What Controls Birth Control?: A Brief Context on the Centrality of Black Reproductive Freedom to Collective Liberation
Posted by Guest Blogger
November 18, 2020
By: Victor Ultra Omni
White feminist’s often center birth control in a larger conversation of choice— a decision that creates a silence around the coercive roots of its creation. While undeniably a cornerstone to gender equity, a means of limiting unintended pregnancy, and mitigating health concerns like migraines or severe menstrual cramps, birth control also has troubling entanglements with white supremacy as its procurement relied on Black and brown flesh as its testing site. Now lauded as “the Pill,” birth control originally referred to an intricate system and plan for controlling births among populations considered “degenerate.” This larger apparatus of social control included the prescription of daily tablets, but also involved forced sterilizations and coerced experimentation which disproportionately affected Black people, a disparity that continues today. Any analysis on the state of reproductive health must account for the offenses and violations that have barred Black people of all genders from developing trusting and care-centered relationships with health care providers. To understand the worth of over the counter oral contraceptives, particularly as a critical part of self-determination, we must acknowledge and grapple with the unjust lineage from which they spring.
Black feminists, such as Dorothy Roberts and Hortense Spillers, have critiqued the creation of Western medicine for its originary dependency on enslaved Africans. Captive slaves existed as a “living laboratory” for constant violation, examination, and experimentation.1 In his pathfinding text Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, C. Riley Snorton revives Spillers argument of the “atomization of captive flesh,” in his text with the exploitation of slaves by Doctors, by beginning his exploration of Black gender identity through the blood-stained history of the origins of gynecology. Snorton exposes how J. Marion Sims, the “Father” of gynecology, tortured 3 Black slaves named Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy; and how the exploitation and degradation of their flesh created a map for modern gynecology.2 Sims operated hundreds of times on these women with no formal training in gynecology, and without anesthesia during the procedures. The afterlife of these assaults against non-consenting Black women remains palpable. Many of the tools developed by Sims during his trials on his non-consenting patients remain in circulation today. Moreover, the conditions set forth as common practice, including inspection, assessment, and the denial of pain remain imbued in the reproductive health experiences of Black people today.
At the advent of the trans-Atlantic trade of flesh, there began a regime of subjection that installed the masters’ will above that of the enslaved. The flesh here refers to the “zero degrees of social conceptualization,3 where through the middle passage, Black people become dispossessed of their
1Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987), 68
2 Snorton, C. R. (2017). Anatomically Speaking Ungendered Flesh and The Science of Sex. In Black on both sides: A racial history of trans identity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
3 Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987), 67
bodies and therefore lose any meaningful connection to the rights and permissions of being a human. Paired with the flawed belief that Black people lack the capacity to feel pain, enslaved Africans became the perfect instrument and site for scientific inquiry. They rendered enslaved Africans property and denied humanity, which excluded them from the categories of womanhood and manhood. As Snorton contends, the original site of gender experimentation was not in the clinic, but on the plantation. This loss of humanity and crisis of gender remains the foundation of anti-Blackness which produced “the Pill.”
Anti-Blackness persisted in the ideology and subsequent clinical trials that created the birth control pill. Margaret Sanger, an ardent eugenicist, has remained the foremost famous figure linked to the creation of the pill. Her memory has become further sanitized by her later founding of the non-profit Planned Parenthood. Sanger’s crusade to produce an oral contraceptive for people assigned-female-at-birth had more to do with her belief in the myth of global overpopulation, than any dedication to what later became historicized as women’s liberation. Put differently, Sanger appealed to a theory of science, which ordered the valuation of life based on a racialized, anti-poor, and ableist political project, to win public support in funding the first oral contraceptive. In the 1950s, it was still illegal to research or distribute birth control in the continental U.S. Sanger, and her team knew that the conceptualization and legalization of the Pill in the United States relied on the testing of its efficacy. This burden became unjustly outsourced to the people of Puerto Rico and Haiti, whose white birth control advocates targeted because of a paternalistic colonial mindset that aimed to control their birth rates. It is not a coincidence that these are countries with significant, if not majority, Black populations. Human rights considerations fell to the side to obtain data to promote the legalization of the birth control pill as fast as possible. Rapid development came at the expense of the wellbeing of the Puerto Rican and Haitian people woman.. The clinical trial, lacking any form of informed-consent, deceived poor women who received the pill from their doctors. Trial leadership only informed them of the drug’s ability to prevent pregnancy and then dismissed those who stepped forward to express concerns or reactions to the drug as unreliable. As a result, three women died during the trial. It is undeniable that modern conceptions of the pill provide a range of benefits that promote autonomy and distinctly serve as an avenue to birth feminist futures. Yet, we must also contend with the fact that narratives of access and choice rose to their prominence through the use of force.
We see the use of brute force, the denial of humanity, and bodily autonomy threaded throughout our current fight for reproductive justice. State-sanctioned violence of all sorts, from police murders of Black people to the forced sterilizations occurring in I.C.E. detention facilities all, occur as the “afterlife of slavery.”4 Yes– oral methods of contraception should be offered over the counter, covered by insurance, and have no age restriction. Yet ultimately, we can’t “free the pill” without freeing Black people. Perhaps making over-the-counter contraceptives widely available to people of all ages, genders, and classes may honor the lives, labor, and love lost in the pill’s development, but reproductive justice is not achieved if the pill becomes free and nothing else
4Hartman, Saidiya. Lose your mother: A journey along the Atlantic slave route. Macmillan, 2008,6
changes in the lives of Black people. There is no conception of free while anti Blackness persists. Allowing institutions, like insurance companies or the healthcare complex, to play the role of arbiter in assessing our health needs and the right to access care reproduces the spectacle of shame and denial of privacy for Black people of birth control’s racist and paternalistic past. Any effort towards placing tangible management of their own health needs in the hands of Black people is a step in the right direction. True empowerment and equitable access relies on eliminating the navigation of systems that impose limits on reproductive freedoms– starting with addressing Anti-Blackness.
For Further Reading See
❖ Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty
❖ Hortense Spillers, Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book
❖ Alys Eve Weinbaum, The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery: Biocapitalism and Black Feminism’s Philosophy of History
❖ Dána-Ain Davis, Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth
❖ Deidre Benia Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology