after entering the Illinois Senate race, Republican Keyes called
Democratic Senatorial candidate Barack Obama’s pro-choice views
on abortion “the slaveholder’s position,” asserting
that Obama’s vote against a late- term abortion ban denied
unborn children of their equal rights.
News, the Associated Press, the
, and many
more picked up the story, repeating Keyes’s claim that slaveholders
were pro-choice. Obama responded by avoiding the question: “As
I travel around this state,” he told reporters, “I don’t
get asked about gay marriage, I don’t get asked about abortion.
I get asked, ‘How can I find a job that allows me to support
didn’t challenge the basic premise of Keyes’s statement
and nobody seemed interested in exploring the link Keyes identified
between slavery and abortion.
women—their bodies— connect slavery and reproductive rights.
“Reproductive control is an incident of slavery,” observes
legal scholar Pamela Bridgewater. Bridgewater writes that while
the traditional story of U.S. slavery focuses on forced labor—the
work slaves were forced to do, “the sexual and reproductive
exploitation [of slave women] via forced sex and forced reproduction”
has been largely overlooked.
Breeding a Nation: Reproductive Slavery, the 13th Amendment
and the Pursuit of Freedom
(forthcoming from South End Press),
believes that incorporating this aspect of slavery is critical for
today’s reproductive rights movement.
has instructed the U.S. on reproductive politics,” asserts
Bridgewater, who has done extensive research on “slave breeding,”
the slaveholders’ policy of forced reproduction as both a method
of maintaining their slave populations and as an independent industry.
plantations stopped producing commodities and focused on breeding
humans,” she explains. “The law allowed for this, since
slaves and slaves born were the property of the owner.” According
to Bridgewater, slave breeding became “more prominent than
cotton” and was written about in newspapers and farming journals
as a type of animal husbandry.
see a piece in a farming journal that would say, ‘Such and
such got a good yield by doing X,’” says Bridgewater,
who notes that slaveholders would experiment with such techniques
as locking slave women in a room with many slave men. Slave women
of “good breeding stock” were highly valued, a point illustrated
by one advertisement Bridgewater found for a slave woman who could
“breed like a cat.”
these circumstances, eliminating unwanted pregnancies became a form
of resistance. “Abstinence was not an option for a slave,”
says Bridgewater, “so most resistance methods were very drastic,”
ranging from using herbs and poultices to self-imposed abortions
to infancticide. “These things were passed from generation
to generation,” she adds, “with midwives being critical
to that informal method.”
believes that ack- nowledging this history can help today’s
reproductive rights advocates navigate complex political terrain.
“When we encounter reproductive policies, we can ask, ‘To
what extent does this policy build on the legacy of slavery?’”
Conversely, one might ask, “To what extent does this policy
contribute to reproductive liberation?”
Keyes and the Republican Party claim that anti-abortion laws are
descendants of the constitutional amendments designed to abolish
and prevent slavery. According to this logic, abortions constitute
a violation of the 14th Amendment, which grants all persons in the
U.S. equal protection under the law. The 2004 Republican Party Platform
endorses legislation “to make it clear that the Fourteenth
Amendment’s protec- tions apply to unborn children.”
as in the era of slavery, Bridgewater says that women are “treated
as a vessel” to carry the fetus and a woman’s rights are
considered secondary to the protection of the fetus. One of the
most striking examples of this was the Bush administration’s
2002 proposal to provide health insurance to “unborn children,”
but not pregnant women.
believes that one benefit of incorporating reproductive control
into the accepted story of slavery is that comments like Keyes’s
would be easily refutable. Moreover, when the history becomes a
part of the common discourse, “the slaveholder’s position”
on reproductive freedom can be directly connected to the views of
today’s “pro-life” advocates.
to Dorothy Roberts, author of
the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty
feminists need to prioritize “the experiences of the most oppressed
people. It expands our view of what reproductive liberty is. ”
A critical problem for reproductive rights advocates is that the
reproductive rights debates have been focused almost exclusively
on women’s access to one medical procedure.
many years, says Roberts, “the mainstream reproductive rights
organizations like Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Rights
Action League (NARAL), and the National Organization for Women [have
been] predominantly made up of white middle-class or well-to-do
women. They have set the mainstream agenda on what reproductive
rights mean and they’ve focused on access to abortion.”
Roberts asserts that these organizations have historically failed
to address “the different issues that black women are concerned
with or that affect black women’s repro- ductive decision making.”
the public’s attention to the particularities of abortion has
been a tactical decision of anti- choice advocates. Bills such as
the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act and the Unborn Child Pain Awareness
Act are designed to frame reproductive rights around grisly medical
details, rather than women’s rights. By focusing on abortion
as the central issue of reproductive rights, mainstream pro-choice
groups have played into the Right to Life folks’ hands.
however, Bridgewater sees signs that these mainstream organizations
have begun broadening the debate. At the April 2004 March for Women’s
Lives, Bridgewater says she saw evidence that groups like NARAL
and Planned Parenthood were “very conscious about addressing
issues important to poor women and women of color,” such as
the availability of contraception, sexual violence, health care,
and sex education. She adds that these mainstream groups appear
to be growing more “conscious about coalition building”
with groups focused on these critical issues.
March for Women’s Lives, where more than one million people
gathered in Washington, DC to voice their support for reproductive
rights, illustrated that while political momentum appears to be
on the pro-life side, reproductive rights is an issue that can galvanize
Left and progressive forces.
though Keyes lost to Obama, with Bush’s victory and the Republican
hold on the House and Senate reproductive rights advocates should
be prepared for a full assault. Already, Republicans in Congress
have attached an anti-abortion rights provision to the recently-passed
omnibus spending bill.
and the Republicans have done reproductive rights advocates a favor
by injecting slavery’s legacy into the reproductive rights
debates. Instead of avoiding the issue of race, advocates of reproductive
freedom should seize this opportunity.
is a freelance writer based in Detroit.