Reproductive Rights

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Reproductive Rights






Reproductive rights are usually defined as “pro-choice,” meaning abortion should be legal, safe, and affordable for any woman who desires it. As it relates to sexual reproduction, reproductive rights advocates believe that women should have the right to control their reproductive functions, decide whether to have children or not, and have access to contraception, family planning, and medical coverage. Advocates believe that such rights are human rights encompassing education about birth control and sexually transmitted infections and freedom from forced sterilization and contraception. They also believe that such rights fall within the realm of the right to privacy where women have freedom from government interference in their lives.

Groups and individuals who oppose abortion have been critical of the use of the terminology “reproductive rights” or “reproductive choice” as being ambiguous and vague. It is their belief that once fertilization occurs, reproduction has been completed and abortion is the killing of a human being. Because of these varying opinions on reproductive rights, two self-proclaimed groups have emerged as part of the national and international dialogue: pro-choice versus pro-life.


From the beginning of time, women found ways to prevent or terminate unwanted pregnancies. The Kahun Papyrus, a 4,000-year-old document cited as the oldest written document on birth control, mentions vaginal pessaries made of crocodile dung and fermented dough. Early condoms were made from linen and from the skins of sheep, goats, or snakes and were used in many early societies. Dilators and curettes similar to those used in modern-day abortion were found in the ruins of Pompeii, the Italian city that was destroyed by a volcanic eruption more than 2,000 years ago. Other forms of birth control have included herbs and chemicals, dried fish, glass or metal diaphragms, and bloodletting.

The modern birth control movement is said to have originated with Margaret Sanger in the early twentieth century. Sanger was a feminist socialist from New York City and coined the term “birth control.” She viewed birth control as a means by which women could be freed from the “tyranny of pregnancy and birth.” She championed a woman’right to contraception in the face of early-twentieth-century laws that prohibited it. She felt that women’s ability to control their own reproduction was essential to their freedom and equal participation in society. Sanger was founder of the Birth Control Federation of America (BCFA), forerunner to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She took the birth control movement a step further by incorporating a eugenics agenda that sought to regulate the reproduction rights of the poor, immigrants, and African Americans.

Thomas Malthus, an eighteenth-century British clergyman and economist, published data that became the basis of the population control movement. Malthus argued that the world’s population was growing faster than the Earth’s capacity for food production. If measures were not taken to curtail the overpopulation trend, then the world would be faced with poverty, famine, pestilence, and war. He felt that population growth should be restricted to certain groups of people to maintain Western civilization. Specifically, unfit, poor, diseased, racially inferior, and mentally incompetent individuals had to be isolated, suppressed, or eliminated.

Margaret Sanger became a disciple of Malthusian philosophy. She also followed the lead of Emma Goldman, a famous anarchist who had been arrested for distributing a pamphlet titled “Why and How the Poor Should Not Have Many Children.” These beliefs ultimately evolved into the eugenics movement in the United States. Eugenics embraced the notion that intelligence and personality traits were genetically determined and inherited.

The eugenics movement gained momentum because of the large numbers of immigrants coming into the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Because of the fear of “race suicide,” native whites were encouraged at the highest levels to have more children for the good of the nation. In his 1903 State of the Union speech, President Theodore Roosevelt stated that willful sterility was a sin for which there was no atonement. This thinking, along with the established belief that there were biological distinctions between whites and African Americans, with one group being superior to the other, underscored the appeal of eugenics in America. The targets were immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, Asians, Jews, and African Americans.

Many states began to enact laws forbidding marriage between people considered to be genetically defective, including drunks, criminals, and paupers. Southern states created publicly funded birth control clinics to lower the black birth rate. Politicians supported eugenic sterilization laws. Minority women were considered incompetent to make decisions about their reproductive lives. In 1924 Congress passed the National Origins Act, which established a quota for immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Eugenicists opposed social programs designed to improve the living conditions of the poor. They argued that the minimum wage, good medical care, and better working conditions were not good for society because they only prolonged the life of inferior people who would continue to have children. Socially undesirable people were prevented from having children because eugenicists advocated compulsory sterilization as the way to improve society.

Sanger created the “Negro Project” in the 1930s. This project led to the placing of experimental birth control clinics in African American communities. She convinced African American civic groups, prominent black newspapers, churches, and leaders that these clinics would be beneficial to the welfare of “colored people.” Such leaders as Adam Clayton Powell Sr. invited her to his Harlem church to speak on the issue. Other leaders such as Charles Johnson, the president of Fisk University, argued that “eugenic discrimination” was necessary. Sanger also recruited such prominent African Americans as Mary McLeod Bethune, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Arthur Spingarn to serve on the board of the BCFA. As a result, she and her supporters were able to push birth control and ethnic cleansing as the panacea for societal problems rather than address the role of racism in infant mortality, poverty, and unemployment rates.


After World War II and the horrors of Adolf Hitler’s eugenics experiments, support for eugenics waned. Efforts at population control shifted from Western countries to the developing world, where populations were growing rapidly. Both India and China devised plans to control population growth. Millions of women in many parts of the developing world were sterilized as a result of mass campaigns to control burgeoning populations. In South Africa, the apartheid government withheld basic health care for African women and promoted population control in its experiment with social engineering. In many African countries, female genital mutilation became a cultural practice. In such countries as Peru women in poor communities were faced with coercion and nonconsensual tubal ligations. In the United States, Native American women had long had foreign values, beliefs, and practices forced upon them, especially decisions regarding reproductive health. Decisions were imposed at the expense of individual rights.

In the 1950s experimentation with oral birth control was tested first on Puerto Rican and Haitian women before being “perfected.” The “Pill” was launched in the 1960s as the safest method of birth control. This coincided with the new wave of feminism and the women’s movement.

Many women’s groups took up the cause of reproductive rights. Support for these rights ran the gamut from abortion to discussions on menopause. Women’s groups supported the concept of family planning and were strong advocates of the U.S. Supreme Court interpreting abortion and contraceptive rights within the realm of the Ninth Amendment’s statement of the enumeration of certain rights are not to be construed to deny or disparage others returned by the people. The Supreme Court legalized the use of contraception by married people in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and abortion on the federal level in Roe v. Wade (1973). The mainstream movement equated reproductive rights with contraception and access to a safe and legal abortion. Because of this, poor and minority women felt excluded and felt the need to define reproductive rights within their realm of reality.


Women of color ultimately moved the discussion of reproductive rights beyond contraception and abortion as discussed by the mainstream women’s movement. They began to focus on women’s access to reproductive health care and the costs associated with such care. They also advocated reproductive justice as a component of reproductive rights, claiming that it was not enough for contraception and abortion to be legal if choices were limited to those with resources. Women of color argued that what happened to women’s bodies derived from their circumstances, whether poverty, racism, injustice. Thus, the definition of reproductive rights was grounded by the experiences of their communities and by oppression. For women of color, economic and institutional constraints restricted their choices. Women of color also fully understood the difference between population control and voluntary birth control. The mainstream women’s movement failed to connect sterilization abuse to abortion rights. Thus, women of color forged their own movements to broaden the definition of reproductive rights.

The National Black Women’s Health Project, formed in 1984, was the first minority women’s reproductive health organization. This group and others formed later addressed state-imposed policies designed to control minority women’s fertility and focused on issues of reproductive justice. Minority women’s organizations felt that the women’s movement needed to incorporate “bread and butter” issues (health care, forced sterilization, welfare rights) into discussions about reproductive rights. The movement needed to include minority women, working women, and poor women, not just white women of means; thus, they pushed for the movement to become more inclusive, especially acknowledging the role of racism.


The control of African American women’s reproductive rights has its origins in slavery. Procreation helped maintain involuntary servitude through the slave owners’s ability to control African American women’s reproductive lives for economic gain. African American women were used to breed children who would be especially suited for labor or sale, and they had no control over what happened to their children. Oftentimes, slave owners rented physically fit males to serve as studs for their female slaves. Historian Catherine Clinton points out that males considered “runty” were often castrated “so dat dey can’t have no little runty chilluns.” The rape and exploitation of African American women both before and immediately following emancipation was not considered a crime.

Racism is also credited with birth control becoming a means of solving social problems. Birth control and racial injustice split the African American community. On the one hand were those activists who viewed birth control as a means of racial betterment, whereas on the other hand were those who saw it as racial genocide. The duality of birth control was whether poor and minority women had reproductive freedom through access to contraception and abortion juxtaposed with birth control being imposed on them as a means of reducing fertility. Public policy was forged around this duality.

In 1989 Charleston, South Carolina, instituted a policy of incarcerating pregnant women whose prenatal tests showed crack cocaine use. Local police tracked down pregnant women in the poorest neighborhoods of the city, handcuffed them, and took them to jail. Pregnant women who were already jailed and began labor were taken to the hospital in chains and remained shackled during delivery. Of the more than forty women arrested for prenatal crimes, only one was white. This policy was an example of the rhetoric that degraded and penalized African American women.

On December 12, 1990, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an editorial entitled “Poverty and Norplant: Can Contraception Reduce the Underclass?” suggesting forced contraception as the solution for eliminating the African American underclass. The article indicated that those who were least able to afford and support children were having them and contributing to the poverty level. The article called for the implantation of the long-lasting contraceptive Norplant as the solution. This argument was supported by such books as Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994), which argued that the higher rate of fertility among “genetically less intelligent groups, including Blacks” was the cause of social disparities. As a result of such arguments, reproductive regulations such as the mandatory insertion of Norplant as a condition of receiving welfare assistance were initiated. The argument made was that if America’s social problems were to be solved, then the birth rates of African American women had to be curtailed. As a result, African American organizations and women’s groups argued that denying African American women reproductive autonomy served the interests of white supremacy and subscribed to what Dorothy Roberts, in Killing the Black Body (1997), argues is a belief that “reproductive politics in America inevitably involves racial politics.”

For women in the developing world, reproductive rights cover a broad range of issues, including unsafe abortion, genital mutilation, rape, lack of available contraception, reproductive health policies, and comprehensive sex education. In May 2007 women throughout Africa came together in Accra, Ghana, to march for women’s reproductive health rights and issues pertinent to control of those rights.

For women of color, reproductive rights go beyond simply the right to choose. There must also be options from which to choose and the ability to actualize choices made. They have been left out of reproductive rights discussions that had an inherent racist tenor. Thus, for women of color, reproductive rights parallel the quest for justice and equality, broadening the scope of reproductive freedom.

SEE ALSO Eugenics, History of; Feminism and Race; Forced Sterilization; Forced Sterilization of Native Americans; Motherhood; Poverty; Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr.; Rape; Reproductive Technologies; Social Problems.


Clinton, Catherine. 1985. “Caught in the Web of the Big House: Women and Slavery.” In The Web of Southern Social Relations: Women, Family and Education, edited by Walter Raser, R. Frank Saunders, and John L. Wakelyn. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

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Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press.

Indigenous Women’s Reproductive Rights and Pro-Choice Page. Available from

Kimelman, Don. 1990. “Poverty and Norplant: Can Contraception Reduce the Underclass?” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 12: A18.

Nelson, Jennifer. 2003. Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement. New York: New York University Press.

North, Lorna. 2007. “Ghana: March for Women’s Reproductive Rights.” Ghanaian Chronicle, May 18. Available from

Roberts, Dorothy. 1997. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Pantheon.

Silliman, Jael, Marlene Gerber Fried, Loretta Ross, and Elena R. Gutiérrez, eds. 2004. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Springer, Kimberly, ed. 1999. Still Lifting, Still Climbing: Contemporary African American Women’s Activism. New York: New York University Press.

Mamie E. Locke

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Reproductive Rights

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