Content warning: This article includes references to sexual assault, violence and traumatic stories regarding birth and death.
Dorothy Roberts, professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, discussed reproductive justice issues and frameworks in a lecture hosted by the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at a talk Wednesday evening. She discussed the history of reproductive injustice and the ways it manifests in the present: criminalization for stillbirths and miscarriages and maternal mortality.
The event is the second annual Pembroke Center Publics Initiative and Lecture Series, according to the the event description. Sarah Gamble, communications manager for the Pembroke Center and visiting assistant professor of the practice of gender and sexuality studies, wrote in an email to The Herald that the center aims to bring groundbreakers in the field of gender and sexuality studies to campus through the lecture series.
Gamble wrote that “following the Dobbs decision and other rollbacks in reproductive rights in the U.S., it felt especially timely and relevant to create space for these important conversations.”
“Professor Roberts is an internationally recognized scholar and her work, from ‘Killing The Black Body’ onward, has made her an important advocate for reproductive justice. This makes her the perfect person to deliver this year's Publics Lecture,” Gamble added.
The Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America co-sponsored the lecture. In an email to The Herald, CSREA communications specialist Ellie Winter wrote that the CSREA chose to co-sponsor the lecture because of Roberts’ exploration of “maternal health and medical inequity through the lens of systemic racism.”
With the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling allowing states to decide the legality of abortions, reproductive justice has been an important topic of conversation across the country. In her lecture, Roberts said that reproductive justice is “the right both not to have children, to have children and also the right to parent children in safe, supportive (and) sustainable communities.”
While abortion may be at the forefront of conversations about reproductive justice, Roberts said that there are many other aspects that aren’t talked about enough but are still part of immense systemic inequality.
Roberts highlighted the experiences of the Deener and Mercardo family, the Clayborne and Williams family and the Jackson family, all of whom had their children taken away from them due to unwarranted Child Protective Services reports and possession of recreational marijuana for personal use.
“We should be alarmed and be fighting against (such abuses from CPS) in every way that we can,” Roberts said. “We should also see them as violations of reproductive justice … despite organizing around reproductive justice for decades … most people do not understand what happened to these families as … having anything to do with reproductive justice.”
Reproductive injustice ties to a gruesome history
Roberts said that modern-day reproductive injustice stems from centuries of historical violence. “Exploitation of enslaved women's reproductive labor entails the labor’s domination of … childbearing” and family separation is tied to the concept of reproductive servitude.
Roberts said that when chattel slavery was highly prevalent in the Western world, enslaved Black women were stripped of their autonomy entirely. She said they were raped by their white enslavers and forced to see their pregnancies through in bondage. When their children were born, their status in society was traced through their mother so they could be enslaved to economically and politically benefit the enslavers, she explained.
“The very concept of race is made up and those rules have always been made up by people in power to benefit them,” Roberts said. “People think that race is biological. (But) race is a political category that's more powerful than biology,” she added because it was the foundation of a system of oppression.
According to Roberts, this continued through the Civil Rights Movement with the idea that Black women had children for the sole purpose of receiving welfare payments. This led to the institution of major discriminatory policies, including the mass sterilization of Black women with coerced consent or no consent at all, Roberts said.
Maternal mortality and violence against Black mothers
Roberts said that the people who want to criminalize abortions are the same people who punish Black women for having children.
Roberts explained that this ideology is an aspect of reproductive violence that contributes to high maternal mortality rates in the Black community. Roberts mentioned a 2021 Centers for Disease Control report that found the maternal mortality rate for Black women almost three times greater than the maternal mortality rate for white women.
The fundamental issue with the current systems in place is that “they don't provide the resources that (pregnant people) need. They pretend that the parents are unable to parent,” Roberts said. “This nation ignores, excuses (and) obscures the need for radical social change and puts it on the backs of these families that are terribly, terribly traumatized and the whole community is disrupted by them.”
A hopeful future
Although Roberts said these systems seem difficult to change, she hopes these types of conversations are able to push the needle toward progress.
Gamble wrote that she hopes that attendees gained a deeper understanding of the reproductive justice framework and its inequities. “Reproductive justice encompasses much more than the right to abortion,” she wrote. It’s also about how people “experience their sexual and reproductive lives; all of which are constrained by intersecting injustices — economic, environmental and racial, among others.”
“My hope is that as we see all of reproductive justice … our collective and common vision for a society that truly meets human needs” without committing these atrocities against people, Roberts said. “We can actually build (a system) that is truly caring and humane.”