The Other Side of Reproductive Justice: How Sterilization and Other Forms of Coercion Are Used Against “Unworthy” Parents
Coercive sterilizations and castration are at the extreme end of a spectrum that also includes criminal sanctions for drug use during pregnancy and barring LBGT individuals from in-vitro fertilization services and adoption, as well as a host of other policies geared at making pregnancy and parenting difficult for those deemed unworthy.
Earlier this fall, a committee of the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe held a hearing entitled “Putting an end to coercive sterilizations and castrations.” This debate continues today, November 21, 2011. What is remarkable about this is not the outcome or the discussion, but rather that it was necessary at all. After all, most parliamentary debates about contraception and childbearing these days seem to be about how to make women have more children than they want, not less.
However, if we scratch the surface a bit, it becomes clear that two seemingly contradictory political discourses happily coexist. On the one hand, policy-makers push for limits to contraceptive access for women, generally speaking. And on the other, they enforce policies that criminalize, condemn, or render impossible the reproduction of specific subgroups of women (and men), who for various reasons are seen as undesirable parents: Roma women, lesbians and gay men, transgender people, indigenous women, injection drug users, women living with HIV—the list goes on.
In this connection, coercive sterilizations and castration are at the extreme end of a spectrum that also includes criminal sanctions for drug use during pregnancy and barring LBGT individuals from in-vitro fertilization services and adoption, as well as a host of other policies geared at making pregnancy and parenting difficult for those deemed unworthy. In fact, the more “unworthy” the individual or group is considered by the general public, the more explicitly coercive the measure to limit their possibility for parenting. So much so that by considering the lengths to which a government will go to prevent certain individuals from procreating, we can gauge the extent of the stigma they face.
For example, it would probably no longer be politically viable to implement quotas for the sterilization of indigenous women, as the Peruvian government did in the 1990s, yet Roma women and even just poor women are still routinely sterilized without their consent in several countries. Lesbian women are rarely forcefully sterilized, yet they are often excluded from becoming adoptive parents or from benefiting from in-vitro fertilization processes. Many countries require transgender individuals to be sterilized before they can legally change their names or papers to reflect their preferred gender, and intersex individuals are often assigned a sex—and in the process rendered infertile—as infants and certainly before they can give meaningful consent. The most restrictive and invasive intervention, forced castration, is reserved for convicted sex offenders who, in turn, arguably are seen as the most unworthy and reviled of all.
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As a human rights issue, coerced sterilization and castration are in many ways no different from other limitations on individual reproductive choice: they violate a number of fundamental rights, including the rights to health, privacy, and physical integrity. Additionally, they make discrimination and public contempt visible and as such can help target policy interventions to alleviate abuse.
But a more interesting aspect of the practice of coerced sterilization is that it crystallizes the hypocrisy of the limitations to reproductive rights. When I did research on access to abortion in Mexico in 2005, for example, I found that rape victims routinely were denied services they, by law, were entitled to, whereas sex workers and women living with HIV who were applying to the same hospitals for the same services were offered abortions they did not need and that would technically have been illegal.
When Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe continues its debate on forced sterilizations on Monday, it would do well to think through in what other ways it can support individual choices on when, if, and with whom to become a parent. Only just a year ago, the Assembly refused to recommend adequate regulation of conscientious objection in the medical profession, a move that probably already has contributed to the denial of care to many women across the continent.
These are not separate issues. The Roma woman who is forcefully sterilized suffers as much as the one who is denied an abortion or other needed care. Everyone must be allowed to make individual and responsible decisions about parenting and procreation.
If we learned anything in 2015, it was that activists of all ages and backgrounds are up for the challenges that lie ahead.
We at Rewire are certain not a day went by this year without a Republican presidential candidate or anti-choice public figure saying something awful about already marginalized groups, a person of color being killed or assaulted by the police, an anti-abortion bill being introduced that was more terrible than the last one (not an easy feat), or a woman being prosecuted for her pregnancy. You could say we’re seeing a half-empty glass. But what gives us hope are the dozens of justice movements happening nationwide to fight back against the anti-choice policies, state-sanctioned violence, wage violations, and so much more.
We salute you, grassroots organizers and pro-choice leaders. Here are just ten of the biggest movements we followed this year.
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Writers Lindy West and Amelia Bonow launched a campaign in mid-September to put stories to the statistic that one in three women have had an abortion. #ShoutYourAbortion went viral, drawing more than 150,000 posts on Twitter, even as anti-choice lawmakers sought to defund Planned Parenthood in federal and state legislatures. The women wrote that anti-choice efforts rely “on the assumption that abortion is still something to be whispered about.” By writing about their own abortions, and encouraging others to do the same, they hoped to reframe the national debate. “I have a good heart and having an abortion made me happy in a totally unqualified way,” said Bonow. “Why wouldn’t I be happy that I was not forced to become a mother?” (Zoe Greenberg)
This year marked an important shift in the messaging of Black Lives Matter, one that sought to center the lives of Black women and girls within the larger movement to end police brutality. Using the #SayHerName hashtag, coined in early 2015 by the African American Policy Forum, activists fought the erasure of Black women and girls from protests and discussions around state violence. The hashtag helped amplify incidents like the police attack on a Black teenager in McKinney, Texas, and the violent assault of a Black schoolgirl by a white deputy officer in Columbia, South Carolina, which made clear that Black girls are as vulnerable to police violence as their male counterparts. Activists mobilized around the killing of Natasha McKenna and the fatal shooting of Mya Hall, among others in 2015, which demonstrated how Black women, too, regularly die at the hands of the law enforcement establishment. #SayHerName bolstered efforts in Oklahoma City to bring justice for the 12 Black women and one teenager who accused former police officer Daniel Holtzclaw of sexual assault, and helped frame ongoing protests against the in-custody death of Sandra Bland this summer. (Kanya D’Almeida)
Throughout 2015, low-wage workers organized strikes and marches across the country in a campaign to win a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union without retaliation. In April, workers in more than 200 cities walked out on their jobs, in what organizers called the largest protest by low-wage workers in U.S. history. The crowds included home-care assistants, Walmart employees, adjunct professors, child-care aides, and McDonald’s cashiers. In November, tens of thousands of workers again took to the streets to demand “$15 and a union.” “There is not a price tag you can put on how this movement has changed the conversation in this country. It is raising wages at the bargaining table. It’s raised wages for 8 million workers,” the international president of the Service Employees International Union told the Guardian. (Zoe Greenberg)
In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that the federal government had to recognize same-sex marriages if they were performed in states where marriage equality was legal. What followed were two years of state-by-state battles, with more than a dozen continuing to resist by the time the issue made its way to the Supreme Court. On June 26, 2015, the Roberts Court ruled 5 to 4 in Obergefell v. Hodges that bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, legalizing marriage equality throughout the United States and granting same-sex couples and their children access to thousands of rights already enjoyed by opposite-sex ones. Supporters flooded the Court plaza, chanting “Love has won”; online, millions of people took to Twitter to celebrate using the hashtag #LoveWins, which automatically appended a rainbow emoticon. These included President Barack Obama, who wrote, “Today is a big step in our march toward equality. Gay and lesbian couples now have the right to marry, just like anyone else” in his post, which was retweeted nearly 450,000 times. Ultimately, #LoveWins was one of Twitter’s Top 10 trends of 2015. (Kat Jercich)
In September, ninth-grader Ahmed Mohamed became internationally renowned when he brought a homemade clock to school to show his teachers. Instead of being praised as a budding young scientist, the principal pulled Mohamed out of class and local police arrested him for bringing what they described as a “hoax bomb” to campus. A day later, Mohamed’s story went viral, providing a touchstone for a national conversation about racism and Islamophobia. His story ultimately led to 370,000 Twitter posts, including notes of encouragement from President Obama, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, comedian Aziz Ansari, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Thank you for your support! I really didn’t think people would care about a muslim boy,” he tweeted in response to his newfound fame. (Zoe Greenberg)
The informative campaign shined a light on the ways in which CMP’s practices were unethical, deceptive, and intentionally inflammatory. The organization asked supporters to use a pink filter with the hashtag #StandWithPP on their social media profile pictures, and on September 29, many hit the streets for Planned Parenthood’s #Pinkout. During #Pinkout, protesters wore pink and took to social media to spread their support for Planned Parenthood and its array of health-care services, including abortion. (Jenn Stanley)
7. America in Transition
Transgender Americans live all over the country—in rural areas, cities, suburbs—and have as differing experiences as cisgender Americans. While media attention and presence for trans and nonbinary Americans did increase in 2015, many activists point out that celebrities, like Caitlyn Jenner, who bring national attention to issues facing gender nonconforming people often have atypical experiences themselves and do not represent the lives of trans people across America. This year, Andre Perez, co-founder of the Transgender Oral History Project, took his documentary series to a new level to create America in Transition.
America in Transition is a web series, interactive multimedia map, and mobile app featuring the stories of the often silenced transgender people across the United States. Currently in development, America in Transition will highlight the stories of trans people of color and others with intersectional identities. Unlike the few trans stories highlighted by the mainstream media, America in Transition “seeks to amplify the stories of people from all walks of life and show how their environments—supportive, rural, educated, religiously fundamental, and more—have shaped who they are,” according to the organization’s website.
America in Transition also has a MyTransStory social media campaign, which asks people to add a purple filter to profile photos and write three words that encapsulate their experiences and identities. (Jenn Stanley)
8. Black Youth Project 100
Social change often starts with young people determined to make the world more manageable for themselves and the generations to come after them. The Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100), an activist organization of Black 18- to 35-year-olds, has been successfully chipping away at injustice since its founding in Chicago in 2013.
In November, the group had made headlines for declining a meeting with Mayor Emanuel to discuss the incident, and instead announced it would be “focusing on reaching out to the people who are directly impacted by the occupation of militarized police and community disinvestment.”
“Mayor Emanuel’s decision to fire Supt. Garry McCarthy comes as a result of massive community organizing and direct confrontations between young Black organizers and the Chicago Police Department to expose the ongoing structural abuses of power Black people are subjected to everyday,” reads a press statement from BYP 100.
However, its work on the matter of police violence and systemic discrimination within the Chicago Police Department isn’t done. It is still pushing for the resignations of Mayor Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez for their parts in delaying the release of the police camera video that captured Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old McDonald 16 times.
“As young Black people who organize Black communities in Chicago, we are clear that Supt. McCarthy, Mayor Emanuel and State’s Attorney Alvarez represent elements of a system that must not only be reformed, but radically changed,” the statement reads. (Jenn Stanley)
9. College Protests Against Racial Discrimination
Inspired by protests at Yale University, as well as the resignation of Missouri University’s president following a sustained student movement, a hunger strike, and an athletic boycott in November, campuses across the United States erupted this year in a wave of actions calling for an end to institutionalized racism. The hashtag #BlackOnCampus created an online space for students to share experiences of racial profiling and express anger over racist attacks and hate speech at colleges and universities, fueling a nationwide protest movement that quickly garnered the attention of mainstream media. The second week of November alone saw some 22 campuses standing in solidarity with Mizzou and Yale, including groups at Ithaca College, Howard University, Emory University, Brown University, Princeton University, and the University of Pennsylvania. Twice in the final two months of 2015, a group known as the Black Liberation Collective called for a nationwide #StudentBlackOut, which saw student groups speak out against anti-Blackness, white supremacy, and the need for more diverse faculty in colleges and universities. (Kanya D’Almeida)
10. Organizing to Protect the Undocumented
It was a tough year for immigration. Donald Trump’s hate speech against undocumented migrants reached a fever pitch; President Obama’s executive action for the undocumented parents of American citizen children remained in litigation; and the year is ending with GOP presidential candidates blaming immigration for terrorist attacks. But immigrants’ rights organizations have been pushing for more and better. The National Domestic Workers Alliance was instrumental in getting domestic worker bills passed in Connecticut and Oregon this year, protecting thousands of women, many of whom are undocumented. Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project and Familia: Trans Queer Liberation raised awareness for those living at the intersections of being queer and/or trans and undocumented, while fighting for the release of trans women from detention. These grassroots organizations are the reason for Immigration and Customs Enforcement releasing new standards of care for trans detainees, including detaining them according to their gender identity. The UCLA Labor Center’s Dream Resource Center continued to push Undocumented and Uninsured, the first study about and by immigrant youth on health-care access. And the #Health4All movement was influential in the creation of Health for All Act, a bill that if passed, will enable undocumented people in California to participate in the Affordable Care Act. (Tina Vasquez)
I could spend all day on a soapbox about the grotesque sexism and racism that has surfaced in the 2016 presidential race thus far. But I want to bring particular attention to Donald Trump’s recent comment on the so-called anchor baby epidemic, in which he suggested that children of undocumented immigrants were not American citizens.
Trump’s comments are offensive and dangerous.
But more importantly, they are indicative of a racialized and gendered trope that has long been used by anti-immigrant politicians, pundits, think tanks, and organizations to proliferate a dominant narrative about women’s reproductive health—that the control of women’s bodies is an issue of both morality and national security. As we move closer to the election, we must remember to continue calling out these attacks for what they are: a political rallying cry for an extremist agenda both to undermine marginalized communities and to attack the reproductive health and rights of the people who need it the most.
The “anchor baby” rhetoric first rose to prominence in 2006 during debates on immigration in the Republican-controlled House and Senate. Trump then rekindled this racist commentary this August while divulging his plans to end birthright citizenship, spurring other presidential candidates, pundits, and reporters to double down on this phrase.
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Trump’s ideological outlook on this issue is no isolated position. Not by any means. It is a popular story that has been manufactured and sold for decades to galvanize support for anti-immigrant policies. It’s a racist and sexist narrative that conveniently scapegoats blame for a faulty immigration system, corrupted trade policy, and failed economic reform on the reproductive health decisions made by immigrant women and their families. Because it couldn’t have anything to do with the dominant economic structures that exacerbate poverty, violence, and other oppressive conditions that drive immigration, right? That would be silly.
The state-sanctioned control of people’s bodies has—and always will be—a source of power for dominant systems of oppression. Women’s bodies (and trans, gender-nonconforming, or racialized bodies) will continue to be situated as political battlegrounds over a variety of issues. I mean, we live in a country where the government could be shut down over funding for reproductive health providers—and that’s just one of a few attempts to decrease public funding of safety net family planning resources.
And yet, funding for Planned Parenthood isn’t only about reproductive rights. Just like the “anchor baby” comments aren’t just about immigration. They are both tactics for the extreme right to justify other radical policies on social services, LGBTQ rights, foreign policy, and even debates on climate change. I have no doubt that we will continue to see the sexual and reproductive health choices in the months building up to the 2016 general election—whether it’s abortion, adoption, parenting, sexual freedom, or even birth control—leveraged as a tool to galvanize multiple bases on the far right. Conservatives will then carry that momentum to justify a paternalistic policy agenda that undermines the well-being of all marginalized communities.
The interesting irony here is that we have a set of candidates who are willing to, on one hand, speak about immigrant women and their children as villains and criminals that should be deported and driven into conditions of extreme poverty, and yet on the other hand, rally their bases around a promise to take away abortion care under a misguided sense of compassion for the life of the unborn. This paradox couldn’t make it any clearer that these candidates have zero interest in protecting any lives—that of the “unborn,” the person carrying the pregnancy to term, or the children living in extreme poverty. The hypocrisy is astounding and yet a perfect reminder of the politics of mourning in this country, in which certain lives are awarded value and others are stripped of their basic humanity.
Whether we’re talking about the “anchor baby” narrative, the trope of the “welfare queen,” or the pervasive fear-driven rhetoric about sexuality, it all boils down to the same conservative strategy: securing control over the reproductive health choices of marginalized communities—immigrant women, young women, and women of color in particular—as a means of limiting economic opportunity for disenfranchised communities, while simultaneously securing their own access to power.
The attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, for example, will continue indefinitely and are nothing short of one incremental tactic in a broader campaign to ultimately gut social service programs that women and families depend on the most. To extend tax cuts to the rich and reallocate funds to anti-youth, anti-sex, anti-choice programs like abstinence-only education and crisis pregnancy centers. And to ultimately expand federal funding for the military and prison-industrial complex. This system is ironically enough set up to structurally perpetuate reproductive oppression, racial injustice, and violence against the most vulnerable communities.
One community particularly under attack is low-income trans women of color, who are facing extreme rates of violence, poverty, and abuse. It comes as little surprise then that GetEQUAL and Black Lives Matter organizers have called on presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton in particular, to “divest from private prisons and invest in the liberation of black transgender women.”
Trans individuals, immigrant women, and Black women are stigmatized and targeted as reproductive burdens on the system. Conservatives ask us to deny them the ability to choose if, when, and how to become pregnant and then blame them for having too many children, or having children for the “wrong reasons.”
In that context, the “anchor baby” narrative can be seen as a powerful discursive tactic—embedded in a much larger, coordinated strategy—to galvanize public support for extreme right-wing policies that hurt people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, young people, and those at the intersections. It’s a narrative used to ensure radical security measures at the border, as well as massive deportation policies that split families apart and deny young immigrants access to education and economic security.
Therefore, the resurfacing of this so-called anchor baby problem should serve as a reminder of what’s truly at stake in the battle for reproductive freedom in the 2016 election. And as a catalyst for working to challenge these dominate tropes and telling our own stories. Advocates’ ability to secure economic, social, and political justice for the most marginalized communities will depend on how we redefine these narratives moving forward. As radical and extreme as the tropes may seem to us, these dangerous ideologies and insidious representations of race, gender, and sexuality are unfortunately resonating with a large chunk of the electorate. We cannot let them go unchallenged.