The Paradox of Reproductive Oppression Against Womxn of Color

May 24 · 7 min read

“You can’t have babies, but you can’t get an abortion.” —

Illustration by Hazel Newlevant

*Womxn: a political term that includes trans and gender non-conforming people who can get pregnant and are threatened by attacks on reproductive freedom.

In a coordinated effort, our country is passing some of the most egregious anti-abortion legislation. 14 states are already working to scrutinize and criminalize the decisions of pregnant women, trans, and gender non-conforming communities.¹

In our analysis of and response to the current political moment, it is important to consider the historical legacy of reproductive oppression in this country. Before the most recent wave of attacks on abortion rights and before the battle over the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling, the U.S. had always systematically denied women and girls control over our bodies.

The irony of what is happening today is that as the State strips away abortion rights, communities of color have historically also been restricted in their right to reproduce. As a population control strategy, marginalized groups have been sterilized without consent and penalized for reproducing, while at the same time unable to access contraceptives and legal abortions. In other words, “you can’t have babies, but you can’t get an abortion.”

If this sounds like nonsense to you, that’s because it is. Loretta J. Ross of SisterSong, a Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, identifies this as our country’s “moral inconsistency.”² The social, political, and economic forces that determine the “type” of people who should and shouldn’t have children undergird this paradox of reproductive oppression.

White Supremacy, Population Control, and Sterilization Abuse

“Reproductive politics are about “whether, when, and which women can reproduce legitimately and the struggles over which women have the right to be mothers of the children they bear.” -Kimberlé Crenshaw³

The contradiction of reproductive oppression is best understood through an intersectional analysis that considers race, gender identity, class, sexuality, sovereignty, and immigration status. With fears of being numerically and politically outnumbered by people of color, our country has historically propagated white supremacist population control ideologies and policies, such as eugenics and sterilization abuse.⁴

The Eugenics movement systematically controlled the reproductive rates of “unfit” populations. By 1937, 32 states had passed sterilization laws which were not repealed until the 1970s.⁵ This wave of reproductive oppression and sterilization abuse targeted “promiscuous women,” African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican, Japanese, and Italian immigrants, people who “transgressed sexual norms,” and people living with disabilities or mental illness.⁶

Furthermore, our country often blames social problems on the reproductive choices of communities of color. On his radio talk show in 2005, Secretary of Education William Bennett claims,

If you want to reduce crime…if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.”⁷

Black and Brown women have long been stigmatized as “welfare queens” and blamed for poverty, criminal activity, drug and alcohol abuse, and other social ills. They are criminalized for their reproductive choices and especially vulnerable to sterilization abuse.

Below are several examples demonstrating how reproductive behavior of indigenous, Black, incarcerated, immigrant, disabled, and poor communities is heavily policed by stereotypes, policies, and abuse. This is by no means is comprehensive summary of reproductive oppression in the U.S., but meant to serve as an introduction to expose the depth and reach of white supremacist population control practices and its ongoing impacts on the reproductive rights of communities of color.

  • 65,000 Americans with mental illness or developmental disabilities were sterilized from the 1920s-70s.⁸
  • In 1960 when New Orleans was ordered to desegregate its schools, Black women were criminalized for second pregnancies and threatened with imprisonment and welfare fraud. Afterwards, many of these women and children disappeared from welfare rolls.⁹
  • A 1965 survey of Puerto Rican residents found that about one-third of all Puerto Rican mothers, ages 20–49, were sterilized.¹⁰
  • In 1974, Southern Poverty Law Center discovered that 100,000 to 150,000 poor people were being sterilized each year under federally-funded programs.¹¹
  • A young pregnant Black woman arrested for civil rights activities in North Carolina was convicted and told that her punishment would be to have a forced abortion.¹²
  • Black women on welfare have been forced to accept sterilization in exchange for continuation of relief benefits, and others have been sterilized without their knowledge or consent.¹³
  • “Between 2006 and 2010 at least 116 people in two California prisons were sterilized as a form of birth control via tubal ligation during labor and delivery. At least a couple dozen more prisoners — predominantly Black, Latina, poor women and transgender people — reported being sterilized by hysterectomy and oophorectomy under highly questionable and abusive circumstances.”¹⁴
  • In the landmark case Madrigal v. Quilligan, Mexican immigrant women sued doctors, the state, and the U.S. government after they were sterilized without knowledge or consent while giving birth at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the late 1960s and early 1970s.¹⁵ (Check out the documentary No Más Bebés to learn more.)
  • 4 of the 12 Indian Health Service regions sterilized 3,406 American Indian women without their permission between 1973 and 1976. The Indian Health Service had “singled out full-blooded Indian women for sterilization procedures.¹⁶

Under the innocent guise of population control, these cases of sterilization abuse explicitly target indigenous, Black, immigrant, incarcerated, and disabled communities. Audre Lorde identifies the mythical norm as white, male, cisgendered, heterosexual, Christian, educated, able-bodied, and upper class.¹⁷ Bodies, identities, and experiences that fall outside of this mythical norm are seen as “unfit” for U.S. citizenship, unfairly targeted by population control policies, and vulnerable to sterilization abuse.

Reproductive oppression operates both as a tool and a result of the mythical norm, restricting these communities’ reproductive freedoms based upon the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, age and immigration status they occupy.

Implications for Today

Mainstream dialogue and debates around reproductive justice often center on abortion rights, and dissociates from the U.S.’s legacy of violating the bodies and reproductive freedoms of indigenous, Black, immigrant, incarcerated, and disabled communities. However, the two are intimately connected because they point back to the State’s commitment to control marginalized communities and women’s bodies by whatever means necessary.

Women of color reproductive health activists have worked for decades to organize autonomously in order to directly respond to the unique needs of their communities that are often missed by mainstream pro-choice organizations.¹⁸ Their organizing has generated an intersectional analysis and movement for reproductive justice that includes and expands beyond abortion rights .

Intersectional reproductive justice is about reconnecting women’s health and bodies with the rest of our lives.¹⁹ It is about “countering all forms of population control that deny women’s human rights,” including sterilization and contraceptive abuse, criminalization of abortion, birthing injustice, exclusionary immigration policies, family separations at the border, police brutality, selective population displacement or dispersal, gender-based violence, and mass incarceration.²⁰

In our analysis of and response to the current political moment, it is imperative to learn from, support, and follow the lead of women of color advocates who have been working to widen our understanding of reproductive oppression and respond directly to reproductive violence inflicted on marginalized communities. In our imagination and realization of reproductive justice, securing abortion rights is one of many urgent battles in our ongoing communal struggle for self-determination.

To Learn More About Reproductive Justice:

SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective

Loretta Ross: Reproductive Justice advocate and scholar

No Más Bebés Documentary

Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice

Got more resources? Share in the comments section!


[1]: Levenson, Eric. “Alabama’s anti-abortion law isn’t alone. Here are all the states pushing to restrict access.” CNN, May 21, 2019.

[2]: Ross, Loretta. “The Color of Choice: White Supremacy and Reproductive Justice.” https://racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/The-Color-of-Choice----Public-Version-with-footnotes-1.pdf

[3]: Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43 (1991):1241.

[4]: Ross, Loretta. “The Color of Choice: White Supremacy and Reproductive Justice.” https://racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/The-Color-of-Choice----Public-Version-with-footnotes-1.pdf

[5]: Stern, Alexandra Minna. “That Time the United States Sterilized 60,000 Of Its Citizens.” Huffington Post, January 7, 2016.

[6]: Ibid.

[7]: Ross, Loretta. “The Color of Choice: White Supremacy and Reproductive Justice.” https://racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/The-Color-of-Choice----Public-Version-with-footnotes-1.pdf

[8]: Ko, Lisa. “Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States.” PBS, January 29, 2016.

[9]: Solinger, Pregnancy and Power, 137.

[10]: “35% of Puerto Rican Women Sterilized.” CWLU Herstory Project.

[11]: Ko, Lisa. “Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States.” PBS, January 29, 2016.

[12]: National Council of Negro Women, editorial, Black Woman’s Voice 2, no. 2 (January/February 1973).

[13]: Ibid.

[14]: Ross, Loretta. “Eugenicists Never Retreat, They Just Regroup: Sterilization and Reproductive Oppression in Prisons.” Rewire News, June 12, 2014.

[15]: Tajima-Peña, Renee. “No Más Bebés.” PBS, February 1, 2016.

[16]: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/timeline/543.html

[17]: Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” https://www.colorado.edu/odece/sites/default/files/attached-files/rba09-sb4converted_8.pdf

[18]: Ross, Loretta. “The Color of Choice: White Supremacy and Reproductive Justice.” https://racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/The-Color-of-Choice----Public-Version-with-footnotes-1.pdf

[19]: SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective

[20]: Ross, Loretta. “The Color of Choice: White Supremacy and Reproductive Justice.” https://racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/The-Color-of-Choice----Public-Version-with-footnotes-1.pdf

Bianca Mabute-Louie

Written by

ethnic studies adjunct professor | youth social services | writer, speaker, researcher | www.biancaML.com

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