Ms. Magazine
The Activist Issue
Keeping the Flame Alive
Take inspiration from the lives and work of six women whose passion for justice and commitment to their communiities make the world a better place for all.
- Kitchen Table Candidate: Winona LaDuke
-Speak Truth to Power: Kek Galabru, Wangari Maathai, Senal Sarihan, Maria Teresa Tula
- Street Fighting Woman: Cheri Honkala
- Mementos of a Movement: Coline Jenkins-Sahlin

-Word: Bush

Honey, Disney Shrunk the Kids
What's in your child's VCR these days? We asked progressive parents and their kids what they watch. The answers might surprise you.
Dorothy Roberts talks about reproductive rights in black and white.
Women and Venture Capital: Women vie for a place in the world of high-tech venture capital.

Work Notes: Grrl power to Scotland ASAP and more
Editor's Page: Making Mischief

Ms News

TECHNO.FEM: Digital Divide

-Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now?, by Angela Dillard
- Toy Guns, by Lisa Norris
- Boy Still Missing, by John Searles
- Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich
- Women and Popular Music, by Sheila Whiteley

-First Person: Give Me Shelter
-Columns: Daisy Hernandez, Patricia Smith and Gloria Steinem
Call for Woman of the Year
Tell us who you think should be recognized in this special issue.

I don't know what Dorothy Roberts is talking about. Well, I know we're discussing a subject with which she's passionately obsessed — reproductive rights — but the conversation is unlike others I've had. We're 20 minutes in and the word "abortion" has barely crossed our lips; Roe v. Wade has not been mentioned at all. What does come up on this sub-zero Chicago afternoon as we sip coffee near her office at Northwestern University is welfare reform, government subsidized health care, high incarceration rates, lousy public education, and slavery. What's coming up, in short, is race. According to Roberts, that is what's at the fiery center of the reproductive universe, a place most feminists won't go for fear of melting.

White women's reproductive choices may have been curtailed throughout U.S. history, says Roberts, but black women's choices have been, more often than not, eliminated. While white women have had to demand freedom from compulsory motherhood, black women have had to fight for their right to procreate at all, let alone on their own terms. The sheer scope of restrictions on black women's maternity both tangible (punitive public policies) and intangible (a lack of positive images of black motherhood)has "shaped the meaning of reproductive freedom in this country," says Roberts. In some instances, the agenda has been stark and obvious: children born to slaves were automatically the property of the slaveowner, and the women who gave birth to them had no control over their destiny. But as Roberts painstakingly delineates in her 1997 book Killing the Black Body (Pantheon) more recent theories and practices have at their essence the same pairing of deep racism and reproductive rights regulation. The connection is clear in the eugenics movement (which had alliances with the early birth control movement), forced sterilization, the distribution of Norplant and Depo-Provera (rather than safer methods) to poor women and teenagers, and with family caps for welfare recipients.

Yet the modern reproductive rights movement, led by groups such as Planned Parenthood, doesn't see the discrepancy between black and white women s experiences as a matter of degrees, believes Roberts. Rather, it categorizes those circumstances that predominately affect black women as "social justice" issues and fails to address them with nearly the vigor it summons for abortion rights. Indeed, reproductive rights have become synonymous with abortion rights in this country, and that narrow focus has racist implications that liberals must begin to address. But excluding black women's stories, says Roberts, is not only racist. It's also a fatal obfuscation of the principle from which women's demand for reproductive rights springs: that is, the right to be, the right to exist on equal terms with all other women and men, and to create (or choose not to create) others like ourselves.

ROBERTS: In contemporary America there is a prevalent belief that poor black women shouldn't have children. And that their having children is the cause of black people's problems, well, indeed, of America's problems. I think for a long time the denigration of black women's reproduction was just ignored by mainstream feminists because they had the image of the white mother in mind. Even though there are restrictions on white mothers, it's a fundamentally different kind of regulation. And then there are other feminists who are so wedded to abortion rights as the most important issue and to abortion as the be all and end all of reproductive freedom that there s a resistance to seeing coercive birth control policies as also being oppressive. They don't get that distributing Norplant and Depo-Provera in poor communities and telling women, "This is what you should use," could be oppressive.

A perfect example is sterilization. In the seventies, a group of feminists opposed waiting periods and rigid informed consent procedures for sterilization. Women of color said, "Let's put limits on sterilization because doctors are guilty of abuse." But this just didn't register with some of the mainstream reproductive rights groups that had been pushing for greater access to sterilization for white, middle-class women. While poor black women were, in some cases, forcibly sterilized, sometimes without their knowledge, let alone consent, white women had a hard time getting sterilized. There were all sorts of formulas to figure out if you should allow a white woman to be sterilized. This exemplifies how diametrically opposed the experience of the struggle for reproductive rights has been for these two groups.

And now there is this boom in popularity for the fertility business, which was primarily designed to help white, middle-class couples have children. That seems like a fundamental moral contradiction that people should be grappling with. We need to think about whether there should be limits on the fertility industry. It's virtually unregulated. The multiple births that result from these technologies point to the contradiction of a public not willing to pay the expenses of one additional child born to a welfare mother, yet willing to support seven children born to a white couple.

Why shouldn't we be able to at least think about, debate, and consider whether there should be limits on the fertility business, which requires public expense so that a particular group of people can have children? But white men, especially, get very upset when you start questioning their right to have children. I can't tell you the number of red faces I've encountered. People get very defensive when you suggest that their decisions about having children might have some racial implications. The response I get all the time is, "This has nothing to do with racism. I just want children like me."

The thing about reproduction is that, more than anything else, it tells you how a society values people. When many black groups read my book and invite me to speak, their focus is on genocide. I actually dont claim that these are policies designed to eliminate black people. I think it functions more on the ideological level to support a whole host of policies that keep blacks at the bottom. But I'm not so sanguine as to say that they couldnt have that aim at some point. There is a danger that when the public gets used to policies that use reproduction as a solution to social problems, they might be more amenable in the future to actual policies of genocide. Around the time Norplant came out, an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested it was a solution to black poverty. The paper did issue an apology, but a lot of people supported it. And there was legislation proposed all over the country to use Norplant to keep poor black women from having children. And then there's CRACK, Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity, a private organization that offers women who use drugs and alcohol $200 to be sterilized. People jumped on that as the solution to drug use during pregnancy. It is scary that people will leap to these drastic solutions involving reproduction when we dont have adequate health care or drug treatment. These policies support high incarceration rates for black people, high removal rates of black children from their homes by the child welfare system, and a horrible education system. They say we don't need to spend money on social welfare programs or figure out racism and poverty; the solution is to keep these people from having children.

I am a firm believer that you start with the experiences of the most oppressed people. It expands our view of what reproductive liberty is. And the [job of feminists] has to be to expand the way we think about reproductive freedom. I've had lots of debates with activists who argue that the way to appeal to a broad white audience is to place white middle-class women's issues at the forefront, because those women are more likable and empathetic. One example is in the prosecution of substance abuse during pregnancy. Even though most of the prosecutions were against poor black women who smoked crack, the strategy in California, for example, was to make this about the infringement on the liberties of white middle-class women. They tried to make the argument that if this kind of policy keeps going on, in time, you wont be able to drink coffee while you re pregnant. But you don't get any fundamental change this way. You have to focus on the people who are being hit the hardest and figure out an agenda that centers on them. The difficult question is, how do you get around the fact that many white Americans won't do anything that they see as benefiting black people?