“the cumulative stress of racism is taking a toll on African American families even before they are born”

“Even when doctors did not force poor or nonwhite women to accept sterilization as a method of contraception, social and cultural factors—such as poverty, limited access to health care, lack of education, or inability to speak English—often influenced their decision to ‘choose’ sterilization over other methods of birth control” (Nelson 67-68).

For me, Nelson’s work served as a great overview on how exactly the abortion rights campaign gradually shifted to recognizing that reproductive freedom encompasses far more than simply acquiring legal access to certain health services. Rather, truly having control over one’s reproduction means not only being able to partake in birth control measures, but also owning the ability to have children irregardless of one’s race or class. There unfortunately continues to be great disparities in infant mortality rates between African American women and their Caucasian counterparts. Although limited access to proper health care services is no doubt a significant factor as recognized by the Young Lord Party that pointed out how poor and minority women continued to suffer from greater complications from abortion even after the procedure was formally legalized, racism continues to adversely impact African American women’s capacity to have children.

The clip from the Unnatural Causes documentary below features the research of two neonatalogists, James Collins and Richard David. Their findings demonstrated a difference in birth outcomes between African American and white American women, compelling them to conclude that “the cumulative stress of racism is taking a toll on African American families even before they are born”:


This recent research is truly frightening and indicates that a lot more work still remains in effectively addressing socioeconomic determinants of health. These researchers had strived to control for income and education, and were surprised to learn that race by itself played a significant role in generating health inequities. Current discourse on health disparities often focuses on addressing psychosocial factors of health, such as housing and unemployment. Yet, for some reason, it shies away from outright asserting that pure discrimination continues to greatly impede people’s access to health care. There is a burgeoning push for cultural competency to expand out from speciously categorizing minority populations into totalizing and rudimentary “guidelines”, but rather, have physicians feel comfortable enough in continuously engaging in reflection and confront their internalized prejudices before they inadvertently (hopefully not maliciously) act on them when treating a diverse group of patients. What do you think? Would having medical professionals directly accept that they may possess certain prejudices so they can be more aware of them and work more actively to suppress them be a useful strategy for alleviating persistent and pervasive health inequities?

Nevertheless, in light of the reality of such poor health care for low-income and minority populations, it comes as no surprise that certain nationalist groups, such as the Black Panther Party, were initially so wary of any method of birth control. The radical feminist group Redstockings seemed to be completely oblivious to the history of forced sterilization being inflicted disproportionately on women of color, when they asserted that “Some Black Nationalists charge that the white power structure not only favors abortion law repeal, but is actually pushing it as a means of eliminating the black population, as well as all poor people. Of all the lies and moralism men have used to obligate women to bear more of their children, this one takes the cake” (Nelson 55). It’s no wonder that women of color would often be reluctant to build coalitions with the mostly other middle-class white women who were championing the abortion rights movements, as these women continued to be ignorant of how reproductive justice could mean something vastly different for other women than it did for themselves.

Initially, “Like the Nation of Islam, the Panthers suggested that abortion should be illegal because black women could not be trusted to make their own reproductive decisions. The Panthers maintained that some black women might be fooled into believing the feminist ‘dogma’ that legal abortion could save them from illegal and unsafe abortions” (Nelson 106). Sadly, such paternalism towards women and their bodies was the exact same justification used by the doctors who earlier forced poor and minority women to have sterilization. The doctors would exploit the fact that these women were collecting welfare or had a limited understanding of English, for instance, to declare that they were not sufficiently competent to make their own decisions regarding reproduction. Does such paternalism continue to be pervasive in feminist scholarship that disproportionately focuses on the question of “agency” or “autonomy” when addressing issues that particularly affect women of color?

Source: Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement by Jennifer Nelson


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