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What Norplant Taught Us About Reproductive Justice

The controversial birth control once used to police women’s bodies was a precursor to the current abortion rights fight

Illustration: Anshika Khullar

TThe assault on abortion rights is intense and multifaceted, from the slew of bills imposing severe restrictions and outright bans, to the Trump administration’s attempts to eliminate access to abortion services by changing Title X funding rules. Broad, contemptuous attacks on women’s autonomy like this have been a feature of political life for generations.

Running constantly alongside these blatant moves are attempts by misogynists in power to target or manipulate specific groups of women in even more insidious ways. Historically, however, pro-choice activism tended to focus on a more narrowly defined goal — the right to choose abortion — neglecting the ways that reproductive oppression works differently upon women in different communities.

I often go back to the Norplant controversy of the 1990s and its implications, not least because of how ghastly an example of injustice it is, and for how it illustrates the intertwining of racism and misogyny in controlling women’s bodily autonomy. Norplant was approved by the FDA in 1990. It consisted of six small bars that were inserted under the skin in the arm, a sort of get-it-and-forget it medication that was supposed to last five years.

Equally important as the right to not have a child is the right to have a child; the right to parent that child free of state oppression.

Soon after, a now infamous Philadelphia Inquirer editorial touted Norplant as a means to reduce the so-called Black underclass. While the Inquirer apologized after widespread outrage, the editorial merely said what many were thinking. For instance, a 1991 article in the New Republic, couching its eugenicism in moral concern for “inner city” children, said that while “interfering — however benevolently — with a woman’s reproductive system is of course abhorrent,” to get a handle on an epidemic of child abuse we should give Norplant a chance as a “practical” option.

SState legislatures did not need much encouragement. According to the Guttmacher Institute, between 1991 and 1994, there were bills introduced in 13 states that proposed giving women on welfare financial incentives to be implanted. In seven states, there were bills that tried to make it obligatory to go on Norplant in certain circumstances, like for welfare eligibility or for using drugs while pregnant. In the context of the War on Drugs, and the long-simmering backlash on the right against welfare programs that culminated in federal welfare “reform” laws in 1996, it is clear that the wave of Norplant legislation was motivated by deep seated racist attitudes.

In this era, the mainstream pro-choice movement fell short when it came to responding to these types of calculated attacks on Black women and other women of color, so activists took matters into their own hands. Reproductive Justice was a term and mode of understanding coined by Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice in 1994. As Loretta Ross, a founding activist behind the advocacy group SisterSong explains, “Reproductive Justice addresses the social reality of inequality, specifically, the inequality of opportunities that we have to control our reproductive destiny.”

Equally important as the right to not have a child is the right to have a child; the right to parent that child free of state oppression; the right to equal access to maternal healthcare and childcare; the right to live free of patriarchal violence and abuse.

LLocating abortion access in a broader struggle for reproductive justice is important not only because it focuses on the structural factors impeding women’s ability to determine their reproductive futures — the types of structural factors that make Norplant legislation and policies like it possible and even accepted by women with no other options before them.

The language of choice can be utilized to demean marginalized women as “bad choice-makers.”

It is also an essential framework because it is critical to move beyond the isolating language of “choice” — even when referring to a positive signifier like “pro-choice” — because, as the historian Rickie Solinger has argued, the language of choice can be utilized to demean marginalized women as “bad choice-makers.”

When we allow the narrative about reproductive freedom to center on the choices women make, without considering the social and economic pressures under which women make the choices they must, we allow our enemies to lay blame for social ills and suffering on women’s “selfish” and irresponsible choices.

As Dorothy Roberts documented in her illuminating book, Killing the Black Body, the Norplant craze was intimately bound up with racism and the dehumanization of Black mothers. As she noted, “Any policy directed at women on welfare will disproportionately affect Black women because such a large proportion of Black women rely on public assistance.” Roberts gave a powerful account of how Black motherhood has been demonized and devalued throughout history, from the destruction of enslaved families to the horrendous stereotypes of the Black “welfare queen.”

The Black welfare mother targeted by Norplant pushers was, in their minds, the quintessential “bad choice maker” who kept having kids to bleed the state’s coffers, whose sexuality needed to be controlled, lest civilization not survive. At one point, Norplant insertion, a not inexpensive procedure, was covered by Medicaid in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Imagine if governments had put as much enthusiasm into nurturing all aspects of Black women’s reproductive health as they did into policing one “undesirable” part of it.

WWhat does this history teach us? For one, it makes it clear reproductive control comes in all flavors and varieties. It works with the tools at its disposal to wreak havoc upon women’s lives, particularly those women most oppressed by structural racism, sexism, and capitalist exploitation. Faux concern for children is an old chestnut of anti-women propagandists. Their tactics change, but the underlying motive is always clear: by perpetuating reproductive injustice, they can perpetuate patriarchy, white supremacy, and rapacious capitalism.

Fortunately, reproductive justice gives us tools, too. It reminds us that moving beyond a solely reactive politics of choice is essential to forcing our way to true reproductive freedom. That a leading organization like Planned Parenthood has adopted the language and some demands of reproductive justice activists in its most recent policy advocacy efforts is an encouraging sign of a shift towards a more radical, encompassing view of reproductive rights after a history of neglecting potential allies.

For example, their new “Blueprint for Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice” demands that “incarcerated and detained women and youth, transgender men, nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals have access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care,” and emphasizes the disproprtionate number of Black women incarcerated and denied access to adequate services.

In the struggle for true reproductive justice, willing mothers and women whose lives have been brightened by their abortions both belong. Unwilling mothers belong, too. So do their children, who deserve a familial relationship not created and mediated by the violence of state intervention. Who doesn’t belong? Those who would demean any of our choices, made as they were in the universe of personal bounties and limitations we live with, as bad, selfish, or unwise. In such a broad and fierce coalition, we have no choice but to win.

shrug emoji theorist/law student

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