Making the Case for Reproductive Revolution

Photo of African Woman at pro-abortion rally.

In the wake of multiple state decisions to suspend abortion care during the coronavirus outbreak, revolutionaries must, once again, turn their gazes to the rejection of the state as a sanctioning authority. State abandonment of responsibilities related to reproductive life is but another signal to Black organizers to take reproductive health measures into their own hands, with or without state authorization or support. Human rights exist independently of the state apparatus and the paradigm within which they are currently located is imaginary and conceptual. There is no better time to exercise self-determination and autonomy than now.

Jubilation. Sarah Weddington was jubilant. It was 1973. She was twenty-seven and felt truly elated. She released sighs, tears, and screams of relief at the news a colleague delivered to her over the office phone. She’d won her first-ever contested case. It had gone before the United States Supreme Court. Sarah’s first contested case was Roe v. Wade. She felt it incredible. With no trial and very little legal experience, she’d secured a victory that would forever alter the American political climate.

I shudder as the milk runs over my skin, cold and thick.

My body feels like an alien’s. The milk is all that matters.

I am protected by the ice of it.

It covers me.

So, I do nothing to slip into the heat.

Heat belongs to those who never eat, who never sleep, who are not human.

I prefer that which is slick.

I prefer that which is sweet with sickness.

I prefer that which is easily spoiled; easily corrupted.

So, as I shudder….

So, as the milk runs over my skin, cold and thick and spoiled….

I smile.

Degradation. Black women were terrified, hurting, humiliated. It was 1973 and they lay on cold, steel, medical tables, legs spread, being sterilized. Black women were not given the opportunity to give or refuse consent to the white, male doctors infringing upon their physical space, upon any ability to choose. That year, the same legal system that granted lawful access to abortion for the privileged sanctioned attempts to exterminate the Black race through irreparable damage to the Black womb.

A deeply dark contrast in 1973. A deeply dark reality. A deeply dark truth: it is on the backs of Black women, at the expense of Black women’s bodies, and from Black women’s wombs that this country’s political and economic framework was built and is maintained.

‘The water rippled so subtly that Alex thought she might have imagined its movement. Only her own image materializing on the other side of the liquid film dispelled her disbelief. Astonished, she witnessed a duplicate of herself standing on a stage, before a crowd. Alex’s palms began to sweat and her own stomach was in knots. She watched her duplicate, feeling instinctually tethered to her, and anxious that her water-self would projectile vomit into the audience, but her new twin did not seem to share her anxiety. No. Her liquid self broke into a huge smile and inhaled, dramatically, before saying, humurously:

“Y’all know white women crazy, right?”

Alex checked the audience for reaction. Maybe water-people were not offended by race in the way that human beings were. Her doppelganger seemed not to care either way.

“Like, actually and factually, white bitches are bonkers.”

A spotlight seemed to shine directly into Water-Alex’s eyes, making her squint, but Alex thought it was just bright enough for the audience to see her. She realized, suddenly, that she really wanted them to see Water-Alex because to see Water-Alex was to see her. Water-Alex stared into the faces of the many white water-women sitting in the dark; white water-women with pixie cuts and long tangled hair, white water-women in high fashion and white water-women in appropriation chic, white water-women sitting with their husbands and white water-women sitting with their wives. Yes, she wanted them to see Water-Alex, a stain on their claim to a triumphant water-women’s movement. Black and sweaty and fat and poorly dressed.

Water-Alex didn’t belong on that side of the liquid film. Not the way the other water-women did.

Water-Alex pointed to a woman whose shirt read “Abortions 4 Everybody.”

“We gon’ start with you,” she said.

The white water-woman’s eyes widened. She laughed, nervously. Poor, white water-lady. She had to be the one to come to the show with some political proclamation prominently featured across her chest. She had to be the one sitting front and center, holding a Black water-man’s hand.

Alex rolled her eyes, forgetting her fascination with the water and its water-people. Get this bitch, she thought.

“Now, when you say abortions for everybody….”

Before Roe, mainstream conversations around bodily autonomy did not include Black women’s centuries-long struggle to reclaim ownership of their reproductive organs from the white slave owners whose legally supported the exploitation of Black reproduction denied them their right to plan and protect their families, did not acknowledge their yearning for liberation from the long legacy of forced and coerced medical experimentation that predates the white-centered reproductive rights conversation, and did not incorporate pushback against the ongoing eugenics movement that targeted them.

The juxtaposition of a young, white female lawyer’s experience with the law as it related to her own reproductive health and that of Black women in 1973 exposes the starkly different relationships white and Black women have with legal, judicial, and enforcement systems. These profound and fundamental differences have yet to inform the mainstream movement for reproductive rights, reproductive justice, and abortion access. To secure and protect reproductive rights, universally, we must examine those differences, their root causes, and their implications on the future of our society.

White women’s pursuit of suffrage and the result of their supplication bolstered their collective credence to American stamped democratic capitalism. This victory-reinforced confidence informed white engagement with lawmakers and with broader society on the issues of birth control and abortion. The ballot buttressed the constitutional legitimacy of which white women felt themselves deserving in a way that legislative reform has yet to validate Black citizenship. After a relatively short battle, white women were legally granted access to the polls without the mobilization of the national guard, without subjugation to physical violence, and without state-sanctioned suppression of the right for which they’d fought. The law said that white women were citizens of the United States and that, as such, they should be enfranchised. Both political and civil factions of society respected that law and the country moved on. It is no wonder, then, that white women believed the legal pursuit of reproductive rights to be their best course of action.

Glimmer gold from her/their/his toenails to her/their/his scalp.

The shine informs her/their/his galaxy black tresses that look like cotton and feel like sandpaper.

She/They/He is magic.

An arm outstretched, fingers greedily wriggling across the Universe.

Back! Get Back!

The hands and eyes, they follow.

The hands and eyes, they covet.

Screams. Screams. Screams reach the heavens from the underworld.

After Roe, two decades passed before Black women’s voices reverberated throughout the reproductive rights movement; a resounding hold the fuck up. After years of white focused, Black exploitative, reproductive rights advocacy and activism, a collective of women decided to challenge the status quo. The collective demanded, after attending a reproductive health conference in Cairo, that the analysis upon which reproductive advocacy is based be intersectional. They asserted that the legal right to abortion, birth control, family planning and other reproductive healthcare secured by the mainstream women’s rights movement did nothing for Black women. They posited that securing universal reproductive rights would hinge on society’s commitment to justice as opposed to its commitment to freedom of choice. And they were right. Black women do not choose the economic oppression that results in an inability to cover the costs of OBGYN visits, of birth control, of tampons, or abortions. Black women don’t choose the rates at which their bodily autonomy is infringed upon by sexual assailants or the traumatic experience of carrying resulting pregnancies to term because it is the only financially feasible option. Black women don’t choose to lose their babies to police violence and mass incarceration faster than they can have them. There is no reproductive choice when you know you can’t feed any potential children when you know you can’t house them when you know you can’t protect them. Conversely, abortion is a dangerous option when you are at risk for being reproductively sabotaged by the doctors who perform it. Some of these thoughts inspired the development of the entire reproductive justice framework, a roadmap to state-sanctioned equity and a brilliant response to Black erasure.

While the reproductive justice framework pushes the women’s rights movement forth eons in terms of true equity and global-majority centered analysis and language, it, like its white-centered conceptual predecessor, hasn’t explicitly prioritized the rejection of the state’s authority in sanctioning reproductive autonomy for all people. Experience teaches us that if we don’t claim palpable-which is not synonymous with legal-power over our bodies, our communities, and our futures, any and all progression is fallible; that power undergirded by legislation, supreme court rulings, and compliance with each is transient and unreliable.

This is a fact that haunts even white women; a fact they struggle to process and internalize, but that lingers somewhere in their privilege-conditioned consciousness.

Sarah Weddington was giving an interview after a decades-long, downward spiral from the high she initially felt upon being informed of her Supreme Court victory. Her interviewer asked if she believed Roe would be overturned. In response, Sarah confessed “part of me thinks, ‘well, of course the ruling will stand because…’ But then I have a hard time finding what comes after ‘because.’ “

Bleeding. Blood everywhere. Black women are bleeding.

But what is a woman? Does the blood not spill from those women with dicks? Those men with pussies? Those folx who flaunt both? Those beauties for whom genitalia is not an identifier?

Dying. Death everywhere. Black women are dying.

But what is death? Does the stench of decay not waft over a people expunged of their humanity? Does the hammer of mortality not drop as the final ancestral connection is severed; as the last Black woman descends into an abyss of assimilation and racial capitalism?

Mourning. Sorrow everywhere. Black women are mourning.

But what are our tears but drops in an ocean of despair?

State-sanctioned infringement on Black reproduction is well chronicled and uncontested. The terrific history that begins with the legal rape, lawful breeding, and politically celebrated exploitation of Black women and their bodies, of which the genesis can be traced to the slave ships that carried what would be the crux of American industry is proof that there must be a reproductive revolution and that state-sanctioned measures won’t save us. During slavery, the deprivation of Black reproductive choice was not the circumstance of incidental resource inequity but the tangible manifestation of laws that mandated it. Infringement turned out to be quite lucrative and the colonials fought the crown to protect their profits from taxation; an entire war, an entire “revolution” fought over the fruit of battered, Black uteri.

White doctors like James Marion Sims, a man immortalized by statues and memorials throughout the United States, performed experimental and unsuccessful surgical sutures on Black women he owned as chattel slaves before audiences that possessed a grotesque hunger for Black pain. Sims’ work is credited as foundational to what we now know as gynecology and is a contribution to an ever-growing medical industry that continues to commodify health in ways that support and build white privilege and wealth; growing the profits of Black reproductive exploitation. Current legislation continues to lend itself to this process; essentially rubber-stamping the violent foundation upon which the medical industry is supported.

We mustn’t leave legalized eugenics from the preponderance of evidence. State-funded, sanctioned and enforced sterilization of Black women from 1907 to 2003 are further proof of the relationship between American political interest and infringement on Black reproductive choice.

Beyond literal sterilization, the government has continued its attack on Black reproductive autonomy through the impediment to reproduction presented by incarceration. Black women, Black mothers, Black childbearers, and Black parents are disproportionately represented in the prison system. Healthy and consensual reproductive sex isn’t feasible for most incarcerated women. Children delivered prior to incarceration aren’t likely to remain in the care of imprisoned individuals. State investment in high recidivism rates is a demonstration of government underqualification to regulate reproductive equity or to regulate Black life, in general.

Legislation that regulates foster care and adoption works in tandem with Child Protective Services as a conduit through which the state criminalizes Black mothers, Black families, and Black reproduction. Black women are more likely to be reported by hospital staff, immediately after giving birth, to Child Protective Services and law enforcement agencies than their non-Black counterparts. Of course, socioeconomic factors, not a greater proclivity for neglect or abuse, account for the rates at which Black families are engaged by the state.

Black reproductive exploitation and global eco-political development are inextricably linked. Consequently, Black reproductive choice is inimical to capitalist and imperialist interests. Black reproductive choice is a direct threat to American status quo. True reproductive autonomy only becomes a possibility when we accept real divestment from democratic capitalism as possible, as well. We are not vying for reproductive rights sanctioned by lawmakers who will no longer be granted authority over our bodies, our babies, our growth. We are stewards of a revolutionary movement of which the transformation of reproductive politics is the catalyst.

It had been twelve years since I last saw a doctor. 

Then, a white doctor felt around my vulva for reasons unbeknownst to me.

“Was he supposed to touch my vagina?” I asked my mom, as we walked out of the office.

She looked at me, sharply. “Your vulva or your vagina?”

“My vulva,”I corrected.

She maintained her expression of concern. “Did something feel abnormal or inappropriate about the way he touched you?”

I felt confused. I didn’t know what was normal or appropriate in this situation. That’s why I’d asked the question.

“I guess not,” I said.

Twelve years later, I sat in a waiting room, anxious for my name to be called. It was a woman who called my name. I approached her and found that we were separated by glass. I eagerly slid the cold clipboard through the space between the glass and her desk.

I knew I was pregnant the moment he came inside me. I had a feeling in my gut. I took a pregnancy test as soon as I could. I wished to be dead when I saw the results. I walked into my best friend’s room and lay across his bed. I looked out the window, too afraid to look at him.

“Jarvis,” I said.

His eyes darted to my face; alarm registering in his expression.

“Wilton raped me. And I’m pregnant.”

I can’t remember exactly what he said after that, but I do remember insisting that an abortion wasn’t an option.

“I just don’t think I can go through with it,” I told him.

Tears streamed down his face. “You have to.”

But it was the conversation with my mom, not with Jarvis, that convinced me that I had the strength. And so, there I was. I got a ride to the clinic. Twice. Twice because the first time you go to the clinic, you have to look at a sonogram and hear the nurse tell you that there’s a heartbeat. When they finally let you come back, you have to pay. Before anything else, you pay. So, I filled out the paperwork and pulled out my card.

“This card says Kaba-Kabiy-Kab-” The woman behind the glass stumbled over the name on the debit card.

“Kabiyesi Keith. Yes. That’s my brother.” I said, nodding.

She shook her head. “He has to be here for you to use his card.”

I stared at her stupidly, panicking. “Well, he’s at work. He couldn’t be here. He would be here if he could be here.”

“You’ll have to come back when he can be here. Or, you can use another card.”

My throat was closing with terror. “I don’t have another card. I can’t come back. This has to happen today.”

“Ma’am,” she looked at me closely. “I can’t process this card without a signature from your brother. It’s against the law.”

“Well, what if I call him? What if he gives you permission over the phone?”

She looked uncomfortable. “Well……..”

I fumbled with my phone. My hands were shaking. I dialed my brother.

The phone rang.

It rang.

And it rang.

And it rang.

An automated voice.

No.

This could not happen.

I dialed him again.

The phone rang.

It rang.

And it rang.

And it rang.

The automated voice again.

The woman behind the glass was speaking.

I could not make out what she was saying.

I didn’t want to hear.

“Ma’am?”

“Please.” My voice shook. “I can not be pregnant after today.” I could feel tears welling up, but I did not want to let her see me cry. I wanted to terminate my pregnancy and I wanted to do it with dignity. Could I not have even that? After being forced to show my ID upon entering the clinic, after having to read pamphlets about “other options”, and answer questions that felt irrelevant and intrusive, would I also have to beg to be allowed to flush the evil, the hurt, the pain from my body?

“Is-is there a manager or something I can speak to? I can not leave here. I can not be pregnant after today. Please. I promise you that this is my brother’s card. We have the same last name. If you need him to sign the receipt, he will. He’ll come as soon as I can get a hold of him.”

“I’m so sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.” She did look sorry, but pity was not what I needed. Pity was not what I’d come for.

I crossed my arms. I closed my eyes. I shook my head. “I don’t think you understand. I am not leaving here without an abortion.”

The woman behind the glass stared at me for what felt like an eternity. Then, she stood up from her rolling chair and walked across the office behind the glass. I heard her talking to someone, but not what they said. I watched her walk back over to her rolling chair, back over to the glass.

“Okay. We can do it. You have to make sure that your brother comes back to sign the receipt. This is a huge risk for us.”

My heart was beating again. “I will. I will. Thank you. I will.”

Curiously, there were two chairs-positioned side by side-in the room in which they administered the pill. I wondered why, but didn’t ask. It didn’t matter. I swallowed the first pill at the clinic and was given a second to take at home. As I walked back through the waiting room doors, I held a prescription for pain medication. I wouldn’t discover until later that I couldn’t afford it.

“How much?” My friend Stephanie asked the drive-through pharmacy attendant, incredulously.

I can’t even remember what the amount was; only that it was more than either of us had.

But, somehow, we hustled up the funds to pay Walgreens. Thank goodness for Stephanie.

At home, I was all alone. I took the second pill and lay on the couch, wearing the super thick overnight pad from the pack Stephanie bought from Wal-Mart. I can’t remember what it felt like; only that I stumbled to the bathroom and projectile vomited all over the door. My brother was at work. Jarvis hadn’t come home. My parents stopped by, at some point, to make sure I was alright, but I suppose they’d made it too early or too late to witness the worst of it.

A few days later, I danced in the same living room with a glass of wine in my hand. I was home alone and playing music videos on the flat screen that was mounted on the old, moldy, wooden brown wall. I caressed my hips as I wound them to the floor, then placed my hands on my knees and popped my ass aggressively. Was this my body?

Are these our bodies? When our ability to navigate capitalism dictates the authority we wield over them? Are they our bodies when, at birth, we’re automatically gendered and denied autonomy before we can conceptualize our own identities? Are they our bodies when we struggle to nourish them, to house them, to care for them?

Are these our bodies? When we can neither protect ourselves nor prevent the toll state-sanctioned violence takes?

Are they our bodies when we are not free to move with them, go with them, do with them as we please? Are they our bodies when they betray us, working to grow the systems that oppress us, but never working to free themselves from the chains that bind them?

Are these our bodies? When they are harmed, traumatized, and butchered by the harmed, traumatized, and butchered? Are they our bodies when people who look like us-and people who don’t-lay atop us, force themselves inside us, touch us without permission? Are they our bodies when there are no consequences when there is no accountability when there is no reconciliation after those boundaries are infringed upon?

It is only when these bodies cease to be vessels used to protect the political interests of those for whom agency and political personhood remain intact that they will truly belong to us. Authentic reclamation of the Black body can only come at the dawn of Black political power. Reproductive access and reproductive choice, components of Black reclamation, are contingent upon our ability to determine who we are, where we reside, and how we live without the demand for fiat currency in exchange for that entitlement. Our possession of the means to defend ourselves against those whose interests are inimical to ours; to force the reduction of their piece of the political and economic pie until the whole damned thing is sliced equitably is the key to reproductive revolution.

Such ownership and self-possession could never, would never, and will never be sanctioned by a government that cannot exist if they become possibilities.