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Race and Reproduction in the Post-Roe World

Antiracist Research and Policy Center hosts panel of leading Indigenous feminists, feminists of color, and their allies

On October 25, American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center (ARPC) hosted a discussion on the vital work of feminists of color and allies in the area of reproductive politics in the post-Roe historical moment.  

In her introductory remarks, Associate Professor of Critical Race, Gender, and Culture (CRGC) and Literature and event organizer Kirstie Dorr explained how the idea for the panel grew out of a conversation with Associate Professor and ARPC Executive Director Sara Clarke Kaplan about the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the media and cultural emphasis on white, middle-class women as victims of the Dobbs ruling. However, the decision will have a disproportionate impact on poor people, pregnant people of color, and Indigenous pregnant people — the same people whose access to privacy and bodily autonomy in the reproductive sphere has always been nominal and conditional.

This is a critical moment in the struggle for reproductive justice in the United States, says Kaplan. “That said, for poor, BIPOC women and other pregnancy-capable people, the stringent control, surveillance, and legal and medical control of their bodies and reproductive practices is far from new: it has been continuous from the origins of the US to today," she explains. “Therefore, instead of taking popular representations of the overturning of Roe as an unprecedented crisis in reproductive rights, it benefits us to ask: for whom does Dobbs usher in a seismic shift, and for whom is it more of an escalation of ongoing conditions of racist and heteropatriarchal reproductive governance? Given this, what lessons can we bring to this current stage in the struggle for reproductive justice when we center the experiences and struggles of Indigenous women and women of color in the area of reproductive politics?”

To explore this critically important subject, ARPC invited the panel of scholars to draw on their own work on race, Indigeneity, sexuality, and reproduction to weigh in on this current, post-Roe moment. Here are just a few key takeaways:

Patricia Zavella: How It Started, Where We Are
Professor Emerita of Latin American and Latino Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

Dr. Zavella’s presentation provided a longer history of reproductive control in the United States, emphasizing that the state management of reproduction has a long history rooted in racial oppression:

“Reproductive feminism goes back to the founding of this nation, with the control of women's reproduction during slavery, in which abortion prevention meant more property for white slave owners. Since then, we have had a long, complicated history of Christian nationalists, worried about the unconstrained fertility of immigrants, and promoting reproduction by whites.

“Antiabortion politics really are rooted in the 1971 Green v. Connally Supreme Court decision that withdrew tax-exempt status to racially segregated schools. Since then, white nationalists have targeted the Supreme Court, going back to the 1970s, and are now finding some strength in their desire to ban abortion altogether.

“Today, over 100 days after the Dobbs decision, 66 clinics across 15 states have stopped offering abortion care. I argue, in the current post-Roe crisis, state impediments to accessing abortion services are based on eugenic thinking by proponents of reproductive governance, since those impediments disproportionately affect poor women of color. Reproductive justice activists believe we should see the Dobbs ruling in a broad historical context in which antiabortion politics are rooted in white supremacy.”

Elizabeth Rule: Forced Sterilization, Genocide, Land Theft
Assistant Professor of Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies

Dr. Rule’s presentation situated contemporary abortion bans within longer histories of raced and settler colonial forms of gendered violence and reproductive control imposed on Indigenous people: 

“I want to start by thinking about the history of forced and coerced sterilization of native women as a precursor for thinking about the moment we are in today. Throughout 1960s and 1970s, the Indian Health Services, which is the primary health care provider for native peoples in this country, carried out forced and coerced sterilizations of Native American women in an act of federally backed violence. These sterilizations occurred at such high rates and under such deplorable conditions that many native feminists condemned the practice as an act of genocide.

“A report [into the permanent sterilization of Indians at Indian Health Services facilities and contract facilities], which was released on November 6, 1976, shows that a total of 3406 sterilizations took place at the Indian Health Services facilities in Aberdeen, Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, and Phoenix, all between the years of 1973 and 1976. Again, that is approximately three years of more than 3000 sterilizations, approximately 1000 sterilizations per year, which comes out to around three a day.

“Andrea Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council, represents the views of many, that such sterilizations constitute ‘a concerted attack on American Indian women, which amounts to genocide.’”

LaMonda Horton-Stallings: Some Lives Are Not a Priority  
Chair and Professor of African American Studies, Georgetown University

Dr. Horton-Stallings’ presentation argued that for non-white and economically disenfranchised people, access to abortion is more than a healthcare issue — it is measure of their access to embodied freedom and justice:

“The basic premise of any family planning, individually, communally, or societally, is never really just a concern of health, and assuring that people who are not white or economically privileged would have some semblance of reproductive justice and reproductive freedom [will not happen without] a change of culture around sexuality, as opposed to sexual health.  

“The health of cisgender women or gender non-conforming persons, as the insurance companies, pharmaceutical research trials, laws and government policies have traditionally shown, are not a priority in this country. Because their lives are not a priority.”

Alexis Lothian: A Dystopian World
Associate Professor, The Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, University of Maryland

Dr. Lothian’s presentation critiqued how the contemporary political moment has been erroneously represented as a unique point of political dystopia within mainstream reproductive rights movements. She suggested an alternative approach to future political change, drawing from Black feminist writers’ visions of the future: 

“As a scholar of speculative fiction, and the relationship between futures that we imagine and futures our bodies are considered to bear, my instinct on being invited to join this panel was to look for the imagined futures otherwise worlds that are being invoked as the world comes to terms with the consequences of the Dobbs decision.  

“So, the overturning of Roe v. Wade is the end of the world, according to mainstream, predominantly, white, US feminist movements under the framework of reproductive rights … the 1973 decision has, after all, provided the framework for decades of self-spread pro-choice activism. After so many calls to march unless we lose Roe v. Wade, when Roe v. Wade is lost, it inspires apocalyptic levels of despair. It feels like dystopia.”

What’s Next?  

Kaplan says that reproductive justice issues are one of the Center’s nine key areas for targeted research and community outreach in months ahead. “This is the first of a series of events we will be holding over the course of this year thinking about race and reproductive politics, both contemporary issues, but also a larger history of race, reproduction, Indigeneity . . . and the current stakes of decolonizing both bodies and the broader structures of power that reduce autonomy for all pregnancy and childbearing people.”

For more information, visit the ARPC website, or follow @AUAntiracismCtr on Twitter.