“Murda Dem, Murda Dem!” On Forbidden Wombs and Reproductive Justice9/13/2015
By Jallicia Jolly The recent murders of Black women have finally begun to center discussions on the lives and conditions of Black women in...
By Jallicia Jolly
The recent murders of Black women have finally begun to center discussions on the lives and conditions of Black women in the United States. The exposure of the calculated, violent assaults on their humanity has shed light on a critical observation: Black women’s bodies are used as a terrain to work out contested notions about sexuality, motherhood, and womanhood.
Beyond just showing that the systems of law enforcement, health care, and welfare as currently practiced are broken, these acts of terror reveal the dynamic dehumanization reserved for Black women. It is a violence that runs deep, starting from the womb. It takes away their right to live, give birth, parent, and sustain life. It springs from a history of violent neglect that has helped continue their abuse in jail cells, courtrooms, and hospitals. At their core, the callous assaults on Black women’s lives detail the importance of embracing a reproductive framework in our fight against assaults on Black women’s humanity.
Beliefs that Black women are the source of social ills and a group afflicted with pathological tendencies create fertile ground for the aggressive enforcement of coercive laws and policies. The reliance of American social policies on cultural images and symbols of Black women as dishonorable and immoral help dictate responses to social and economic inequity in ways that invoke class and racial biases in value-laden discourses. Such depictions frame black women as unentitled and unpitiable and, thus, undeserving of the freedom to move and thrive without being subjected to coercive force.
The assault on the right to life reflects a portion of the egregious assaults on Black women. Last November, Ann Arbor police executed Aura Rosser after they were called to address a domestic dispute between Ross and her boyfriend. On July 13, Sandra Bland was viciously assaulted by Waller County Sheriff in Texas for failing to signal before changing lanes. She was later found dead in her jail cell. The expression of their humanity, as well as their rage, remained a site of deadly contention.
The ongoing terror reigned against Black women is evident in cases of forced sterilization as well as in recent attempts to reduce access to quality and affordable health care. The increasing attempts of the federal government to reduce funding of public health centers coupled with inadequate health care in under-resourced communities create more barriers for many Black women, whose inability to pay for health care services remain a major stumbling block to safe and healthy reproduction.
Conservative legislators have continued to impose restrictions on access to life-saving treatment and services for members of federally funded programs like Medicaid. These barriers include provisions that exclude low-income Black women who do not meet categorical eligibility criteria such as disability and having dependents. This presents a “catch-22” for many Black women who could not qualify for Medicaid until they are sick and disabled although early access to preventative care and treatment could potentially stave off disability and prevent illness.
Amidst their vulnerability to coercive federal health policies, Black women also suffer at the hands of judicial attempts at welfare reform. Decisions that restrict their ability to procreate, parent, and legally care for their children reveal invasive rationale that underpin judicial discretion in setting probation conditions. Court-ordered birth control and no-procreation orders represent bold assaults along economic lines and erroneously link social ills with the fertility of Black women.
The current functioning of the child welfare and criminal justice systems work to systematically deny Black women the right to parent. In New Jersey, Black mothers are more likely than white and Latino parents to lose custody of their children as a result of having a half-empty pantry or drug use – stipulations that legally cannot justify the placement of children into foster care. Although Black children make up only 14% of the child population in the state, they make up 41% of those entering foster care. The vulnerability of Black mothers to state supervision in parental decisions is strengthened by the “fifteen out of twenty-two-month” unfitness ground of the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), which authorizes the termination of parental rights. The conscious decision of social workers, lawyers, and judges to remove Black children from Black mothers imposes an “ideal parent” standard, which systematically demonizes Black motherhood as it criminalizes maternal incarceration.
ASFA precludes the possibility of children retaining a legal relationship with their mothers while also limiting understandings and expressions of parenting. The varied manifestation of structural inequality and systematic violence have required that Black families create networks and kinships that provide a host of parental responsibilities – emotional support, psychosocial care, and other intangible qualities – that can be fulfilled while a parent is physically separated from his or her child.
Punitive legislative measures by the federal and state governments to restrict women’s reproductive and parenting capacities creates distinctive vulnerabilities for all women, especially for Black women, many of whom lack the economic resources, social recognition and political capital needed to resist such pervasive reproductive regulations. The murderous enactment of racist patriarchy in law and policy sends a clear message: Black women are disposable and fundamentally ungrievable.
The violent inconsideration of Black women’s lives demands that activists embrace a reproductive justice (RJ) framework. As noted by RJ activist Loretta Ross, RJ is “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social, and economic well-being of women and girls, based on the full achievement and protection of women’s human rights.” It emphasizes the need for women of color to access the resources and services needed to control their reproductive capacity, amidst the brute force of law enforcers, the state-sanctioned criminalization of our pregnancies, the forced removal of our children, the destruction of both the welfare system, and the insensitivity of the foster care system.
An RJ approach acknowledges that in the current state of recognition and belonging, Black women are systematically denied certain social and human rights associated with reproduction. It addresses the systemic variations in the ways that the rights of citizenship – the right to bear children, access to education, quality health care, and equal protection of the law – are filtered, conferred, and withheld from women according to their race, class, sexuality, and nationality.
In recognizing the interrelated forces of domination faced by Black women, RJ moves beyond matters of individual choice and privacy central to the white feminist agendas and the pro-choice movement to address the race- and class-based reproductive politics that impedes Black women’s ability to govern themselves. It recognizes the need to appropriately address the configurations of state power that link our contemporary penal state to our judicial, welfare, and health care systems in ways that subject Black women’s bodies to inhumane and lethal laws, policies, and practices.
Such an agenda acknowledges that abuses of power affect intimate aspects of all women’s lives, especially the socially, politically, and economically marginalized, whose bodies remain crucial sites for political battles over health, welfare, and law and order. This approach shows us that, like access to contraceptives and critical health services, police brutality and the right to life, to give life, not to give life, and to parent are human rights issues that must intersect with our agendas for racial justice and gender equality.
In the wake of unconscionable tragedies caused by racialized, gendered state-sanctioned violence, we must strategize, and organize. An RJ approach addresses the constellation of dominating forces that have deprived women, particularly Black women, of the economic, social, and political resources to live, birth, parent, and sustain their families. More than ever before, our lives, families, communities and futures depend on our ability to address entrenched inequities that impede our ability to not only survive, but to also thrive.
Kingston-born and Brooklyn-bred, Jallicia Jolly is a spoken-word poet, writer, and cultural anthropologist pursuing a PhD in American Studies and a masters in Public Health at the University of Michigan. Currently based in Kingston, Jamaica conducting Fulbright research, Ms. Jolly writes on trauma, health, HIV/AIDS, and reproductive justice among Black women in the United States and Jamaica.