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By Denise Lewis

Black women and Abortion from the period of enslavement

There is a long relationship between black women and the struggle for abortion rights in America. For black women, the fight for reproductive autonomy has been inextricably intertwined with the fight for racial equality, economic justice and equality of the sexes.

The body as a slave mill

During the North American era of slavery (the 1640s to 1865) black women's bodies were used as slave mills – sites upon which slave owners could expand their labor force through rape and forced pregnancy – in addition to as hard laborers. Using midwifery and root decoctions from the roots and seeds of the cotton plant and other herbal remedies, black women subverted the white slave owners' intentions through self-induced abortions. The choice of abortion was not a grand social statement but an act of desperation to prevent a child from having to endure the horrific conditions of life as a slave.

Voluntary motherhood in a post-slavery era

The post slavery and post civil war era, 1865 through the 1970s, brought about a "voluntary motherhood" movement with its initial intentions to give every woman the individual right to birth control. Black women in the north and south continued using herbal remedies to control their own fertility. Women were educated about contraceptives through the circulation of black periodicals and newsletters.

Some black women also availed themselves of the few medical clinics that performed abortions, if they could afford the cost. In African-American newspapers and periodicals, the rates of death due to sepsis post-abortions among black women were listed along with the names of arrested black doctors who performed abortions. The black doctors were noted as heroes, helping to save lives by performing professional, properly sterilized abortions for black women. (DuBois and Ruiz,1990: 335).

Black community leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois and the Colored Women's Club Movement promoted reproductive rights, as an issue of social justice pertinent to the health and advancement of the black community.

These ideals aligned with the "voluntary motherhood," growing birth control and abortion movements of the time. However in the black community there was a judicious mistrust as these movements aligned (or were co-opted by) the growing race-based eugenics movement. Eugenicist's core belief was that only the healthiest and able-bodied people should multiply.

Taking into account the disenfranchisement of black people and immigrants at the time, healthiest and able-bodied meant those who were white and wealthy. Eugenicists involuntarily sterilized thousands of poor women and women of color in their efforts to secure their belief of white supremacy. Loretta J. Ross a black feminist scholar, in her article, "African American Women and Abortion: 1700-1970," recounts her own story of being permanently sterilized at age 23, in the 1960s, due to a physician recommended intrauterine device (IUD) that had been documented as defective years earlier.

Article sources

Busia, Abena P. A., and Stanlie M. James. Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women. Routledge, 2005. Print.

Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race, & Class. 1st Vintage Books ed edition. New York: Vintage, 1983. Print.

Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. Vintage, 1998. Print.

DuBois, Ellen, and Vicki Ruiz. Unequal Sisters: An Inclusive Reader in U.S. Women's History, 4th Edition. 4th edition. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

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