger bans?
I’d first go back to the institution of slavery to look at the connection between reproduction and bondage. The experiences of the enslaved Black woman and the exploitation of Black women’s labor were foundational to the state regulation of reproduction in America.
It still is staggering to me when I think about the very first laws in the colonies that were so directed at regulating Black women’s sexuality and reproduction, and how that reverberates today.
Black women, during the slavery era, resisted control of their bodies, including by having abortions. Abortion has been a means of resistance for Black women in the same way that exploiting Black women’s reproductive labor has been a form of racial and gender oppression from the very founding of this nation.
That was an aspect of the history of reproductive policy and rights in the United States that I didn’t think was getting enough attention. I don’t think you can understand where we are today without taking into account the historic regulation of Black women’s childbearing, which has its roots in enslavement.
And what would you highlight next?
After the Civil War, white supremacists who wanted to take back control of the South, enforce white domination, and effectively re-enslave Black people used the apprenticeship system to violently capture and take control of Black children again by exploiting their labor against the will of their parents. In many of the narratives about this, Black mothers describe how they fought to get their children back. To me, that system is the root of our current child welfare system, or what I call a family policing system, that also disproportionately tears apart Black families and is especially punitive to Black mothers.
I would also highlight the activism of Black women, demanding welfare rights and government funding for their childbearing decisions and for the care of their children. Because Black women were successful at being included in welfare programs, the state reacted by making those programs more punitive and vilifying, eventually leading up to the abolition of the federal entitlement to welfare. This was fueled by the myth of the Black welfare queen. So there’s that.
What else stands out to you?
The way in which prosecutors and policymakers turned drug use during pregnancy from a health care issue into a crime, with the prosecutions of Black women who are pregnant and smoked crack cocaine in the 1980s. I see that as the beginning of this latest chapter of the right-wing criminalization of pregnancy.
This is the chapter in which they criminalize pregnant people who don’t produce a healthy baby, whether it’s by abortion or by alleged behaviors during pregnancy that are seen to risk a fetus. That strategy begins with the prosecutions of Black women and also the taking of their newborns. And that is a prelude to what is happening today.
And how have things shifted to what we are seeing today?
One way in which the conditions now are different from when Roe was decided [in 1973] is that we have medication abortion and it’s easier for people to self-manage their abortions. But on the other hand, we have this buildup of criminalizing pregnancy with fetal protection laws, prosecutors prosecuting and getting convictions of women who have stillbirths. We see the arrest of women who had self-managed abortions prior to the Dobbs decision. That foreshadows a future where women and girls and people who are capable of pregnancy are going to be arrested and incarcerated for pregnancy outcomes. So again, criminalizing pregnancy whether you want to have a child or you want to terminate the pregnancy — those prosecutions are a pivotal point in the story of how we got to where we are today, and how Black women were both targeted and fought back again.
During a period in the 1990s, Black feminists got together and developed the framework of reproductive justice. That’s certainly another key moment — though, of course, we can also go back to enslaved women who started this work, and the Combahee River Collective of the 1970s that wrote about interlocking systems of oppression and how Black women’s position in society is oppositional to white male rule.
So the crafting of reproductive justice analysis is built on that history that recognizes the human right to not have a child but also to have a child, and to parent a child in a nurturing and supportive and just and humane society. That looks beyond the question of whether there is a legal choice to look at the societal conditions that allow people to actually exercise true reproductive freedom and autonomy.
You’ve said that forced pregnancy and family separation — taking children away from their parents through the child welfare system — are connected and that understanding this connection is key to understanding the struggle for reproductive justice. How are they connected?
One way that we can see they are connected forms of state violence is that the right is arguing that adoption is the solution to both of them. And, unfortunately, some liberal people are also arguing for adoption as a solution to the struggles of families who are feeling the brunt of an inequitable society. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re seeing adoption thrown around as the solution to what really is state violence and state oppression.
Yeah, I’ve been seeing what looks like mostly white or foreign couples or white women holding up signs that say, “We will adopt your baby.” Yet when asked if they actually will, the answer seems to be, “No.” What is this about?
Compelling pregnancy and taking people’s children away from them are both ways of upholding a system of white male elite rule where you divert attention away from structural inequities that need to be demolished and replaced and point to private mechanisms, which is what adoption is.
In the case of family separation, we have a family policing system that instead of helping families, blames family caregivers — especially Black family caregivers — and relies on taking children away. To me, that is a neoliberal form of privatizing issues. Instead of a society that supports families’ needs, it turns to private citizens taking children and claiming them for their own. That is exactly the same response of a regime that now wants to force people to carry pregnancies to term. They turn to this private response of adoption in place of facing the fact that one of the main reasons that people have abortions is because they don’t have the means at that time to take care of children.
For state legislators and the Supreme Court justices to pretend that adoption is going to take care of it is just blatant mendacity.
Every aspect of that is just false — there’s not going to be enough people to adopt all of the children whose needs cannot be met because of poverty in this nation, because of the structural racism, because of discrimination against women. Children will either grow up in families that don’t have the means to meet all of their needs on their own, or they’re going to go into a dangerous and harmful foster system.
It’s all about blaming people who are unable to meet children’s needs. It’s about denying them freedom to make decisions for themselves and then punishing them for whatever outcomes befall their children. Under this regime, they include the fetuses where there isn’t a healthy baby.
This also sounds connected to the idea that abortion for Black women is a form of genocide, an idea that’s been repeated for a long time. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has even cited this idea.
Yes, this is also related to the false accusation that abortion is a form of genocide that Black mothers are complicit in. Abortion hasn’t been used historically as a form of controlling Black reproduction. Sterilization has. There’s a big difference between forcible sterilization and upholding the human rights to control your body and not be compelled to be pregnant. Those are two radically different things. One is about compulsion and unfreedom. The other is about freedom and resisting compulsion. Those aren’t the same thing.
Clarence Thomas is just wrong. And so are others like him who say that abortion is a tool of Black genocide and that Black women are participating in the destruction of the Black community when they have abortions. And they refer to the eugenics era as a historical reference. That’s just false.
The historical reference is compelled sterilization of Black women, which is akin to compelled pregnancy. They’ve got the references all screwed up when they make that argument. The billboards that went up [10 years ago] to shame Black women for abortion that said, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb” — that message supports sterilizing Black women, as well as compelling pregnancies. It’s a message about reproductive control. It’s a false message that isn’t about any kind of liberation for Black people.
And is this another reason why some people claim that abortion still feels like a “white woman” issue?
I’ve heard that, too, believe me. At the time when the Webster decision was being considered and we thought that Roe might be overturned, I was speaking about it at a church and a Black man came up to me and said, “That’s a white woman’s issue. Why are you talking about it?” And there is a history of some Black nationalists chiding Black women for any kind of family planning, contraceptives, or abortion. It’s just ridiculous to say it’s a white woman’s issue when Black women are more likely to seek and have abortions.
Black women have been advocating for reproductive freedom for just as long as white women have been. We have included the right to abortion in our fight, but it’s just that we haven’t focused on it since we recognize that sterilization, abuse, and being prosecuted for having babies, and Black maternal mortality, and so many other issues involving our reproductive lives are equally as important.
There’s a long history of Black women advocating for abortion rights. Loretta Ross has been advocating for abortion rights for decades. Shirley Chisholm, in her autobiography and advocacy, championed abortion rights and spoke out against Black men who said that it was a white woman’s issue. Black women use abortion as a form of resistance against slavery.
It’s wrong to say that it’s a white woman’s issue. And it’s also wrong to say that it is a form of Black genocide. Those are false in terms of politics, history, in terms of what Black women have been advocating for for centuries. They’re anti-freedom. They’re anti-freedom, and they are inconsistent with the history of Black rebellion and abolition activism.
I also want to get your thoughts on The Handmaid’s Tale references and memes and the people who declared, “Welcome to The Handmaid’s Tale!” when the Supreme Court’s decision came down. This is the reference that seems to be the most widespread whenever women’s rights are on the line.
But lately some people have been pushing back, arguing that the meme erases the realities that marginalized groups of women have faced for centuries in America — America has already been a Gilead for Black women, for example. Why do you think The Handmaid’s Tale meme is still prevalent?
Mainstream US society has never taken full account of Black women’s lives and autonomy and imagination and vision. So the response to any current trend is often to look to white people as the victims and as the visionaries. But as I’ve been saying, Black women have been at the forefront of movements to both contest oppression and also reimagine a society that is more just and humane and caring and equal. I think that’s just one reason why we would get The Handmaid’s Tale before we get the very real history of Black women’s reproductive labor being exploited or Black women being compelled to be pregnant for the profit of white enslavers. It’s not an imagined story. It’s an actual history that continues to shape policy today.
There’s a big difference between saying this fictional dystopia is a metaphor for our reality and saying, let’s look at the real history of the reproductive violence against Black women and how it actually has shaped policy in the United States since the time of slavery until today.
It’s also prevalent because white people don’t have to grapple with the reality of how we got to the overturning of Roe. It is a result of the dehumanization of Black people, and it is a white backlash against every advance for liberation that Black people have made. It is a result of policies that have put Black women at the center.
It’s mind-boggling but so important to recognize that we can name all these moments of history where there’ve been these regressions in freedom, where stereotypes about Black women and policies geared at controlling Black women’s sexuality and childbearing have been at the center over and over again. One of the reasons for ignoring this is that it’s a way to skirt radical social change. It’s a way of pretending that America is built on principles of equality and liberty when you ignore the deep roots of inhumanity and slavery and coercion and punishment that are still critical to understanding where we are today.
As someone who’s examined and been a part of this fight for a long time, what gives you hope right now?
What gives me hope today that we can continue with a reproductive justice framework is fighting back against these assaults on our freedoms while building a radically different society that doesn’t rely on carceral approaches to meeting human needs. This means it doesn’t police people or force people into compelled pregnancy. It doesn’t take people’s children away from them as a way of meeting children’s needs. I see all of these carceral, punitive, inhumane approaches as part of a white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist approach to meeting human needs. They’re all interconnected.
I find hope in the fact that we have a reproductive justice movement that has been active and flourishing. I’m also finding a lot of hope in the very quick action by abortion funds that are taking immediate steps to help people who need abortions.