The horrifying legacy of controlling marginalized women’s reproductive abilities
In May of 2017, Tennessee Judge Sam Benningfield offered to reduce the sentences given to individuals held in his county’s jail who appeared before him in court. In exchange, these men and women had to agree to go on birth control or be sterilized. After facing backlash from the press, however, Benningfield retracted this offer in July of the same year. But he couldn’t retract the reality of the intention behind his actions: The judge clearly felt that the general population would be better off should those who found themselves in prison not reproduce. Unfortunately, this idea hardly started or ended with this single judge.
Eugenics, or the idea that the human population can improve over time if people with “good” genes procreate and people with “bad” genes don’t, has been wielded by numerous governments over the centuries. The most prominent example is the fact that Nazi Germany used efforts to commit genocide against Jewish, disabled, homosexual, and other populations deemed inferior, on eugenics. Various forms of eugenics have certainly occurred in the United States as well. In 1975, for example, a group of working-class Latina women who had all been forcibly sterilized by doctors at the Los Angeles County General Hospital after giving birth filed a class-action lawsuit against the hospital.
Although forced sterilization is less common today, the government still controls mothers, especially those in marginalized populations, by criminalizing their bodies and the choices they make about them. Abortion may now legal thanks to the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade, but it is still effectively inaccessible for many: A number of states do not allow insurance to cover an abortion procedure, and some that do allow insurance coverage allow it only in instances where the pregnancy occurred as a result of rape and/or incest, or the abortion is medically necessary for the woman’s life. Even common experiences in pregnancy, like miscarriages or stillbirths, have resulted in mothers being prosecuted.
The more marginalizedl a woman’s identity, the more likely she’ll be hit even harder by reproductive restrictions. Black women are still targeted for forced sterilization, abortion, and contraception to this day and, according to the CDC, Native American infants (under one year old) have a mortality rate of 8.3 per 1,000 births, the highest rate of infant mortality in the country.
The great irony of these attempts to monitor and criminalize women’s pregnancies is that the government offers little support to women when they actually become mothers. According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. is the only country in a group of 41 nations studied that does not guarantee paid maternity leave; The Family and Medical Leave Act only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave. This puts an undue burden on single mothers, low-income mothers, and mothers who are their families’ main source of income. Additionally, the lack of subsidized child care makes it much harder for mothers to stay in the workforce, and even when they do stick it out, working mothers face disproportionate discrimination in terms of pay and promotions.
In light of the recent 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and in a country dominated by an anti-choice Supreme Court, it’s important to remember that while we’ve come a long way in fighting for women’s reproductive rights, we still have a long way to go — especially for the most marginalized women among us.
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