The state still controls women’s bodies — especially brown and black ones
Minorities experience higher levels of discrimination when it comes to accessing reproductive healthcare. Yet their stories are absent from the mainstream
The US has a long history of policing women’s bodies and their reproductive choices, especially if they are poor, women of color, or sexual minorities. These experiences are often overlooked in discussions about women’s health, despite the fact that they uniquely reveal just how discriminatory, uninformed and troubling state interference in reproductive health is.
Disadvantaged women have been disproportionately affected by social and criminal justice policies that explicitly restrict reproductive freedom. Judges in some states, for example, have given women convicted of drug abuse or child abuse the option of taking Norplant , a contraceptive implant for birth control that can only be removed by a doctor, instead of serving jail time. Even as recent as March 2015, state and national bills have offered women on welfare significant financial incentives to use long-term birth control methods. For many, these contraception choices are not actually “choices” and have been shown to be harmful to their health.
Consider the controversial history of the Depo-Provera shot , a synthetic hormonal contraceptive that has to be administered every three months by a health care provider. In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration approved Depo despite opposition from major health organizations representing women of color. These organizations and others were concerned about Depo’s side effects and the carcinogenic effects it had produced in animal trials.
Depo was first tested at the Grady Clinic in Atlanta from 1967-1978 without informed consent on women who were primarily low-income, black and from rural areas. Women were not told about the shot’s side-effects. Several developed cancer and/or died during the trial , but their deaths were not reported to the FDA. The FDA withheld approval of Depo but, in the 1980s, the Pheonix and Oklahoma City Indian Health Services continued using the shot on native women with disabilities.
The Hyde Amendment , passed in 1976, also discriminates against poor women and women of color. Hyde prohibited Medicaid from covering abortion services, although one in 10 women of reproductive age in the US use Medicaid. According to Thurgood Marshall’s dissent in the 1980 Harris v McRae decision, Hyde was “designed to deprive poor and minority women of the constitutional right to choose abortion”. Even today, Medicaid coverage for abortion is limited and only applies when the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest, or if the women’s life is endangered. And now, under the Affordable Care Act, the Marketplace plans either prohibit or provide limited abortion services in about half the states.
The long history of restricting reproductive health access to people of certain races, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds continues to this day.
The House of Representatives’ Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed a resolution on 21 April to overturn Washington DC’s Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act of 2014, which prevents employers from discriminating against employees for their reproductive health decisions, like use of birth control, in vitro fertilization and/or abortion. If the law is overturned, employers could fire employees for their personal decisions and for those of their dependents.
The chances that Congress will actually overturn the law are minimal , in which case Republican House leaders hope to block funding to actually enforce the law in DC. The move to repeal or block enforcement is yet another state sanctioned attempt to employ control over reproductive health that would hit sexual and ethnic minorities and the working classes the most.
Access to reproductive health care has long been a battle for all women, but for those who are poor or from minority communities, the number of reproductive health barriers is multiplied by state sanctioned discrimination. If we are to secure universal reproductive health care for all, we must listen to the stories and experiences from the margins. Without a full picture of how the state controls women’s bodies, we will not be able to successfully fight for change.