Black Mothers and the Birth Control Movement

This article was originally published on October 30, 2015.

Anti-sterilization Protest in Louisville c. 1971 (Southern Conference Educational Fund)

Although I stand with Planned Parenthood through the contentious recent discussions and policy changes, I cannot help but be reminded of the disruption of Black women’s choice by the movement that surrounded and followed its inception. It has been a danger to Black families—especially poor black families—not because of abortion or birth control, but because of the disruption of the choice of Black mothers. This particular assault on black mothers began with a birth control movement spearheaded by Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. It has persisted for decades and is creeping its way into contemporary healthcare and welfare policy.

When Margaret Sanger mobilized to ensure reproductive liberty for all women by pushing for a widespread use of birth control, the conversation quickly shifted to the question of who should have children and who should not. Steeped in racist ideology, the Eugenics movement of the early twentieth century endorsed the idea that Black women should not reproduce, as they would inevitably give birth to children who were considered unintelligent and thus the cycle of poverty would continue.1

Although Sanger was not a eugenicist, what we now know as the birth control movement adopted eugenic (and therefore racist) ideology. As Dorothy Roberts argues in Killing the Black Body, “The language of eugenics…gave scientific credence to the movement’s claim that birth control was an aspect of public health.” Roberts adds, “Sanger predicted that the multiplication of the unfit posed a threat to the political stability of the nation.”2

Years later, the Moynihan Report (1965) gave a platform for the idea that Black women had destroyed Black families, and that Black fathers were largely absent because Black women supposedly threatened their masculinity. This was simply new language for an old school of thought that shaped the way Black families were depicted—Black women were viewed as too ignorant to raise a family sufficiently, yet too strong to share the responsibility with a man. This sexist and racist depiction of the Black family ignored the learned coping mechanisms and survival strategies that Black women had skillfully devised in order to raise their children. These strategies included making a short food supply stretch until the next month; teaching children to fight or flight when they encountered police; or figuring out how to supplement a child’s education when they were zoned for an inadequate school district. All of these strategies were undermined by the belief that Black women’s bodies should be controlled to limit the reproduction of black children.

These ideologies shaped social policy regarding birth control during the twentieth century. Indeed, some lawmakers pushed for birth control as a way to eradicate poor Black families who were dependent upon welfare. While poor black women were struggling to survive on welfare benefits and raise families amidst oppression, lawmakers assumed that Black women could not govern themselves and needed mandated birth control. Moreover, some lawmakers attempted to use welfare benefits as bait to get Black women to agree to take birth control. It was not considered illegal to revoke welfare benefits on the sole basis of whether or not a woman agreed to go on birth control. In many cases, women were also forced to have the Norplant implant in order to continue receiving welfare benefits.

Fannie Lou Hamer

In addition, the forced sterilization of Black women attempted to limit the black population. Law enforcement officials and medical practitioners completely disregarded the reproductive rights of black women and in many cases, specifically targeted poor black women. For instance, Darlene Johnson, an impoverished black women who had been addicted to crack cocaine, had been told by a judge that she would be sent to jail if she did not use the Norplant implant.3

 Many other Black women, such as notable activist Fannie Lou Hamer, were forcibly sterilized throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the state of North Carolina, the government run Eugenics board was not dissolved until 1973 and the law allowing involuntary sterilization was not repealed until 2003.

On the surface, the birth control movement may have been for the betterment of all women— by supporting reproductive freedom. However, the experiences of Black women complicate this history. Indeed, they highlight the painful legacy of a movement that reinforced racist policies and often sought to limit black women’s reproductive rights.

  1. See Dorothy E. Roberts, “The Dark Side of Birth Control.” In Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.
  2. Roberts, Killing the Black Body, 72.
  3. Roberts, Killing the Black Body, 173.
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