Black History Year

Fear of A Black Woman's Body

Episode Summary

Medical treatment disparities for Black women is as old as America. Dr. Dorothy Roberts, a professor of Africana Studies, Law, and Sociology at University of Pennsylvania, has been producing groundbreaking work on race and gender that focuses our attention on urgent, contemporary issues in health, social justice, and bioethics. For this BHY, we dig deep with Dr. Roberts on the history and present legacy of forced sterilization, reproductive choice, and even the misguided idea that reproductive health is “a white woman’s issue.”

Episode Notes

Medical treatment disparities for Black women is as old as America. Dr. Dorothy Roberts, a professor of Africana Studies, Law, and Sociology at University of Pennsylvania, has been producing groundbreaking work on race and gender that focuses our attention on urgent, contemporary issues in health, social justice, and bioethics. For this BHY, we dig deep with Dr. Roberts on the history and present legacy of forced sterilization, reproductive choice, and even the misguided idea that reproductive health is “a white woman’s issue.”


Black History Year is produced by PushBlack, the nation’s largest non-profit Black media company. Obviously, the power that comes from knowing our history is important to you. PushBlack exists because we saw we had to take this into our own hands. You make PushBlack happen with your contributions at Most people do 5 of 10 bucks a month, but everything makes a difference. Thanks for supporting the work. Production support from Mikel Ellcessor and Jessica Rugh Frantz from Limina House and Sasha Kai Parker as editor/sound designer, with the PushBlack team: Tareq Alani, Brooke Brown, Eskedar Getahun, Abeni Jones, Patrick Sanders, and Cydney Smith.


Useful links:

Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts

Episode Transcription

HOST: When one Black mother discovered a government funded secret plan to reduce the Black population, she took action. I'm Jay from PushBlack and you're listening to Black History Year.

Jay: Two sisters. Minnie Lee Relf, age 14, and Mary Alice Relf, age 12, were Black and poor. They lived with their parents and four siblings in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. And Mrs. Relf toiled as farmhands to support their family, barely earning $150 a month.

The girls often received annual medical care from a federally funded family planning clinic. But in 1973, the medical staff they trusted did the unspeakable. Mrs. Relf took her daughters in for routine checkup. That's when the abuse began.

The medical staff handed Mrs. Ralph a stack of papers to sign. Mrs. Relf was like many other poor Black folks at the time, completely illiterate because of the limited access to educational opportunities. The medical staff took complete advantage. Mrs. Relf was coerced into signing consent forms for what she understood to be experimental birth control shots for her daughters. It was all a disturbing lie. Instead of providing birth control shots, a nurse took the girls away to a local hospital. She told them to sign papers themselves, confirming yet another lie: that the girls were 21 years old. Soon after they were prepped for surgery.

By the time the nurses returned the girls to their mother, they had been illegally and permanently sterilized against their will. And the U.S. government paid for it. How did this happen?

Jay: Dr. Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania is the author of Killing the Black Body and she joins us on Black History Year. She's going to show us that the Relf sisters were not an isolated incident in its long history of violating the reproductive rights of Black women.

Dr. Roberts, please help us find the context for the horror that was inflicted on the Relf sisters and so many of our Black sisters. 

Dr. Dorothy Roberts: Well, the Relf sisters were teenagers, really adolescents. Minnie Lee Relf was only 14 and Mary Alice Relf was only 12 when they were seen by nurses from a federally funded program, the Montgomery Community Action Agency, which first began taking them in for Depo-Provera shots at a time when Depo-Provera had not been approved for general use. The government was able to get an experimental approval from the Food and Drug Administration and of course they experimented on Black girls and the Relf sisters were part of that. So the first thing they did was to inject them with Depo-Provera. before it had been approved for general use, while it was still experimental, and their mother could not read or write and was really tricked into signing these consent with an X. She was illiterate. Eventually, they were sterilized. Not just given this temporary form of long-acting contraception in Depo-Provera, but also sterilized and it was only when they were able to get some legal assistance from the Southern Poverty Law Center that this all became known in a lawsuit filed in federal court. In doing discovery, the court found that about 100,000 to 150,000 women like the Ref teenagers who relied on federal assistance had been sterilized every year in recent years under federally funded programs. And now we don't know if all of them were sterilized without their consent, but surely many of them if not most of them were coerced in some way into sterilization. So these programs would use tricks like they used on the Relf family of getting the parents to sign a consent form, which I couldn't even read and which they were lied to about what the form said, or in some cases, they were coerced into agreeing by being told that they would lose their benefits. So you would have a family that depended on public assistance to survive and the nurses would come in and say, well, you have to be sterilized or we're going to cut off your benefits. Your children, your daughters have to be sterilized or you won't get any more benefits. Or they might go into the program for medical care and be told you will not get any medical care unless you agree to be sterilized. Of course, that is not voluntary consent. So they did, these are all cases where they did not actually consent in an ethical sense, or someone would come in a woman Black woman would come in for an appendectomy or some other kind of procedure, and they the doctors would just go ahead and add sterilization to the procedure without their consent at all. Sometimes, these women didn't even know that they had been sterilized and I should say women or girls because often these were teenage girls and adolescent girls, girls who were sterilized early so that they had no chance of having children. And all of this was based on the ideology that Black woman's reproduction is reckless, Black women don't know how to take care of children, their children are destined to become welfare dependent and criminals and high school dropouts so they don't deserve to be born. This is a common idea which comes out of eugenics, that it's better for certain people who can be predicted to have value as children, better for them to be sterilized. This is what Justice Wendell Holmes stated in the Buck v. Bell, a case that upheld eugenic sterilization. And to me the most central aspect of eugenics is that the reason why certain people are socially disadvantaged, you know, are poor or are incarcerated is because they inherited defective traits. Instead of the truth which is that they are in those social positions because of structural inequality. 

Jay: So, let's discuss eugenics. In a few sentences could you sum up eugenics and the eugenics movement in the United States? 

Dr. R: The eugenics movement was a scientific and policy based movement at the turn of the 20th century, in the early nineteen hundreds, and predominantly up until World War Two when it was official government policy that was based on a view of heredity that negative social traits like criminality and feeble mindedness, they called it then, and drunkenness and traits like that were inherited from your parents and similarly positive social traits like high intelligence and civility and rationality and ability to make money all of that supposedly was also inherited, and so eugenomics held that there should be government policy that encourages people with supposedly superior traits to have children and discourages or prevents people with supposedly negative traits to not have children. And it was put into government policy in the United States that led to a majority of states having mandatory sterilization laws that allowed the government or some government agency or institution to forcibly sterilized people against their will, based on the idea that they have these traits and were going to pass them on to their children. And it's important to realize that this was considered mainstream science. It was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. It was upheld by the federal government and by state legislatures and starting about in the 1930s also began to include efforts to keep Black people, especially Black people who were dependent on government benefits, from reproducing. And so we can see in the policies that went on all the way into the 1970s, of course sterilization, that they were based on a eugenicist ideology. So, eugenics was instituted in state laws and federal laws in the United States and the Nazis used the law that allowed for sterilization, coercive sterilization of feeble-minded people that was upheld as constitutional in Buck v. Bell,  that was a model for the Nazis! And the Nazis went further, not only sterilizing and euthanizing people with disabilities, and people, other people who are deemed to have inherited negative traits. It went on to exterminate millions of people. But the beginning of it was an ideology of eugenics that was really developed in its strongest early form in the United States. And so to me, it's no surprise that when you combine an idea that certain groups inherit superior traits and other groups inherit inferior traits with the brutality of slavery and Jim Crow, you know, people, Black people were being lynched during this same era. I don't think we should separate them, they they go hand in hand. And there's so many ways in which the U.S. has the most inhuman and brutal aspects of its society, whether it's the lack of universal health care, or the highest rate of incarceration of anywhere in the world. All of that is because of this combination of enslavement, Jim Crow, eugenics is the very foundation of the United States and all of that needs to be abolished. And we need to create a radically different society. 

Jay: You've spoken about how the perception of Black women and children even today is affected by practices from the slavery era. What are some specific examples? And how does this seep into the way Black women and our Black society at large view reproductive health and autonomy? 

Dr. R: Well, so let me break that down because that idea that Black women's wombs are naturally dangerous, that Black woman's childbearing is reckless and needs to be controlled, or if not stopped, that idea took hold after the time of slavery. It's related in that both ideas are about controlling Black woman's childbearing but after slavery when white people no longer own, legally own, Black offspring, it became advantageous to have policies that tried to limit Black reproduction, either either actually limited through sterilization and birth control policies or to shape ideas about the need to control Black women's fertility because it was dangerous, that they're, that Black women were having too many children and blaming their having children for Black poverty, for Black children's involvement with law enforcement. You know, all of these social issues were seen as, portrayed as the fault of Black women having too many children. So there are a whole host of policies from massive coerced sterilization of Black women to welfare laws that we have now after the abolition of any entitlement to welfare and then also the prosecutions of Black women who use drugs during pregnancy, where you had a public health problem of substance use during pregnancy turned into a crime and Black women were disproportionately arrested and imprisoned for this health problem that they had. So Black women have been at the forefront from actually from the time of slavery, of resisting these attempts to control their reproductive bodies. And so we know even enslaved women engaged in all sorts of acts to try to gain some control over their own bodies when it came to childbearing and to maintain relationships with their children, and to have some control taken away from slaveholders who legally had the right, you know, to do to their bodies, whatever they wanted. Even then, we can also see the rise of a Black woman's health movement, Welfare Rights Movement, and more recently a reproductive justice movement all led by Black women who have been activists advocating for reproductive freedom for the right to have children or not to have children and the right to be able to raise your children in a healthy environment that values your relationship with your children. And so Black women have been very outspoken about the importance of reproductive freedom and justice and autonomy. 

Now, there are still Black people, Black men and women who have adopted some of the falsehoods of white supremacist ideology. I think they have adopted a myth that doesn't look at the structural forces that constrain many Black men and women's opportunities and ability to flourish in our society to make decisions for themselves in our society. And so I think we all need to be more aware of the institutional forces like prisons and law enforcement, poverty, racial segregation, lack of employment opportunities, lack of educational opportunities, all of these structures have an impact on people's reproductive decisions. And there's this tendency to want to blame Black women for these problems when they stem from structural inequalities that are not within their control. I could say the same for Black men. Black men are also constrained in their reproductive decision making by incarceration and poverty and unemployment and residential segregation, as well. But there tends to be, when it comes to reproduction, a blaming of Black women and that has happened on the part of not only white people, but also, unfortunately, within the Black community. A recent example of that: there was a campaign that put up billboards in big cities, including Memphis and New York, and one of them said “the most dangerous place for a Black child is in the womb.” Well, that just repeats the same white supremacist messages that have been founded in the United States for decades, actually for centuries, and it's not a benefit to the liberation of Black people to ignore Black women's reproductive freedom. I once spoke at a Black church where this man objected to me speaking about reproductive freedom, and he said that's a white women's issue. Well, no, it's not a white issue. It's, it's a Black woman's issue, too. And in fact, Black women have been, as I’ve said, been struggling for centuries for reproductive freedom and sometimes have been in conflict with white reproductive rights activists who have focused myopically on the right to abortion and haven't paid attention to the way in which policies have also sought to deny Black women their right to have children. And so what Black women have been fighting for a much bigger vision of reproductive freedom that includes both the right to have children and not to have children to parent children, but also seeing that all of that can only be possible with a social justice struggle that involves ending racism, capitalism and patriarchy in order to have a society that truly, truly enables us to be free. 

Jay: So we have a couple things happening that I'd like you to help us pull together. There's a history of state sanctioned efforts to control Black reproductive freedom. White America has a negative birth rate. And I know there are policies that have support in the Black community that you think might work against our best interests. How should Black Americans be looking at all of this? 

Dr. R: Well, I think there is a fear among many white people that their numbers are diminishing, and they see the growing proportion of Black and brown people as a threat to them. And I think we can link some policies that are being debated and even implemented today as at least connected to it if not directly causing it. For example, immigration policies that seek to keep certain groups of people from having children in the United States who will become U.S. citizens. I think that is directly related to fear that many white people have the shrinking percentage of whites and growing percentage of Black and Latinx people in the United States. I think it's always important to look at ways in which policies are based on false stereotypes about people, devaluing certain people, and the idea that America is only for white people, the investment in whiteness, people who oppose that way of thinking should see how it affects a range of policies and come together to oppose those policies. Either the white elites have always tried to pit different groups of people of color against each other as a way of maintaining white privilege, investment in whiteness and white power. And so there's a number of policies that are being directed at immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Central America that I think Black people should see how they're connected to very similar policies that have been directed against us. So for example, separation of children at the border. The idea of separating parents from their children is a form of oppression that is existed in the United States from the time of slavery. I think I mentioned earlier that Black parents didn't have control over who would have custody of their children and their children could be sold off and many families were split apart. In fact, when there was an uproar, as there should be, against Trump's policy to separate families at the border, I reminded people that that's been a policy toward Black families from the very beginning.

Jay: Which touches on something I wanted to make sure we addressed: how the health of Black women is really an issue everyone in the Black community should care about. 

Dr. R: We should not be separating Black women's interests from the interests of the entire community and certainly not blaming Black women, Black mothers, for their childbearing decisions as if that's the problem in the Black community. I almost find it incredible that anyone would think that Black woman's childbearing isn't an aspect of the entire community. We're talking about bearing children, raising children, creating the conditions for the whole community that will create a new generation of healthy, flourishing, participating, you know, political liberating children, liberated and liberating children. So that is a matter for the whole community and you cannot vilify, shame, degrade Black mothers and think that bad is in any way going to benefit the community. It's just the opposite. The other is that these policies of blaming Black mothers for the problems of the Black community in the entire society and then directing all sorts of government punishments on them is a way of interfering in social change that would benefit all Black people. In fact, it would benefit everybody but it especially would benefit Black people. So you know what? Black women are painted as welfare cheats, you know, welfare queens. It harms Black women, but it also harms their children. And it also harms the entire stability of the Black community because it is an interference in Black people's ability to resist and a support for policies that harm everybody. That's a way of supporting mass incarceration. It's a way of supporting carceral approaches to the needs of Black people. And so we should, everybody should be concerned about that. 

Jay: And finally, Dr. Roberts, you talked about in your book, how at a certain point, the birth control movement was seen by many folks in our community as a form of genocide. But you don't necessarily think that is completely accurate. 

Dr. R: It's important to look at the context in which birth control is being developed, it's being distributed, it's being used. And birth control can be used in a way that liberates people if they have control over it to use in their own bodies the way that they want to use it to have greater reproductive freedom and birth control in the hands of an oppressive government or even in private hands can be used to try to control individuals and populations. And it has been used that way in the United States. But it is wrong to say that any use of birth control in the Black community is a form of genocide, because birth control can be a way for, and is a way, for people to have greater control, autonomy and equality in their communities and over their own bodies and lives. We should not be supporting any kind of way of thinking or policy that is about using birth control to control other people, whether it's white people controlling Black people's reproductive decisions, or Black men seeking to control Black women's reproductive decisions. Those are not just ways of thinking about birth control. We should all in the Black community be advocating for greater reproductive justice for everybody and that is what will lead to Black liberation.

Jay: Like that we're at the end of this episode of Black History Year. Black History Year is produced by PushBlack, the nation's largest nonprofit Black media company. Production support from Mikel Ellcessor and Limina House.

Obviously the power that comes from knowing our history is important to you. PushBlack exists because we saw we had to take this into our own hands. You make PushBlack happen with your contributions at Most folks do five or ten bucks a month, but everything makes a difference. Thanks for supporting the work. I'm Jay for PushBlack. Thanks for checking us out. Peace.