Understanding Bodily Autonomy Through Triple Oppression

Written by Erica Caines and Musa Springer

In 1949, journalist and communist political activist Claudia Jones wrote her best known work, AN END TO THE NEGLECT OF THE PROBLEMS OF THE NEGRO WOMAN, in which she expressed the concept of Triple Oppression. Triple Oppression encompasses the interconnected struggles faced by Black/ African women as a result of their race, gender, and class. Jones’s analysis of triple oppression highlights the systemic barriers and intersecting forms of discrimination that Black/ African women experience. In this context, self-determination refers to the ability of individuals and communities to govern themselves autonomously, free from external oppression or control. Self-advocacy, on the other hand, emphasizes the agency and empowerment of individuals in advocating for their own rights, needs, and well-being.

“Viewed in this light, it is not accidental that the American bourgeoisie has intensified its oppression, not only of the Negro people in general, but of Negro women in particular,” Wrote Jones. “Nothing so exposes the drive to fascization in the nation as the callous attitude which the bourgeoisie displays and cultivates toward Negro women. The vaunted boast of the ideologists of Big Business-that American women possess “the greatest equality” in the world is exposed in all its hypocrisy when one sees that in many parts of the world.”

Black/ African communities, particularly Black/African women, must assert their self-determination by defining their own narratives, priorities, and strategies for liberation. Through self-advocacy and the notion of bodily autonomy, Black/ African women can challenge and resist the oppressive structures that seek to marginalize and silence them, reclaiming their voices and agency in shaping their own destinies.

The concepts of self-determination sovereignty extend far beyond the individual empowerment of self-advocacy, and encompass collective liberation and self-determination. Claudia Jones’ work emphasizes the interconnectedness of struggles and the importance of sovereignty for Black women, which  requires building collective power and creating liberated spaces where colonized communities can exercise autonomy and self-governance.  

Applying notions of self-determination and self-advocacy within the framework of triple oppression entails advocating not only for individual rights to things like healthcare, abortion, and housing, but also for the people’s centered human rights, which helps our political objectives against the political hypocrisy of the West’s use of “human rights”.  A politics of being whole, this framework is “an approach that views human rights as an arena of struggle that, when grounded and informed by the needs and aspirations of the oppressed, becomes part of a unified comprehensive strategy for de-colonization and radical social change.” 

Within this context, then, we break away from the Western, imperialist orthodoxy of “human rights”, “individual choice”, and “access,” which are all grounded in Eurocentric liberalism, and move towards human rights as a struggle from the ground-up. This forces us to think through the prevailing social relations of capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy that perpetuate oppression and deny us human rights, by allowing us to focus on power and its primary contradictions. This also allows our struggle for bodily autonomy, healthcare, and abortion to go beyond the limiting, domestic arena of “civil rights” and “legal access”, to the global declaration of human rights which we deserve. 

This means that calls for “abortion access for all”, for example, are insufficient; mere access to a routine medical procedure does not guarantee free, dignified, safe, and fully protected treatment; ‘access’ does not equate to equity, nor to unrestricted and inalienable human rights, such as the human right to dignified healthcare. Debates around abortion rights, similar to many other issues, use liberal phrases like “access” and discussions around Roe v Wade, to evade the reality that we’re dealing with a larger, fundamental issue of denial of human rights. 

It is important to place Jones and triple oppression within an ideological framework which underscores the ongoing struggle for social, political, and economic justice. However, where birthing and abortion rights are concerned, radical liberal feminist influences reshape these concepts, capturing them within a strictly legal and civil context. With a specific focus on the individual agency of women and birthing people, the individual ability of birthing folks to access abortion medication like Mifepristone, and individual ‘advocacy’ and self-advocacy, the movement largely dismisses human rights as an arena of struggle in this regard. 

In a piece written last year by Caines and edited by Springer, All Black Feminisms Ain’t Created Equal, we argued that “rad-lib [Black] feminism has diverted attention away from structural inequalities and systemic injustices, while convincing millions that their personal experiences are the systemic issues themselves, and therefore that an examination of personal experiences suffices for an analysis of structural issues of capitalism.” 

This in itself is a diversion from triple oppression, and fundamentally a redirection away from our collective struggle for sovereignty. As Jones examined the contours of race, class, and gender as a Black woman, it was for the sake of highlighting the unique ways that the colonial-capitalist system impacted Black women; not to highlight or supplant ‘personal experiences’ as analyses themselves. 

While individual experiences can provide ample qualitative data for understanding gendered oppression, abortion struggles, and self-determination for birthing folks, they cannot replace the data which clearly shows the underlying colonial-capitalist nature of the issue. Across the Southern U.S. for example, where a web of abortion bans and reproductive laws overlap, it is primarily Black/African, Indigenous, and immigrant communities being harmed by abortion bans. At the same time, this is the region with the high percentage of low-wage workers, military recruitment and bases, state and federal prisons, hospital and clinic deserts, OBGYN deserts, and the highest concentration of Black people. It is impossible to follow an analysis such as Jones’ Triple Oppression and not view abortion bans and their consequences within the larger framework of internal colonization, when it is the internal colonies across the Black Belt which are facing the brunt impacts.

Abortion is a necessary, common part of healthcare, one which has been around for quite some time, yet it is politicized because because of who primarily needs abortion care; working class and poor, colonized populations. Abortion is the procedure of terminating a pregnancy early, for a variety of reasons; the primarily form of abortion today is medication abortion, which comprises over two thirds of all abortions; abortion care is also the same way that miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, and a number of other pregnancy-related complications are treated. Abortion is shrouded in stigma and discouraged, in large part to force more Southern laborers into the economy. We can also trace the historical struggle of women, Black/African women and birthing folks in particular, for reproductive rights, and see a legacy of sexual violence, oppression, and forced birth. What this speaks to more broadly is the need to redefine these terms, or perhaps a reinterpretation whereas birthing, abortion, and bodily autonomy are understood, within our collective organizations; a model of personal self-determination as a result of struggles for collective self-determination, through the PCHR framework. 

Furthermore, we have to examine the notion of self-determination for birthing people, families, women, and TLGBQ+ folks within the framework of internal colonialism/domestic colonialism. The Triple Oppression analysis illuminates the structural location of Black/African women, families, birthing people, and TLGBQ+ folks within U.S. imperialist, racist society, and is pertinent to the fight for reproductive justice. This theory of internal colonization undergirds the colonial relationship, in both form and function, African/Black people have with the larger society of the U.S., and reflects our interactions within the colonial medical-industrial-complex.

Africans in the U.S. are politically stunted due to a lack of real political power, evident in sine the overturning of Roe V. Wade in 2022, severely impacting Black/African individuals. Not only is political power lacking, but any obtained power is often represented through the Black mis-leadership class, a powerless neo-colonial managerial and political class. This class serves a role domestically similar to the comprador class of Africa, aligning solely with the capital, through the Democratic Party, to compromise the interests of the working-class Black masses in the process. Late journalist and political activist, Glen Ford, explores this relationship in his apt article, The Validity and Usefulness of the Term The Black Misleadership Class:

“It is both an actual and aspirational class, which ultimately sees its interests as tied to those of U.S. imperialism and its ruling circles.”

This has led to the allowing of policies that disproportionately impact colonized birthing people, such as Black and Indigenous women, in order to hold ‘abortion access’ and ‘abortion rights’ over the heads of voters every four years. Instead of political representation that speaks decisively about human rights and human rights abuses from the perspective of the masses, we instead receive platitudes about ‘abortion access’ and “sensible” abortion laws that “compromise” with the most fascistic elements of society who want to force births.   

Economically, Africans in the U.S. are extremely disenfranchised and made dependent on capitalist society. Working-class Africans in this empire are subjected to genocidal, exploitative conditions: extremely low wages, slave labor in prisons, insufficient and dilapidated housing, subpar and continually defunded education, no free or even affordable healthcare, inaccessible higher education, consistent state violence and police terror, some of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, substance abuse and food insufficiency, unaffordable childcare, and extremely limited abortion, prenatal, maternal, and pediatric care.

With our economic and political positions both equally very precarious, the politicization of abortion and reproductive care cannot be separated from this context. Our economic and political positions are a result of our larger relation as colonial subjects, in a nation ran by settler imperialists, and the denial of abortion rights is a result of this relation. 

These political and economic conditions are upheld by a social order that designates police in our communities as occupying forces ie. the surge of Cop Cities across the country post 2020. In this context, law enforcement agencies act as enforcers of colonial domination, wielding authority and force to maintain control over these populations. The phenomenon of police violence against civilians, particularly in colonized communities, can thus be understood as a reflection of the inherent power imbalances and systemic oppression embedded in internal colonialism.

Abortion funds are a form of organization in which community members financially cover the costs of abortion for people who live in states with abortion bans. Someone from Georgia where there is a six week abortion ban, for example, would need to travel to the District of Colombia, Virginia, or New York to receive an abortion; an abortion fund would cover the cost of that travel, often the cost of the abortion procedure, and even childcare sometimes too (which can all cost over $3000 combined). Within our capitalist-colonial system, the political and economic factors are both the cause of the problem and the ‘solution’; abortion funds are a private, nonprofit solution to a problem entirely created by the colonial-capitalist political and economic model. While abortion funds are quite literally helping thousands of Black/African people get the routine, necessary healthcare they need, they are not a long-term solution to this issue, and instead a strategy which seeks to hold the U.S. accountable for denying us the human right to healthcare is the solution. Nonprofit organizations in the form of independent abortion funds should be supported, including those who have come out in support of Palestine and against Cop City, however our organizations must adopt abortion struggles as a politics of human rights and anti-colonialism. 

The presence of police in colonized communities can also be viewed as a reproductive justice issue and within the Triple Oppression framework, for example. The anxiety caused by police occupation is well documented, including justified feelings of mistrust and fear, and has become an enduring reality for African/Black children and families; this is heightened by media coverage and virality of police violence. The impact of state-sanctioned violence on reproductive justice is multifaceted. It extends beyond the immediate loss of life by armed agents of the state, to encompass the psychological and emotional toll on individuals and communities. The fear of police brutality and the constant perceived threat of violence creates an environment of stress and anxiety that can have long-lasting effects on mental health, relationships, and the ability to parent effectively. As Samah Jabr, chair of the mental health unit at the Palestinian Ministry of Health, said in 2019: PTSD is a ‘western concept’ which cannot adequately account for the psychological toll of the daily violence of colonization. Martinican revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon made similar observations decades earlier.  

Despite constituting only about 10% of the total female population, African/Black women disproportionately suffer from police brutality, often resulting in fatalities or great harm often in their homes or workplaces, and in the presence of family, including young children and elderly relatives. This trauma also compounds the burden on African/Black women who must prepare their children for potential encounters with law enforcement in a hostile social environment, those who are forced to give birth in shackles or chained to their hospital beds, or those on parole who are routinely denied inter-state travel for abortion procedures by parole officers. 

At its core, reproductive justice encompasses not just the right to choose whether or not to have children, but also the right to parent in ‘safe and supportive’ environments. Central to this understanding is the concept of bodily autonomy, which underscores one’s rights to make our own medically sound decisions about our bodies and lives, free from state interference or violence. However, state-sanctioned violence, through police brutality and extrajudicial killings, directly violates this basic principle by exerting control and harm over individuals’ bodies through excessive force, discriminatory practices, and lethal tactics. The denial of bodily autonomy through violent means not only perpetuates cycles of oppression but also reinforces the colonial nature of state power, treating certain bodies as disposable or expendable in the pursuit of maintaining social control and preserving existing power structures. Within his relation, the colonized subjects are always harmed at the expense of the settler and capitalist class. 

Furthermore, when colonized communities are disproportionately targeted and harmed by law enforcement and incarceration, the very foundation of reproductive justice is threatened. Families are torn apart, children are left without parents, and communities are traumatized by these acts of violence that often go unpunished or inadequately addressed. Family-policing institutions primarily target African/Black, Indigenous, immigrant families to surveil, police, and remove children through the child welfare system, funneling thousands of children each year into an exploitative, abusive, capitalist foster system. This extends internationally as well, as imperialist warfare and sanctions through AFRICOM, or in Palestine, Haiti, Cuba, and Congo, contribute to absolutely genocidal, catastrophic outcomes for children and families. All of this is an affront to the core principles of self-determination, bodily autonomy, and reproductive justice, and requires a nuanced analysis of internal colonization and imperialism to strike address the issue at its root.

Reproductive oppression more broadly, but specifically the struggle for abortion rights, intersects profoundly with the Internal Colonialism Theory. We see that our healthcare denials are not random nor moral in nature, but rather stem from a political and economic relationship of colonized subjects and population. Decades ago, it was only the communist, socialist, Black radical, and anarchist group who were not afraid to discuss abortion and abortion rights, and they had a human rights framework; the very notion of the topic was “too risky” for virtually any mainstream audience to even consider. Now, the opposite is true: “reproductive justice” and “abortion access” have been converted into nonprofit-industrial-complex, single-issue, cash cow topics of “debate”, isolated from the larger liberation movement and with no clear ideological grounding in anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism. The ultimately colonized status of African/Black people in the U.S. manifests in the apartheid healthcare system, which perpetuates deep racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality rates, and dramatically different health outcomes between Black/African, Indigenous, and immigrant peoples. The neglect of Black birthing people’s rights within these systems reflects broader issues of systemic racism and institutionalized oppression, which flies in the face of our human rights. 

More from this Writer

“To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.”
― Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth