Rights, Progress, Genocide: The Politics of Black Reproduction in Twentieth-Century America
By Eliza Kravitz YC '24
Edited by Katie Painter '23, Jamie Nicholas '25, and Ted Shepherd '25
Until African American Emancipation from slavery, Black reproduction in America comprised a key economic commodity. Since the 1662 implementation of slave codes ensuring that children would “follow the condition of the mother” in enslavement status, and particularly after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the early 1800s, Black women’s reproduction became the most indispensable source of labor in the South. Following Emancipation, however, and increasing with the development of industrialization and the beginning of the Great Migration of formerly-enslaved African Americans to Northern cities in the early decades of the twentieth century, Black reproduction came to pose a threat to white labor and economic interests. No longer sustaining the entire Southern agricultural economy with free labor, Black reproduction since Emancipation has generated persistent controversy shaped by economic and ideological factors.
Complex and diverse, the tensions around Black reproduction have been thoroughly interrogated and acted upon both externally and within Black communities, particularly in the mid-century decades from the 1930s to 1970s. The rise of the American birth control movement in the early twentieth century led to the increasing prevalence of reproductive interventions, including policies, practices, programs, and technologies that aimed to regulate – or allow women to regulate – individual reproductive decisions and outcomes. Due to external concerns about Black reproduction related to labor competition, ideals of proper motherhood, and notions of American freedom and equality, however, reproductive interventions in Black communities sought primarily to control and restrict Black reproduction, rather than to support Black women’s reproductive rights. As a result, Black women in the mid-century were subject to a host of clearly exploitative practices under the guise of the birth control movement, including medical experimentation, forced sterilization, and discriminatory treatment in accessing birth control services.
Amidst these complicated dynamics, issues related to Black reproduction generated heated debate and internal division within Black communities, particularly on whether certain reproductive interventions contributed to the realization of reproductive rights, racial progress, or racial genocide. Family planning programs, being less obviously objectionable than other reproductive interventions and in fact having the capacity to empower women seeking to control their reproduction, often were sites where community tensions came to a head. Many Black women were able to exercise their individual reproductive rights and utilize family planning programs to control their fertility in ways they deemed valuable. On the other hand, in the broader context of the crusade against Black reproduction and with numerous incidents that inevitably eroded Black trust, family planning programs remained controversial. Black communities splintered in their views of these programs as either useful tools to strengthen and stabilize the Black freedom struggle or dangerous interventions that weaponized reproductive services to reduce Black reproduction and work towards African American extinction. Between the 1930s and 1970s, the politics of Black reproduction developed through political movements grounded in eugenics, population control, and the welfare state. Internal Black debates on family planning programs, particularly as they took place in published sources, evolved according to these political forces. Reflecting external patterns, these debates emphasized the collective over the individual, sidelining concerns about individual reproductive rights in favor of strategies for collective racial progress.
1930s: Eugenics and the Origins of the Birth Control Movement
In the heyday of respectability for American eugenicists, the decade of the Great Depression saw the strengthening of the link between Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement and the eugenics movement, which motivated efforts to impede Black reproduction. Although the American eugenics movement bristled to its peak in the 1930s, it originated at the turn of the twentieth century, when Sir Francis Galton’s famed eugenics discourse from across the pond found a home in U.S. institutions and policies. In these early decades of the 1900s, white Americans felt their economic, political, and social security threatened by an influx of migrants, both Southern and Eastern Europeans as well as African Americans coming North as part of the Great Migration. White anxiety was further compounded by decreasing family sizes among the white upper-class and the rapid population growth of lower-class and non-whites in the U.S., a phenomenon described by eugenicists (and later Sanger) as “differential fertility between classes.” These fears manifested in rhetoric about “race suicide,” a term used by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 to articulate fears about white extinction both numerically and proportionally and to encourage native-born, white, middle-class Americans to have larger families. Over the next two decades, in which white Americans engaged in intense racial violence, including mass lynchings in the South and race riots in the North, the American eugenics movement became heavily institutionalized in universities, professional organizations, and corporations and gained widespread respectability. American eugenicists theorized about and advocated for improving the genetic quality of the human race, particularly the U.S. population. Hallmark eugenicist campaigns included advocacy for immigration restrictions against non-Anglo-Saxons (e.g. the sweeping bans created by the 1924 National Origins Act), compulsory sterilization and incarceration of those deemed unfit, and larger families for rich, able-bodied Anglo-Saxons. The eugenics movement’s influence peaked in the 1930s, when, at the height of the Great Depression, white Americans felt at their most vulnerable.
Through her relentless advocacy, Margaret Sanger found a political opening for her emerging birth control movement in the 1910s by linking what was designed as a radical reproductive rights movement to the well-respected eugenics movement. Sanger’s initial call for women to have control over their reproductive decisions was a radical position (and a seed of later women’s rights movements) defined by a vision of absolute gender equality and universal reproductive rights. Sanger, who came from a progressive political background, argued that women’s access to birth control and their subsequent ability to restrict and plan their motherhood would transform society by providing women with the equal economic, social, and political opportunities that they deserved. Her ideas ill-received by mainstream politics, she proposed a myriad of ways that the birth control movement could figure into established and well-respected social movements. Ultimately, eugenicists were the group that embraced her cause.
Sanger not only recognized the political value of linking advocacy for birth control with the eugenicist goal of resisting “race suicide” but also developed deeply eugenicist views herself. In her landmark book Woman and the New Race (1920), she wrote, “Birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, or preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives.” As this excerpt suggests, the birth control movement fit into the eugenics movement in the form of negative eugenics. That is, rather than manipulating those deemed desirable into having more children, which violated Sanger’s principles of women’s reproductive rights, the birth control movement focused on achieving lower reproductive rates for those deemed undesirable. Under this framework, Sanger’s reproductive rights rhetoric was transformed into a language of duty for poor, non-white women to restrict their reproduction.
The negative eugenicist approach of the birth control movement, which peaked during the economic panic of the Great Depression, manifested in state sterilization programs and targeted birth control campaigns. By 1935, at least 33 states had eugenical sterilization laws that allowed for the sterilization of the “unfit,” commonly people with mental illnesses living in state institutions. While these statutes typically did not affect African Americans disproportionately, they planted the seeds for later patterns of conflating race with unfitness and embodied the practice of using reproductive control methods to further eugenicist goals. Other negative eugenicist initiatives emerging from the 1930s did explicitly target African Americans, such as “the Negro Project.” A Southern-focused program commissioned by Sanger that operated from 1939-1942, the Negro Project created clinics that provided birth control information and services to marginalized Black communities in the South through the leadership and collaboration of Black ministers. Despite the public veneer of amicable intervention and concern for Black women’s reproductive rights, Sanger admitted that the program actually was conceived as part of a quest to “exterminate the Negro population.” Initiated at the end of the Great Depression, the Negro Project was one of several targeted birth control and family planning campaigns that carried with them the mandate of negative eugenics – the extermination of the unfit in order to protect against the suicide of the Anglo-Saxon race.
The strengthening relationship in both theory and practice between the eugenics and birth control movements splintered Black communities’ views on various aspects of reproductive interventions, but particularly on notions of family planning. Available records show that most Black women’s organizations welcomed access to family planning programs that allowed them to gain control over their reproductive decisions. The Colored Women’s Club Movement, for instance, which was largely responsible for disseminating information about contraceptives to Black women in the early twentieth century, supported family planning clinics because of their promotion of self-ownership of Black women’s reproduction but opposed the sterilization of Black women due to the practice’s coercive features. Furthermore, most mainstream Black organizations of the 1930s, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and leading Black newspapers, welcomed Black access to birth control and family planning programs.
Despite the prominence of Black women’s organizing in the Colored Women’s Club Movement and other organizations, though, most of the documented intellectual Black discourse on birth control in the 1930s was by Black men, who tended to view the issue with a focus on collective racial progress rather than women’s reproductive rights. The positions of Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois illustrate how birth control could be viewed as either an impediment or an instrument towards racial progress. Even in this early period of the birth control movement, racial genocide was a key concern of Black communities, and fears that birth control measures were being used to exterminate the African American population as part of the American eugenics project led Black nationalists such as Garvey to reject family planning programs. Although Garvey attributed his rejection of birth control partially to his Roman Catholic faith, his dominant rhetoric pinned the evil of birth control on the theory that limiting Black reproduction weakened the movement for Black separatism. Garvey’s separatist ideal, which envisioned completely autonomous Black communities removed from white society and preferably residing in Africa, required strength in numbers, he claimed. Birth control would unduly limit the size of the Black population, and, if it were to become widespread, could lead to racial genocide. At a 1934 convention of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the Black separatist organization of which Garvey was president, he successfully urged the passage of a resolution counseling Blacks not to “accept or practice the theory of birth control such as is being advocated by irresponsible speculators who are attempting to interfere with the course of Nature.” In Garvey’s view, birth control, particularly when advocated by outsiders, was an obstacle to racial progress: a numbers game with the end-goal of complete Black self-determination.
Du Bois, a prominent Black intellectual, co-founder of the NAACP, and staunch supporter of the Negro Project, offered an opposing viewpoint in his 1932 Birth Control Review article, “Black Folk and Birth Control,” that nonetheless also conceived of birth control in relation to the collective goals of racial progress. According to Du Bois, amidst the exploitation of Black reproduction during the slavery era, “the more intelligent slaves” had found ways to exercise birth control in secrecy. Similarly, since Emancipation, he argued, “the intelligent class” of Blacks had engaged in the economically beneficial practice of family planning by postponing marriage, which led to better generational outcomes because Blacks would “not have children until they [we]re able to take care of them.” This line of reasoning resonates with Sanger’s original conception of the birth control movement: that allowing women to control when they had children would produce better societal outcomes. As a result, as opposed to Garvey’s insistence on the prevailing importance of quantity, Du Bois’s perspective led him to support family planning programs because “quality and not mere quantity really counts” in matters of racial progress.
These collective-based arguments that sidelined the importance of Black women’s reproductive rights were not unfree from the influence of eugenics that had penetrated the birth control movement in this period. A 1932 article in Birth Control Review by social worker Constance Fisher, one of few Black women able to publish her views on Black reproduction in mainstream publications in this era, endorsed eugenics-based birth control in cases of individuals with “low mentality, a serious health impairment, or other very obvious complications.” Similarly, Du Bois’s argument for racial progress was steeped in internal eugenics. In “Black Folk and Birth Control,” he cautioned that, while “the intelligent class” had effectively controlled its reproduction, “the mass of ignorant Negroes still bre[d] carelessly and disastrously,” particularly the “part of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear their children properly.” This argument is reminiscent of Du Bois’s famed “Talented Tenth” theory, in which he claimed that there existed a subset of “exceptional men” within the Black population (the “Talented Tenth”) who should pursue higher education in order to solve “the Negro problem” afflicting the Black masses. Du Bois’s subsequent advocacy for the importance of birth control also mirrors Sangers’ declaration that birth control served to “facilitat[e] the process of weeding out the unfit,” but in an intraracial, class-based context. The stances of Du Bois, Garvey, and Fisher reveal not only the class and gender divides that influenced African Americans’ views on birth control but also reflect their engagement with forces such as eugenics that shaped mainstream birth control debates.
Late 1940s-1950s: Post-War Politics and the Shift to Population Control
In the late 1940s and 1950s, the vast economic and ideological changes in the U.S. resulting from World War II (WWII) led to a shift in the theoretical basis fueling the birth control movement from overt eugenics to population control. The outcome of WWII transformed the U.S. into the world’s greatest superpower both economically and politically. Despite its newfound sphere of influence, however, the U.S. government, having fought the war on a rhetorical platform of freedom and equality, found itself hard-pressed to live up to those ideals in the post-war era. Internal racial politics posed a particular challenge; from the “Double V” campaign, which preached freedom at home as well as abroad, to Du Bois’s quest to bring the issue of American racial discrimination to the newly-formed United Nations, claims of discrimination and violence against African Americans were highly embarrassing and worrisome for U.S. international relations. Similarly, given the high-profile exposure of Nazi eugenics during WWII, including the astounding numbers of eugenic sterilizations performed on women deemed “unfit,” the American eugenics movement lost all semblance of political respectability and witnessed a sharp decline in the post-war era.
Despite the need to publicly eliminate labels of eugenics and evidence of anti-Black discrimination from American institutions, the U.S. during the post-war boom continued to seek out ways to restrict Black reproduction due to enduring domestic political and economic factors. A period of unprecedented economic growth, the 1950s saw large-scale suburbanization, the rise of the ideal of homeownership, and new ideals of motherhood in which women were expected to stay at home and be exceptionally moral and chaste. Under this framework, poor Black women living in cities and working outside the home – and also subject to a slew of racialized stereotypes about their morality – established Black reproduction as “a social problem,” according to historian Nicole Rousseau.
This designation followed naturally from pre-war conceptions of “unfitness” and the role of birth control in controlling Black reproduction. With eugenics no longer a politically tenable justification to complement women’s rights advocacy for the birth control movement, however, restrictive reproductive interventions in the late 1940s and 50s were framed under a new area of international concern: population control. Malthusian notions of population control – the idea that Earth’s resources were finite and that overpopulation would perpetuate poverty and otherwise impede human progress – resurfaced in the 1950s as rapid population growth and high density were blamed for the political and economic struggles in newly-labeled “Third World” countries. Fears about global overpopulation overtook the U.S. and led to new institutionalized fields of population studies and population policy aimed at reducing population growth, particularly in impoverished, densely-populated urban settings. This framework, which also linked overpopulation to poverty, not only would soon lead the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to launch birth control campaigns in these so-called Third World nations, but it also offered a new justification for efforts aimed at restricting Black reproduction. Unlike the eugenics framework, in which targeting the “unfit” for birth control had been invoked, in Sanger’s words, as a tool against “race suicide,” the population-based approach framed birth control as a way to save the poor from themselves. In other words, for the same reasons that Black reproduction became a “social problem,” its restriction could be justified as a self-help response to the population problem. As a result, many reproductive interventions were publicly recast under the umbrella of population control, a concept far more politically palatable (and nominally colorblind) than eugenics. So, while formal eugenical sterilization programs declined rapidly in the post-war era, the reality of coerced sterilization and targeting the “unfit” for birth control remained largely unchanged.
Although Black communities’ views on birth control and other reproductive interventions evolved in light of this ideological and rhetorical shift, internal debates continued to focus on community-level issues of racial progress rather than questions of individuals’ reproductive rights. Much like Garvey and Du Bois, male Black leaders of the late 1940s and 50s formulated arguments around the notion of collective racial progress, now incorporating the language of population theory. Julian Lewis, a pathologist and professor at the University of Chicago, published an article in the Negro Digest in May 1945 entitled, “Can the Negro Afford Birth Control?” Like Garvey had done a decade earlier, Lewis invoked fears of racial genocide by proclaiming that “Negro survival in America is dependent upon a high birth rate” due to the high death rates among the Black population. Any Black enthusiasm for birth control, therefore, was “misguided” and would produce “race suicide” if brought to fruition. Condemning the activities of Planned Parenthood in the South, Lewis advocated against the organization’s dissemination of information about birth control and provision of family planning services to Black Southerners, adopting what he characterized as “a broad view of the Negro’s future” that, like Garveyism, was concerned primarily with maintaining a large Black population over any concerns for women’s individual reproductive freedoms.
An article entitled “Birth Control for More Negro Babies,” published two months later in the same magazine, similarly considered population theory in the analysis of birth control and racial progress yet arrived at an opposite conclusion. Written by E. Franklin Frazier, a board member of Planned Parenthood’s Division of Negro Services, the article put forth the argument that the Black birth rate needed to fall in order to lower the death rate. Frazier challenged the notion that Black fecundity was valuable, as it once had been considered by slave owners. Referencing transformations like industrialization and urbanization that lowered the economically ideal number of children per family, he argued that “[the Negro] cannot afford to hold Negro life so cheap that he will create it heedlessly.” In doing so, he echoed Du Bois’s claim that racial progress would be determined not just by the creation of more Black babies but by the circumstances in which they came into being. As suggested by the title, Frazier’s framing also aligned with Lewis’s concern for the stability and flourishing of the Black population as key to racial progress.
The population panic of this era seems to have swung the pendulum such that Black communities’ ambivalence about family planning programs grew stronger amidst fears of racial genocide schemes, and more and more Black leaders agreed with the conclusions that Lewis reached. Although Black nationalists were particularly vehement in their opposition to programs which they considered to be euphemistically termed “family planning,” many mainstream Black organizations, including several regional branches of the NAACP and the National Urban League, also agreed and reversed their earlier support for family planning programs in the wake of WWII. The fact that these organizations supported family planning programs at the height of the eugenics frenzy, and turned against them in the post-war era dominated by rhetoric of freedom and equality, speaks volumes about the discrepancy between lofty U.S. international discourse and the domestic racial reality, as well as the extent to which many Blacks feared that population theory served as a proxy for Black genocide.
1970s: Black Freedom and the Welfare State
Several important developments in the 1960s shaped the transformation of reproductive policies and practices that impacted Black communities in the 1970s. The flourishing of the women’s liberation movement in the 60s led to important legislative changes and cultural shifts that increased many women’s enjoyment of economic opportunities, freedom from sexual discrimination, and access to contraceptive methods, especially with the invention of the first oral contraceptive in 1960, also known as the Pill. Black public opinion with respect to birth control was shaped not only by the largely white women’s liberation movement but also by the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and 60s, which sought to break down many legal barriers to equality and integration, as well as the Black Power movement beginning in the late 60s, which echoed earlier Black nationalist demands for self-determination, self-love, and militant resistance.
Despite the revolutionary changes of the 1960s, it was not until the following decade that debates about Black reproduction underwent another significant transformation. In the 1970s, the economic recession sweeping the U.S. and growing fears of Black advances threatening white supremacy led to the moralization of poverty and the rise of rhetoric about so-called “welfare queens.” The legal advances of the Civil Rights Movement created widening class divides among African Americans, with a rising middle class achieving high levels of success in education, politics, and the arts, while the vast majority of African Americans remained stifled in poverty that was concentrated in urban ghettos. In this context of the dual success and ghettoization of Black communities, and particularly with the onset of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, poverty and ghettos became viewed by white politicians as the moral failures of individuals. Under President Richard Nixon, former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty came under intense scrutiny, and its once-applauded welfare programs became favorite political targets. Despite the disproportionate benefits that white citizens experienced from War on Poverty welfare programs, the dominant image of a prototypical welfare recipient shifted in the 1970s from a worthy white widow to an unworthy single Black mother, or “welfare queen.” According to race and gender scholar Dorothy Roberts, the Black welfare queen was stereotyped as “the lazy mother on public assistance who deliberately bre[d] children at the expense of taxpayers to fatten her monthly check.” As welfare in general came under fire in the 1970s, therefore, Black reproduction was a particular target in the moral crusade against poverty.
In the latest iteration of control and restrictions, reliance on welfare was exploited to restrict Black reproduction in the name of protecting American ideals of proper motherhood and relieving government burdens. Black “welfare queens,” it seemed, were “unfit” for motherhood in the same way that women with mental disabilities had been in the eugenicist 1930s and poor urban minorities had been in the population-panicked 1950s. Restrictions abounded in the 1970s that increasingly pressured Black women into undergoing sterilization. Black women on welfare often were coerced into accepting birth control, long-term sterilization, or even experimental drugs such as Depo-Provera under threat of the termination of their welfare benefits. Furthmore, sterilization was commonly imposed on Black women as a condition of delivering a baby, performing an abortion, or receiving welfare benefits in the first place – practices that were carried out both on the authority of individual doctors and with the sanction of government policies. According to activist and scholar Angela Davis, sterilization abuse may have been more prevalent than ever before in the 1970s, despite the international condemnation of the Nazis’ forced sterilizations just three decades earlier. Furthermore, welfare would continue to serve as an instrument for controlling Black reproduction beyond the 70s. In the 1990s crusade against the welfare regime, new welfare policies often included insurance coverage for the implantation of long-term contraception (such as Norplant) but not its removal. In addition, family caps that were widely incorporated into 90s welfare schemes disproportionately targeted single Black mothers, whose children were considered nothing more than a government burden and a criminal hazard.
Much like the 1930s and the late 1940s and 50s, internal debates about reproduction within Black communities in the 1970s fractured along the lines of family planning programs, often relating to the benefits of accessing birth control and the risks of receiving unwanted sterilizations. The unique flavors of this era’s debates reflected Black Power aims, the strengthened rhetoric of rights from the women’s liberation movement, the impact of the moralization of poverty, and the exposure of particularly objectionable examples of reproductive abuse. Indeed, much of the ugly history of the racist abuse in the American birth control movement began to come to light in the 1970s. In 1973, a high-profile case in which two sisters, Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf, ages 12 and 14, were involuntarily sterilized at a federally-funded family planning clinic in Alabama opened the Pandora’s box on sterilization and led to the exposure of well-documented and often government-complicit incidents of racist reproductive abuse. Among the key campaigns exposed in the wake of the Relf sisters’ case, according to Angela Davis, were North Carolina’s long-standing eugenical sterilization program that specifically targeted thousands of Black women as “mentally deficient persons”; South Carolina’s history of sterilizing Medicaid recipients with two or more children; and the complicity of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in the forced sterilizations of Native American and Puerto Rican women, as well as the mass sterilization experiments that resulted in the sterilization of huge swaths of the Puerto Rican population.
The exposure of these historical and contemporary abuses further eroded the trust of Black communities towards reproductive interventions, including the seemingly benign or even empowering family planning programs. The writings of Frances M. Beal and Toni Cade Bambara exemplify how two Black women negotiated these tensions with the Black freedom struggle to argue how birth control fit into the path to racial progress. In her 1970 essay, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female,” Black feminist writer and organizer Frances Beal claimed that oppression must be fought comprehensively, not in a piecemeal fashion. Campaigns for birth control in Black communities, “sterilization clinics” posing as “maternity clinics,” and experimentation on and coercion of Black women on welfare, she argued, was nothing short of “outright surgical genocide.” Consistent with many Black women who came before her, Beal emphasized the importance of Black women’s reproductive rights and argued that the realization of these rights was “in the interest of the struggle,” which implies that she, too, situated birth control within the collective racial struggle. Due to the overwhelming reproductive exploitation of Black women, however, Beal arrived at the same conclusion as Garvey and Lewis: she expressed great reservation towards Black women’s use of any externally-provided reproductive services.
While Beal identified a primarily oppositional tension between the aims of racial progress and the exercise of reproductive rights, in the same year author and Black Power activist Toni Cade Bambara published a momumental essay, “The Pill: Genocide or Liberation,” which engaged a self-help framework and classic Black Power rhetoric to argue that Black women’s exercise of reproductive rights was crucial to the progress of the Black Power movement. Addressing the “Brothers” of the movement, who, Bambara recounted, had encouraged the “Sisters” to “throw away the pill… and breed revolutionaries and mess up the man’s genocidal program,” Bambara countered by saying that “you prepare yourself by being in control of yourself.” Her conclusion that birth control helps women help themselves echoes Sanger’s rhetoric on the importance of women’s control over their fertility and the language of the women’s liberation movement that characterized access to contraception as a form of empowerment for women. While the pill would not liberate the Black woman in and of itself, Bambara continued, “it gives her time to fight for liberation.” Acknowledging the racist patterns of reproductive restrictions placed on Black women and that “it’s not for nothing…that b.c. [birth control] clinics have been mushrooming in our communities,” Bambara nonetheless claimed that the goal of Black reproduction should be to “raise super-people” – an argument reminiscent of Du Bois’s and Frazier’s from earlier decades – and that access to birth control was crucial to that goal.
Both Bambara and Beal articulated that the Black freedom struggle could not be won without addressing the particular reproductive needs and rights of Black women. Their divergent conclusions reflected the many ways in which Black reproduction had become politicized over the course of U.S. history. Amidst concerns about racial genocide, healthy Black populations that could fuel racial progress, and clearly-evidenced reproductive abuse, the rights discourse that dominated the mainstream women’s rights movement became an issue of secondary importance in internal mid-century debates around Black reproduction.
The sidelining of Black women’s reproductive rights did not emerge in a vacuum. Had policymakers and engineers of reproductive movements and interventions framed Black women’s reproduction primarily as an individual issue rather than a collective issue, Black communities may have similarly elevated women’s reproductive rights in their internal debates. But, dating from slavery to the present, reproductive interventions have been instrumentalized as a means of restricting and controlling Black reproduction towards broader political aims. Like other oppressive structures, the regime of reproductive control has adapted to the political and economic climate of the times, shifting since the 1930s from the discourse of eugenics to population theory and the moralization of poverty. Genuinely intersectional struggles are exceptionally difficult to maintain, and, as the debates highlighted in this paper have illustrated, Black women’s concerns often have been sidelined in the Black freedom struggle.
This history can help us to understand the impossible positions in which Black women find themselves when their bodies are exploited and instrumentalized, their voices are silenced, and their rights are downgraded to being of secondary importance to the cause for racial progress. Beal and Bambara have emphasized that they and countless other Black women are all too ready to contribute fully to the Black freedom struggle, should their reproductive needs and bodily integrity be acknowledged. Black women historically have contributed to the movement in invaluable ways. Without the limitations imposed both externally and internally on their reproductive control, the movement very well could find itself in a period of unprecedented and previously unimaginable progress.
This paper originally was submitted on May 6, 2022. Shortly thereafter, on June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a bombshell decision that changed the landscape of reproductive freedoms across the country: with a 6-3 majority in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022), the Court struck down Roe v. Wade (1973), thus eliminating the constitutional right to abortion. The decision enabled the implementation of trigger laws that severely restricted abortion in thirteen states, a figure projected to approach half of all U.S. states with the expected passage of state legislation. With its vast impact that cuts across so many communities, the Dobbs decision has pulled at the very seams of American politics. Yet, like previous shifts in the terrain of reproductive freedoms and services, the decision holds particular import for African American communities.
The debates within Black communities that have emerged around the decision reflect the trends and arguments articulated in mid-century internal debates on Black reproduction. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in a 2019 opinion cited by Justice Samuel Alito in Dobbs, argued that the “eugenic potential” of abortion to be used as a tool to extinguish Black communities put into question the constitutionality of laws protecting abortion rights. On the other hand, Christine M. Slaughter and Chelsea N. Jones, two Black political researchers, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed shortly after the release of the decision that Dobbs would “hit Black women especially hard” because of racially-biased social determinants of health. Black women, they explained, “start with worse health outcomes because of the detrimental health effects of racism” and disproportionately “have lower incomes, lack insurance and lack access to quality health care.” These two lines of reasoning both rely on arguments related to the racially-disparate impact of government policies, a common focus in twenty-first century politicking. Furthermore, like earlier debates, Thomas’s reasoning as well as Slaughter and Jones’s arguments emphasize the collective over the individual impact to explain their positions regarding abortion restrictions.
As we grapple with the cataclysmic shifts occurring in everyday American political life, it is critical to remember that debates about restricting reproduction have always signified much more for Black communities than the immediate reproductive issues at hand. The long-standing politicization of Black reproduction continues to generate internal debates that reflect the collective-based concerns articulated in mid-century debates as well as the most pressing political forces of the present, such as concerns about disparate impact. Amidst the outcry over Dobbs and the restrictions on reproductive freedoms expected to follow, the long history of the politics of Black reproduction should serve as an urgent reminder that reproduction in America is about far more than women’s individual choices. It is about eugenics, population control, attacks on welfare, and so much more. Until these historical political forces and their legacies are addressed in full, the politics of reproduction will continue to play a central role in shaping the Black freedom struggle.
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Slaughter, Christine M. and Chelsea N. Jones. “How Black Women Will Be Especially Affected by the Loss of Roe.” The Washington Post, June 25, 2022.
“Tracking the States Where Abortion Is Now Banned.” New York Times, accessed July 17, 2022.
Nicole Rousseau, Black Woman’s Burden: Commodifying Black Reproduction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, pp. 80,84; Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body. New York: Vintage Books, 2009, p.24. ↩︎
Rousseau, Black Woman’s Burden, pp.89-90. ↩︎
Roberts, Killing the Black Body, pp.59,60. ↩︎
David M. Kennedy, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970, p.42; James Reed, The Birth Control Movement and American Society: From Private Vice to Public Virtue. New York: Basic Books, 1978, p.136 ↩︎
Reed, The Birth Control Movement and American Society, p.201. ↩︎
Angela Y. Davis, “Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights,” Women, Race & Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1983, p.209; Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003, p.xxi. ↩︎
Black, War Against the Weak, p.xv. ↩︎
Reed, The Birth Control Movement and American Society, p.130. ↩︎
Kennedy, Birth Control in America, pp.121,126. ↩︎
Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race. New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1920, p.229. ↩︎
Reed, The Birth Control Movement and American Society, p.135. ↩︎
Davis, “Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights,” p.210. ↩︎
Rousseau, Black Woman’s Burden, p.106. ↩︎
Philip R.Reilly, 2015, “Eugenics and Involuntary Sterilization: 1907–2015.” Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics 16 (1): 357. ↩︎
Quoted in Davis, “Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights,” p.215; Rousseau, Black Woman’s Burden, p.110. ↩︎
Loretta J. Ross, 1992, “African-American Women and Abortion: A Neglected History.” Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved 3 (2): 278. ↩︎
Nancy Lurkins, 2008, “‘You are the Race, You are the Seeded Earth:’ Intellectual Rhetoric, American Fiction, and Birth Control in the Black Community.” Historia 17: 52,58. ↩︎
Quoted in Jamie Hart, 1994, “Who Should Have the Children? Discussions of Birth Control among African-American Intellectuals, 1920-1939.” The Journal of Negro History 79 (1): 75. ↩︎
W.E.B. Du Bois, 1932, “Black Folk and Birth Control.” Birth Control Review 16 (7): 166-167. ↩︎
Constance Fisher, 1932, “The Negro Social Worker Evaluates Birth Control.” Birth Control Review 6: 174-175. ↩︎
W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Talented Tenth,” The Negro Problem. New York: James Pott and Company, 1903. ↩︎
Sanger, Woman and the New Race, p.229. ↩︎
Nikhil Pal Singh, “Internationalizing Freedom,” Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005; Carol Anderson, “The Struggle for Human Rights,” Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ↩︎
Reilly, “Eugenics and Involuntary Sterilization”: 357. ↩︎
Rousseau, Black Woman’s Burden, p.100. ↩︎
Reed, The Birth Control Movement and American Society, p.373; Black, War Against the Weak, pp.11-12. ↩︎
Ross, “African-American Woman and Abortion”: 280. ↩︎
Reilly, “Eugenics and Involuntary Sterilization”: 353. ↩︎
Julian Lewis, 1945, “Can the Negro Afford Birth Control?” Negro Digest 3: 19-22. ↩︎
E. Franklin Frazier, 1945, “Birth Control for More Negro Babies.” Negro Digest 3: 41-44. ↩︎
Ross, “African-American Women and Abortion”: 280. ↩︎
Reed, The Birth Control Movement and American Society, p.374. ↩︎
See e.g. Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Speech delivered at King Solomon Baptist Church, Detroit, Michigan, April 12, 1964. ↩︎
Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, Part Two, Move on Up. Dir. Williams, Leah, Sabin Streeter, Talleah Bridges McMahon, et al. Prod. Williams Leah, and Talleah Bridges McMahon. Public Broadcasting Service, 2016. ↩︎
Roberts, Killing the Black Body, p.208. ↩︎
Ibid, pp.17-18. ↩︎
Rousseau, Black Woman’s Burden, p.132. ↩︎
Dorothy Roberts, 1993, “Crime, Race, and Reproduction.” Tulane Law Review 67: 1971. ↩︎
Davis, “Racism, Birth Control, and Reproductive Rights,” p.220. ↩︎
Rousseau, Black Woman’s Burden, p.141. ↩︎
Roberts, Killing the Black Body, p.239. ↩︎
Davis, “Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights,” p.216-219; Rousseau, Black Woman’s Burden, p.109. ↩︎
Frances M. Beal, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.” From Robin, Morgan, ed., Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement. New York: Random House, 1970. ↩︎
Toni Cade Bambara, “The Pill: Genocide or Liberation?” From Bambara, Toni Cade, ed., The Black Woman: An Anthology. New York: New American Library, 1970: 163,166,168. ↩︎
“Tracking the States Where Abortion Is Now Banned,” New York Times, accessed July 17, 2022. ↩︎
Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, Inc., 587 US _ (2019); Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 597 US _ (2022). ↩︎
Christine M. Slaughter and Chelsea N. Jones, “How Black Women Will Be Especially Affected by the Loss of Roe,” The Washington Post, June 25, 2022. ↩︎