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Racism is also a reproductive rights issue

  • Written by by Chloe Angyal
  • Published in Opinion
Generally speaking, Americans understand reproductive rights as being about abortion, and sometimes, about birth control. In the mainstream understanding, reproductive rights are about the right to prevent or end unwanted pregnancy. But reproductive rights are about more than pregnancy.

Reproductive justice is not just a matter of making sure that women only become mothers if and when and in the manner they choose – it’s also a matter of making sure that, when they choose to bring children into the world, they don’t bring them into a world that is disproportionately dangerous for those children.

In short, racism is a reproductive rights issue.

“For one’s children to be random, unwitting blood sacrifices to the prejudice of faceless others is not freedom,” wrote Katherine Cross at RH Reality Check, in the wake of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. “To have reproductive freedom means, among many other things, that your choice to raise a family will not be revenged upon by collectivized prejudice wielding batons and handguns.”

This is not a new argument, but it’s one that has been denied the mainstream attention it deserves. In the wake of the Grand Jury decision that Wilson will not be indicted for killing Brown, that is changing. NARAL Prochoice America, one of the nation’s largest reproductive rights organizations, is on the record endorsing the argument that, “You deserve to parent your child without fear that he or she will be hurt or killed. Freedom from violence is reproductive justice.”

A recent study out of UCLA shows that we overestimate the age of African American children. Social psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, a longtime researcher on the topic of unconscious racial bias, found that when asked to estimate the age of Black children, participants in his study overestimated by an average of 4.5 years. And believing that these children older meant believing they were less innocent. “Perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said the study’s co-author, Matthew Jackson, PhD. The result is that black children “may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”

As Salamishah Tillet, Associate Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, recently put it, “Black children are denied adolescence… These rituals of black death are the denying of black humanity down to the most basic thing of playing with a childhood toy.” Tillet was speaking about the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot by Cleveland police the weekend before Thanksgiving. Police responded to a call from a concerned citizen, who told the dispatcher that there was a man with a gun at a local playground. If Rice had been white, would that concerned citizen have seen him as a fully grown dangerous man? Or would he have seen him as boy playing with a quintessentially American toy? If Rice had been white, would the police have been so quick to shoot?

Where black children are denied the right to a childhood, it stands to reason that black parents are denied the right to parenthood. Indeed, many in the reproductive rights community have begun to talk about police brutality as a reproductive rights issue.

The argument is a compelling one: that all of us have the right to bring children into the world, and to raise them, without fear that they are disproportionately likely to be killed by the police, or by vigilantes, or by strangers when they’re asking for help. That parents shouldn’t have to worry that their children will be stopped and frisked on the street, or kicked out of school for minor offenses, or harassed while they’re trying to learn.

In short, proponents of this view argue that parents should be allowed to bring children into the world worrying that their children will be denied a childhood – or being forced to watch as it happens before their very eyes.

There are many questions that arise when a woman decides to become a mother. What should we call the baby? What color should we paint the nursery? Who gets to be the godfather? But a pregnant woman should never have to ask if her child will be the target of police brutality, or if prejudice will make that child more likely to be killed – and make the killer more likely to walk free, like Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, the Staten Island officer who killed Eric Garner. No woman should have to wonder aloud, as so many have in the wake of the Ferguson decision, and in the wake of the shooting of Tamir Rice, if it’s even safe for them to bring a child into the world at all.

PHOTO: A female protester, demanding justice for Eric Garner, wears a face mask in Brooklyn, New York, Dec. 4, 2014. REUTERS/Elizabeth Shafiroff


Dr. Chloe Angyal is Senior Columnist at Feministing.com and a facilitator at The OpEd Project.