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Reproductive Justice: A Reading List

Edna Bonhomme, writer, historian of science and co-editor of After Sex, offers a reading list exploring Black feminist perspectives on reproductive justice.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has further eroded trust between physicians and patients and has hardened the blow to women’s liberation. The anti-abortion movement is not only sexist in its composition, but it is racist in form. During enslavement, Black women were expected to bear children—as asserted by Jennifer L. Morgan—to increase the slave population. In some cases, their bodies were experimented upon by gynecologists, as discussed by Deirdre Cooper Owens in Medical Bondage. Subjected to physical and sexual violence, they used any means necessary to avoid the pitfalls of pregnancy or having their (potential) children subjected to enslavement. One might think, especially given these harrowing circumstances, that the possibility of terminating a pregnancy would be lost, but some women were experts in administering abortifacients. Black women challenged expectations regarding reproduction, primarily because of the violent nature of their reproductive labour, as both parents and workers. Birth control and abortions may have been more commonplace today, but their relative routineness and use demonstrate that Black feminists have engaged in reproductive resistance.

Long after emancipation, Black people and their families were pathologised. One of the most glaring indications of this was the 1965 report ‘The Negro Family’, otherwise known as the Moynihan. The text falsely argues that slavery emasculated Black men, which led to a proliferation of single-parent, female-headed households, which became part of vilifying Black parents writ large. During the 1980s, US conservatives began shedding social welfare programs to limit poor Black women’s reproductive choices under the banner of family values. Then-president Ronald Reagan embraced similar ideas about Black female welfare recipients with his use of ‘welfare queen’, a pejorative term used to describe single mothers. Black feminists advocating for comprehensive childcare and social services for all working-class people have aimed to move beyond the platitudes of symbolic reform. When Loretta Ross and other Black women activists coined the term ‘reproductive justice’ in 1994, they were fighting for bodily autonomy and broader social programs to which they believed every person had the right.

Below, you will find five texts that discuss Black feminist approaches to reproductive justice. These books are inextricably linked to radical traditions that tried to think expansively about the family by documenting the various lexicons of desire within the personal and working lives of Black people.

1. Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts

Here, Dorothy Roberts gives a powerful and authoritative account of the history and ongoing assault – both figurative and literal – waged by the American government and our society on the reproductive rights of Black women. As a legal scholar, her precision in highlighting the political context shows how Black women’s reproduction transformed from highly prized to extremely vilified.

2. Radical Reproductive Justice by Loretta J. Ross, Lynn Roberts, Erika Derkas, Whitney Peoples and Pamela Bridgewater Toure

This edited volume provides a history of the reproductive justice movement with contributions from people who coined the term. The authors conceptualise the campaign as the trajectory of their activism, but also observe the limits of the action. They include contributions from disability rights activists and people who challenge the prison industrial complex.

 3. Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement by Jennifer Nelson

Reproductive justice is not merely about having abortion access; it is also about ensuring one can access adequate resources, should one decide to have a child. This book outlines the history of the reproductive justice movement and how it fared with feminist and Black nationalist movements. Here, Nelson shows how Black women were sidelined in both directions.

4. Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines by Alexis Gumbs, Mai'a Williams, China Martens

In Revolutionary Mothering, the editors curate a list of literary and political writing that meditates on Black parenting, arguing that even if Black women were undervalued or underpaid in domestic arenas, Black women found a language and rubric to make their own families as they chose. This agency establishes a foundation for parenting and shows how people decide to become parents on their terms. 

5. Policing the Womb by Michele Godwin

In Policing the Womb, Michele Godwin examines the criminalisation of women's reproduction in the age of incarceration. The author reveals the ways in which incarcerated women have their bodies surveilled and infringed under conditions of captivity. What she shows is how the policing of people’s wombs disproportionately impacts poor and people of colour.


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