.
S

cientific research is normally a road to clarity, but in the American abortion debate, it is more like a ditch. Activists seize any research on life or death that supports their cause and ignore the rest. They praise—and sometimes pay—researchers that advance their cause, undermining the sanctity of the scientific process.

Scientists, according to biologist and philosopher Sahotra Sarkar, cannot determine when life begins because it is a question of values and politics rather than biology. Instead of accepting flawed claims on science, we can examine some of the history of reproductive rights. The history highlights the intimate link between values, power politics, and reproduction. Even when altruism is its impetus, constraints to reproductive autonomy are too easily muddled with imperialist ideas of the nation.

“Breeding Out” Undesirable Traits

The U.S. eugenics movement became very popular in the early 20th century, leading states to create federally-funded eugenics boards which oversaw the mass sterilization of women with “undesirable” traits such as poverty and mental illness.

Though the movement lost favor after it inspired the Holocaust, state-sanctioned sterilization continued. Eugenics boards targeted women, especially Black women. While sterilizations of white women, white men, and Black men began to taper off in the late 1950s, Black women’s sterilizations skyrocketed.

Latina and Indigenous women became targets for sterilization campaigns in the 60s and 70s. Mexican-Americans were the main victims in California. Out of 20,000 recorded sterilizations in California in the first half of the 20th century, Latino men and women were 23% and 57% more likely to be sterilized than non-Latinos. At the same time, the U.S. targeted Puerto Rico with a propaganda campaign and sterilization training for doctors. In the 1970s, 25 to 50% of Native American women were coerced into sterilization by the Indian Health Service.

It is hard to untangle the eugenics obsession with fitness from imperialist stereotypes and socio-economic inequality. Sterilizations of Black women peaked between 1957 and 1964, the end of Jim Crow. The U.S. wanted to modernize Puerto Rico, and experts believed curbing the island’s population growth was the only means to their vision.

The reality of euphemisms like “breeding out poverty” was that Black, Latina, and Indigenous women were disproportionately sterilized, usually without consent. To this day, Hispanic and Native American women have higher rates of non-voluntaristic sterilizations and regret for these irreversible procedures than white women. The U.S. government is obligated to provide healthcare to Native Americans, but Congress’ underfunding of the program and the Hyde Amendment which prohibits federal funding for abortions means this agreement continues to constrain Native women’s reproductive autonomy.

States are still forcibly sterilizing people. In 2020, Immigration and Customs Enforcement was accused of sterilizing immigrant women without informed consent. In the early 2000s, around 1,400 female California prisoners were sterilized. Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia also offered prisoners reduced sentences for undergoing the procedure.

Abortion and Apartheid

State-ordered sterilization and abortion-bans are two ends of the same stick. The criminalization of abortion under South African apartheid (1948-1990) was one of many ways the state policed sex to maintain white superiority and racial separateness.

Though white women and doctors were severely punished, abortions never stopped. By the 1960s, at least 100,000 women had illegal abortions annually. In the 1970s, this figure jumped to 250,000 (one in nine South African women).

White women could generally afford surgical abortions, but these were performed in suboptimal conditions. Plus, the lack of regulation meant doctors got away with bad bedside manners and malpractice.

Black women were not nearly as policed as white women, but a slew of apartheid-created social and economic inequalities increased the population’s rates of sexual assault, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and ultimately abortion-related deaths. Black women (and some poor and teenage white women) would initiate abortions in dangerous, unsanitary ways before going to the hospital to complete the procedure. Hospitals were overwhelmed. They created separate departments for incomplete abortions and took resources away from non-abortion patients. Still, they could only accept the most severe incomplete abortion cases. When abortion wasn’t possible, some women resorted to abandonment or infanticide.

Reproductive Oppression Right Now

Hungary has criminalized abortion and modified its education system to exclusively teach conservative Christian ideas about gender, family, and sexuality. In 2018, the government subsidized full-time mothers with four or more children to encourage white Hungarians to repopulate the country instead of Muslim migrants. All the while, Hungary forcibly sterilized Roma women.

In Lebanon, too, nationalism is sutured to women’s reproductive rights. The state’s citizenship and reproductive laws are tailored to different groups. Lebanese women, Palestinian and Syrian refugees, migrant domestic workers, and transgender and intersex people all subscribe to different laws in order to maintain the Lebanese “sectarian balance.

The Politics of Motherhood

When it comes to reproductive rights, science may be a ditch, but history is a map. Across numerous cases of reproductive oppression, women are exploited for nationalist objectives. Their womanhood is conflated with motherhood. Thus when a woman’s sexual partner or contraceptive choice is seen as a threat to some conception of the nation, she loses her bodily autonomy—often with dire consequences.

About
Millie Brigaud
:
Millie Brigaud is an aspiring journalist pursuing a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and French at William & Mary (class of 2023). Before joining the Diplomatic Courier, Millie interned at Rue89 Strasbourg, a local online newspaper in Strasbourg, France.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Let’s Talk About the History of Reproductive Rights

Photo by Molly Blackbird on Unsplash.

July 19, 2022

When it comes to reproductive rights, science may be a ditch, but history is a map. Across numerous cases of reproductive oppression, women are exploited for nationalist objectives, writes Millie Brigaud.

S

cientific research is normally a road to clarity, but in the American abortion debate, it is more like a ditch. Activists seize any research on life or death that supports their cause and ignore the rest. They praise—and sometimes pay—researchers that advance their cause, undermining the sanctity of the scientific process.

Scientists, according to biologist and philosopher Sahotra Sarkar, cannot determine when life begins because it is a question of values and politics rather than biology. Instead of accepting flawed claims on science, we can examine some of the history of reproductive rights. The history highlights the intimate link between values, power politics, and reproduction. Even when altruism is its impetus, constraints to reproductive autonomy are too easily muddled with imperialist ideas of the nation.

“Breeding Out” Undesirable Traits

The U.S. eugenics movement became very popular in the early 20th century, leading states to create federally-funded eugenics boards which oversaw the mass sterilization of women with “undesirable” traits such as poverty and mental illness.

Though the movement lost favor after it inspired the Holocaust, state-sanctioned sterilization continued. Eugenics boards targeted women, especially Black women. While sterilizations of white women, white men, and Black men began to taper off in the late 1950s, Black women’s sterilizations skyrocketed.

Latina and Indigenous women became targets for sterilization campaigns in the 60s and 70s. Mexican-Americans were the main victims in California. Out of 20,000 recorded sterilizations in California in the first half of the 20th century, Latino men and women were 23% and 57% more likely to be sterilized than non-Latinos. At the same time, the U.S. targeted Puerto Rico with a propaganda campaign and sterilization training for doctors. In the 1970s, 25 to 50% of Native American women were coerced into sterilization by the Indian Health Service.

It is hard to untangle the eugenics obsession with fitness from imperialist stereotypes and socio-economic inequality. Sterilizations of Black women peaked between 1957 and 1964, the end of Jim Crow. The U.S. wanted to modernize Puerto Rico, and experts believed curbing the island’s population growth was the only means to their vision.

The reality of euphemisms like “breeding out poverty” was that Black, Latina, and Indigenous women were disproportionately sterilized, usually without consent. To this day, Hispanic and Native American women have higher rates of non-voluntaristic sterilizations and regret for these irreversible procedures than white women. The U.S. government is obligated to provide healthcare to Native Americans, but Congress’ underfunding of the program and the Hyde Amendment which prohibits federal funding for abortions means this agreement continues to constrain Native women’s reproductive autonomy.

States are still forcibly sterilizing people. In 2020, Immigration and Customs Enforcement was accused of sterilizing immigrant women without informed consent. In the early 2000s, around 1,400 female California prisoners were sterilized. Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia also offered prisoners reduced sentences for undergoing the procedure.

Abortion and Apartheid

State-ordered sterilization and abortion-bans are two ends of the same stick. The criminalization of abortion under South African apartheid (1948-1990) was one of many ways the state policed sex to maintain white superiority and racial separateness.

Though white women and doctors were severely punished, abortions never stopped. By the 1960s, at least 100,000 women had illegal abortions annually. In the 1970s, this figure jumped to 250,000 (one in nine South African women).

White women could generally afford surgical abortions, but these were performed in suboptimal conditions. Plus, the lack of regulation meant doctors got away with bad bedside manners and malpractice.

Black women were not nearly as policed as white women, but a slew of apartheid-created social and economic inequalities increased the population’s rates of sexual assault, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and ultimately abortion-related deaths. Black women (and some poor and teenage white women) would initiate abortions in dangerous, unsanitary ways before going to the hospital to complete the procedure. Hospitals were overwhelmed. They created separate departments for incomplete abortions and took resources away from non-abortion patients. Still, they could only accept the most severe incomplete abortion cases. When abortion wasn’t possible, some women resorted to abandonment or infanticide.

Reproductive Oppression Right Now

Hungary has criminalized abortion and modified its education system to exclusively teach conservative Christian ideas about gender, family, and sexuality. In 2018, the government subsidized full-time mothers with four or more children to encourage white Hungarians to repopulate the country instead of Muslim migrants. All the while, Hungary forcibly sterilized Roma women.

In Lebanon, too, nationalism is sutured to women’s reproductive rights. The state’s citizenship and reproductive laws are tailored to different groups. Lebanese women, Palestinian and Syrian refugees, migrant domestic workers, and transgender and intersex people all subscribe to different laws in order to maintain the Lebanese “sectarian balance.

The Politics of Motherhood

When it comes to reproductive rights, science may be a ditch, but history is a map. Across numerous cases of reproductive oppression, women are exploited for nationalist objectives. Their womanhood is conflated with motherhood. Thus when a woman’s sexual partner or contraceptive choice is seen as a threat to some conception of the nation, she loses her bodily autonomy—often with dire consequences.

About
Millie Brigaud
:
Millie Brigaud is an aspiring journalist pursuing a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and French at William & Mary (class of 2023). Before joining the Diplomatic Courier, Millie interned at Rue89 Strasbourg, a local online newspaper in Strasbourg, France.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.