Afterthoughts: Reproductive Justice, Past and Present

The WGS Program would like to thank everyone for attending the Reproductive Justice Panel on October 29. The panel featured scholars Dr. Cynthia Greenlee of Rewire News and Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens from the City University of New York. Unfortunately, scheduled speaker Elena Rebecca Gutiérrez was unable to join us.

UNCG’s Dr. Lisa Levenstein introduced the panel speakers, both of whom are trained historians whose studies and independent work actively intersect with and focus on reproductive justice. Dr. Levenstein opened by explaining that “reproductive justice,” a term invented by Black feminists in the 1990s, encapsulates the idea that every person has the right to autonomy. It includes access to abortion as well as the right to parent (or not parent) in their manner of choosing.

The panelists presented historical background that aided listeners in understanding the frameworks that inform our current views of the reproductive justice movement. Both women shared how their own experiences led them to the realization that the history needs to be rewritten; their studies centered Black women as a central focus in establishing reproductive rights— an account that is not widely acknowledged.

Dr. Cooper Owens detailed the history of medical experimentation on enslaved women. Medical techniques that we take for granted today are the result of painstaking experimentation on these women. Early gynecologists honed and perfected their methods on them.  Many of the stereotypes about the Black body that exist today (Blacks do not feel pain or are histrionic) are remnants of this history of experimentation.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it was common practice for slave owners to lease enslaved women in need of medical attention to doctors. The women served as both patients and nurses, since “if you were a slave, you worked.” One such doctor was Sims, often referred to as the “father of gynecology.” While not defending the actions of individual doctors like J. Marian Sims, Cooper Owens emphasizes that his actions were not unusual for his time. Sim’s treatment of black women was indeed horrific, but she reminded the audience to focus on the larger system and the society that normalized such treatment, as opposed to the individual. She warns against the danger of “exceptionalizing” historical figures. Cooper Owens is also critical of the way that social justice activists either intentionally or unintentionally distort history. She is emphatic that activists need to have a greater awareness of history in building their strategies. Much of Cooper Owens’s work has involved examining the “erasure of black women’ from medical history. If examining the documents that have been overlooked in order to find the truth is revising history, she is proud to bear the label historical revisionist.

Dr. Cynthia Greenlee is an independent scholar and abortion rights activist who uses her training as a historian to outline the strong connection and “unseen partnership” between the abortion reform movement and the civil rights movement. As Greenlee notes, the civil rights movement is much more complex and has many more facets than many people think; numerous pro-abortion activists received their training while doing civil rights work. She points out that “healthcare is a civil right, and that we have become un-educated to divorce them.”

Greenlee is adamant that the public perception of abortion as an anti-black conspiracy is a narrative that needs to be corrected.  According to Greenlee, the flaw in the pro-abortion movement is its refusal to acknowledge race. This denial is in contrast with the anti-abortion movement which uses racism as a scare tactic.

Focusing mainly on Black historical contributions to the reproductive rights movement, Greenlee summarized the history of several Black doctors and legislators who spent their lives advocating for civil rights. As she shared an account of the early abortion movement that is not widely known, Greenlee shared how Blacks were a driving force behind open access to abortion as part of improved access to healthcare. Because many Blacks historically have had little to no access to healthcare, the mortality rate among Black women seeking abortions was extremely high. As Greenlee notes, “abortion reform is paved with black bodies.”

As the session ended, Greenlee asked listeners to consider who has been writing the history, and why it is that academicians have chosen to ignore the data that is readily available. Cooper Owens pointed out that change is always possible and that one way to enable that Black concerns are addressed is to vote more Black women into elected offices.

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