Our Bodies, Our Choice? : Black Women’s Complicated History with Contraception

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By Alana Seixas

While White Feminists have fought diligently for reproductive rights including coverage of Birth Control devices under Obamacare, Black Women are split between the fight to liberate their sexuality and threats that devices like the pill posed to the Black community in the past. For Black Women, the choice to use Birth Control does not fall into a decision of conservative versus liberal but is instead a complicated political decision based on years of racist control of minority family planning.

When we learn about Margaret Sanger, and the sexual revolution in our United States history classes, we are often left without complete information. Sanger was the woman who pushed for the development of an effective “magic pill” that would seize ovulation and the founder of Planned Parenthood of America. Time and again, the sexual health leader has been connected to the Eugenics movement with notable quotes in her own book Women and the New Race such as, “apply a.. rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is tainted…”, in direct reference to working class populations.

Furthermore, Sanger’s relationship with the Black community has always been questionable. Armed with the task of managing the Negro Project in 1939 with the main goal of increasing awareness and delivery of a variety of Birth Control devices to lower-class African Americans, Sanger scrambled to find Black Leaders, in these communities who would help support the project in order to deflect any criticism about the project’s true aims. She was credited with telling one of the Project’s other leaders that they “do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the [Black] minister is the man who can straighten out the idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious leaders.”

Despite Sanger’s aims to cover up any connections with race purification, several African-Americans were fed up with the control of Black family planning by Whites. After the Civil War, when Blacks were no longer valuable property, the majority white medical establishment used sterilization as a way to decrease the African-American population. Wary of mostly White population and sexual health activists, some African-Americans were vehemently opposed to the Pill and other Birth Control devices and radically determined that they were tools for ultimate “Black Genocide.”

So when a Black Woman enters her local pharmacy or goes to speak to her gynecologist about options, the decision may be based on more than her religious or political beliefs. She is fighting with a history of Birth Control that is intertwined with a Eugenics Movement that wished to purify the world of her progeny. Even though, it has been argued that Sanger and her compatriots were trying to increase education to women of all races and classes, her effort is also disproportionately slanted to these populations in a way that blurs the lines of true choice for all. In light of Birth Control’s history, what decision do black women take regarding the pill and general contraceptive devices?

Although racial power politics were and are important to Black Feminists and Women, it is apparent that their own personal desire for their sexual health and choice has made contraception an innovation to celebrate. According to a 2010 report from the CDC, 84% of Black Women at risk of unintended pregnancy use a contraceptive method. White Feminists have always had trouble seeing issues from the perspective of Black Women and this remains true for most arguments including issues of reproductive health. However, at the heart of the Women’s Rights movement there are clear and widespread desires that most every Feminist is working towards, Black or White. Despite, the sexual health revolution’s convoluted past and entanglement with certain racist groups; Black Women have an internal and personal yearning for decision making over their own bodies that trump the power politics and genocide theories of the past.

Alana Seixas is a native South Floridian and self-described Womanist with aspirations to become a public interest lawyer and to walk effortlessly in pumps in the snow. She is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sociology and Policy Analysis & Management at Cornell University.

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