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Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty

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This is a no-holds-barred response to the liberal and conservative retreat from an assertive, activist, and socially transformative civil rights agenda of recent years--using a black feminist lens and the issue of  the impact of recent legislation, social policy, and welfare "reform" on black women's--especially poor black women's--control over their bodies' autonomy and their freedom to bear and raise children with respect and dignity in a society whose white mainstream is determined to demonize, even criminalize their lives.   It gives its readers a cogent  legal and historical argument for a radically new , and socially transformative, definition of  "liberty" and "equality" for the American polity from a black feminist perspective.

384 pages, Paperback

First published September 16, 1997

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About the author

Dorothy Roberts

16 books348 followers
Dorothy Roberts is a scholar, professor, author and social justice advocate, and currently the 14th Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She has published a range of groundbreaking articles and books analyzing issues of law, race, gender, health, class and social inequality, including Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (1997), Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2002) and, most recently Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century (2012).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 280 reviews
Profile Image for Alok Vaid-Menon.
Author 9 books18.1k followers
February 17, 2021
While birth control has undoubtedly had a profound and positive impact, it’s also important to acknowledge its eugenic origins in the US. We can hold both at the same time. In her influential work, Black feminist legal scholar Dr. Dorothy Roberts exposes how movements for contraception in the early 20th century were led by eugenicists who sought to decrease birth rates among Black women as a way to maintain white supremacy.

In 1914 eugenicist Charles McCord called for the “unsexing” of “unfit” Black people who he dismissed as uniformly “feeble-minded and mentally defective.” He drew a connection between “feeble mindedness” and reproduction,” arguing that they “multiply twice as fast as the normal population.” By the 1930s the eugenics movement had shifted its focus from “undesirable” immigrants to the domestic Black population in the South. Southern segregationists were threatened by Black political advancement and sought to restrict the influence of free Black communities. In Racial Hygiene (1929) Thurman B. Rice warned that “the colored races are pressing the white race most urgently and this pressure may be expected to increase” (71).

Margaret Sanger, who popularized the term “birth control,” was one of these eugenicists. White feminist eugenicists like her argued that birth control had two main purposes: to free women from the “biological slavery” of pregnancy, and to reduce the incidence of unfit births. For them, poverty, disability, and racial difference were all markers of “unfitness.” In 1920 Sanger stated emphatically: “Birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.” In her book The Pivot of Civilization (1922) she cautioned that “equality of political power” had been given to the “lowest elements of our population” and that these people would “destroy our liberties” and had to be controlled.

In 1938 Sanger proposed a “Negro Project,” advocating for promoting birth control in Black communities as she felt Black people “bred carelessly and disastrously” and were the “least intelligent” population. As Dr. Roberts argues, “the language of eugenics did more than legitimate birth control. It defined the purpose of birth control. Birth control became a means of controlling a population rather than a means of increasing women’s reproductive autonomy” (80).

There were plenty of birth control advocates who weren’t racist eugenicists like free love advocates and various Black organizations. As Dr. Roberts argues: “Black women were already practicing birth control when the birth movement got under way” including folk methods of contraception and abortion (82). The reason we hear about Sanger is because her involvement with eugenics and the credibility that gave her with white men who sought to maintain their monopoly of power.

Over time Sanger became increasingly vocal about embracing sterilization. She blamed inequality on overpopulation not systems of oppression like capitalism and colonialism. Conveniently, restricting population typically meant restricting population in marginalized groups. Up until the 1970s (and sometimes beyond) government-sponsored “family-planning” programs coerced Black women into being sterilized. In the 1960s states like Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia attempted to pass laws mandating compulsory sterilization of welfare mothers who had children out of wedlock. Dr. Roberts describes how Norplant – an implant used for birth control – was mandatorily court-ordered implanted in the bodies of Black women in urban areas to prevent them from having children. Sterilization was selectively offered to and mandated for women of color. “Ironically, while Black, Puerto Rican, and Indian women were being pressured into the operation, white middle-class women found it nearly impossible to find a doctor who would sterilize them” (Roberts 1999: 95)

“Reproductive politics in America inevitably involves racial politics” (9). Reproductive freedom is not just about individual choice, it is about social justice and dignity for disenfranchised groups. This means that reproductive justice must include more than woman’s choice, it must also challenge inequalities of race, wealth, and power.
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
769 reviews3,496 followers
October 7, 2019

Selective perception of history and its denial leads to a continuation of the abuses in new forms.

As if the past horrors were not enough. The unrecovered and hushed up crimes of the past which are combined with a lack of reparations. Historical revisionism is one thing. But further suppression of the problem is only a reason for more shame and an even more devastating judgment in the distant future.

At the time of slavery, the power of control on births was subject to simple market laws. If one needed many new workers, the women were forced to have many children. They were demoted to reproduction machines. In contrast, if the economic times were bad and the food and accommodation would have been too expensive, abortion was practiced in large scales.

It was necessary to distinguish between the children of normal slaves and house slaves. At the top were children who had been fathered by the slaveholders themselves. The perverted part was that these children were elected to be governors and officers over their own people. In the colonies, an intermediate caste formed in this way. The slave owners copied their sick ideology into the minds of these children. They were brought up to see part of their ancestry as a lawless slave and the other part as a master. As a good, higher part and as a bad, lesser part. The bipolarity of this is a good example of the inhuman insanity of the concept.

From the interwar period until today 2 demented ideas compete with each other. Denominations that demonize contraception and family planning and actively boycott access to contraceptives. And political ideologies that indirectly, because no longer openly acceptable, promote institutionalized racism.

Combining birth control with eugenics was one of the dubious achievements of this era. Or the control over welfare programs, which led to forced sterilization and forced birth control. The victims were indirectly given the choice of either vegetating homeless without social benefits or comply with irreversible interventions on their bodies.

Intuitively, one would assume that since the abolition of slavery such crimes against humanity have never been committed on a larger scale again. That forcible abortion and forced sterilization entered the history books as a memorial and warning. That eugenics and indirect forms of genetic warfare, in particular, may be considered as monuments of history.
And not that such a practice was promoted after the genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansings and expulsions of World War II. And nationally promoted and legally legitimized until far into the 20 and 21 Century. In classic duplicity and hypocrisy, the focus was directed to the crimes of communism and fascism. And at the same time, the concept was used against their population.

A point emphasized by the author is particularly complex. Feminists are often white and wealthy, which is why they have in particular written gender equality and reduction of professional discrimination on their agendas. The problems that are omnipresent to many poor, black women are usually not theirs. Therefore, those interests for basic needs are often underrepresented in the initiatives because they are not present in the affluent middle and upper classes. The programs and priorities would have to be expanded to sufficiently represent the hitherto neglected concerns of these groups.

The unwanted chemical and physical sterilization is as contemptible as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and similar medical atrocities. The damage, the reputation of medicine has taken, is irreparable and is reinforced by two-class medicine. The critics may still be branded as conspiracy theorists because they distrust medicine. The weakest in the system may be welcomed to serve as experimental animals and participate in averagely paid high-risk test series. But they will never be able to afford the life-saving medicines they are made possible by this way.

Another main problem in the society is the wanton made and produced poverty, which does not allow a free decision. Be it the availability, quality and affordability of contraceptives, poorer medical care or financial cuts in the health and social sectors. If abortions are not affordable, they are made by back yard doctors.

As a mockery, the victims of demagogues are still portrayed as social parasites, called welfare queens and denounced. There is a similarity between direct racism against immigrants and the indirect tolerance of discrimination against large-scale families from low-income groups.
The factors add up to targeted gender discrimination in the 21st century. The mutual, quiet acceptance of the grievances and the increased mortality and disease rates is ideologically in line with the former forced abortions and their spiritual fathers from times of slavery.

To sustainably defuse the problem and to sensitize future generations to such abuses, a reappraisal of colonization, Atlantic triangular trade, slavery in general, discrimination, neocolonialization, ... would be needed. Let alone redemption and removal of all glorification of mass murderers after whom much is named and plastered with statuaries. Just as the ideologies they stand for, they belong in garbage bins. So that the future generations grow up without the omnipresence of a misled past.


Eine selektive Wahrnehmung der Geschichte sowie deren Verleugnung führt zu einer Fortsetzung der Missstände in neuen Ausprägungen.

Als wären die vergangenen Gräuel nicht genug. Die nicht aufgearbeiteten, vertuschten und durch ausbleibende Wiedergutmachung weiter verschleppten Verbrechen der Vergangenheit.
Geschichtsrevisionismus ist das eine. Aber weiteres Verdrängen der Problematik gereicht nur zu noch größerer Schande und einem noch vernichtenderem Urteil in der ferneren Zukunft.

Zu Zeiten der Sklaverei war die Verfügungsgewalt der Sklaventreiber über die Geburten schlichten Marktgesetzen unterworfen. Wenn man viele neue Arbeiter brauchte, wurden die Frauen dazu gezwungen, viele Kinder zu bekommen. Sie wurden zu Reproduktionsmaschinen degradiert. Waren die wirtschaftlichen Zeiten hingegen schlecht und das Essen und die Unterkunft wären zu teuer gewesen, wurde in rauen Mengen abgetrieben.

Dabei galt es zwischen den Kindern von normalen Sklaven und Haussklaven zu unterscheiden. Ganz oben standen Kinder, die die Sklavenhalter selbst gezeugt hatten. Das Perverse daran ist, dass diese Kinder zu Statthaltern und leitenden Angestellten auserkoren waren. In den Kolonien bildete sich auf diese Art oft eine Zwischenkaste heraus. Die Sklaventreiber zwangen ihre kranke Ideologie diesen Kindern auf. Sie wurden dazu erzogen, einen Teil ihrer eigenen Herkunft als rechtlosen Sklaven und den anderen Teil als Meister zu sehen. Als guten, höheren Teil und als schlechten, minderen Teil. Die Bipolarität dessen ist ein gutes Beispiel für den menschenverachtenden Wahnsinn des Konzepts.

Von der Zwischenkriegszeit bis heute konkurrieren 2 Weltbilder miteinander. Um das Monopol auf die Erzeugung von sinnlosem Leid um das eigentliche Wunder der Entstehung des Lebens. Glaubensgemeinschaften, die Verhütung und Familienplanung dämonisieren und einen Zugang zu Verhütungsmitteln aktiv boykottieren. Und politische Ideologien, die indirekt, weil nicht mehr offen salonfähig, institutionalisierten Rassismus indirekt fördern.

Geburtenkontrolle mit Eugenik zu kombinieren war eine der zweifelhaften Errungenschaften dieser Ära. Oder die Kontrolle über Wohlfahrtsprogramme, was zu Zwangssterilisationen und Zwangsverhütung führte. Die Opfer wurden indirekt vor die Wahl gestellt, entweder ohne Sozialleistungen obdachlos dahin zu vegetieren oder sich irreversiblen Eingriffen an ihren Körpern zu beugen.

Intuitiv würde man annehmen, dass seit der Abschaffung der Sklaverei nie wieder derartige Verbrechen gegen die Menschlichkeit verübt wurden. Dass Zwangsabtreibung und Zwangssterilisation als Mahnmal in die Geschichte eingehen. Dass insbesondere Eugenik und indirekte Art der genetischen Kriegsführung als Mahnmäler der Geschichte gelten mögen.
Und nicht, dass man nach den Genoziden, Kriegsverbrechen, ethnischen Säuberungen und Vertreibungen des zweiten Weltkriegs noch eine derartige Praxis gefördert wurde. Bis weit ins 20 und 21 Jahrhundert hinein staatlich gefördert und gesetzlich legitimiert. In klassischer Doppelzüngigkeit und Scheinheiligkeit wurde auf die Verbrechen von Kommunismus und Faschismus gedeutet. Und gleichzeitig dasselbe Konzept gegen die eigene Bevölkerung angewandt.

Ein von der Autorin betonter Punkt ist besonders komplex. Feministinnen sind häufig weiß und wohlhabend, weswegen sie insbesondere Gleichberechtigung und Abbau von beruflichen Diskriminierungen auf ihre Agenden geschrieben haben. Die Probleme, die für viele arme, schwarze Frauen, allgegenwärtig sind, stellen sich ihnen meist nicht mehr. Daher sind deren Interessen in den Initiativen häufig unterrepräsentiert, weil in der wohlhabenden Mittel- und Oberschicht nicht mehr gegenwärtig. Die Programme und Schwerpunktsetzungen müssten erweitert werden, um die bisher zu wenig beachteten Anliegen dieser Gruppen in ausreichendem Maße zu vertreten.

Die ungewollte chemische und physische Sterilisation steht in Menschenverachtung der Tuskegee Syphilis Studie um nichts nach. Der Schaden, den das Ansehen der Medizin dadurch genommen hat, ist irreparabel und wird durch die Zweiklassenmedizin nur bestärkt. Die Kritiker werden vielleicht noch als Verschwörungstheoretiker gebrandmarkt, weil sie der Medizin misstrauen. Die Schwächsten des Systems dürfen zwar gern als medizinische Versuchskaninchen herhalten und bei bezahlten, hoch riskanten Testreihen mitmachen. Aber die lebensrettenden Medikamente, die dadurch ermöglicht werden, werden sie sich nie leisten können.

Ein weiteres systemimmantes Problem ist die mutwillige gemachte und erzeugte Armut, die keine freie Entscheidung ermöglicht. Sei es die Verfügbarkeit, Qualität und Leistbarkeit von Verhütungsmitteln, die schlechtere medizinische Betreuung oder die Einschnitte im Gesundheits- und Sozialsektor. Wenn Abtreibungen nicht leistbar sind, müssen sie von illegalen back alley doctors Hinterhofdoktoren gemacht werden.
Als Hohn werden die Opfer von Demagogen noch als Sozialschmarotzer dargestellt, welfare queens genannt und denunziert. Es besteht eine Ähnlichkeit zwischen dem direkten Rassismus gegenüber Immigranten und der indirekten Duldung der Diskriminierung von kinderreichen Familien aus einkommensschwachen Schichten.
Die Faktoren addieren sich zu einer im 21 Jahrhundert weiter gehenden, gezielten Geschlechtsdiskriminierung. Die Akzeptanz der Missstände und der erhöhten Sterblichkeits- und Krankheitsraten steht ideologisch auf einer Linie mit den früheren Zwangsabtreibungen und deren geistigen Vätern aus Zeiten der Sklaverei.

Um die Problematik nachhaltig zu entschärfen und zukünftige Generationen für derartige Missstände zu sensibilisieren, wäre eine Aufarbeitung von Kolonialisierung, Atlantischem Dreieckshandel, Sklaverei im allgemeinen, Diskriminierung, Neokolonialisierung,… vonnöten. Damit die kommenden Generationen registrieren, wenn das alles unmittelbar vor ihren Augen allgegenwärtig geschieht.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,425 reviews8,327 followers
June 15, 2020
A powerful and comprehensive book about the misogynoir and classism faced by Black women throughout the history of the United States in regard to their bodily autonomy. Killing the Black Body covers several topics related to Black women’s health, including the forced sterilization of Black women amidst the birth control movement, the racist criminalization of Black women using drugs, the stigmatization of Black women on welfare, and the extent to which reproductive technologies favor wealthy white parents over Black people in need of services. I learned a lot from this book, especially in relation to how reproductive justice has often focused on the needs of middle class and more affluent white women at the cost of Black women’s wellbeing. Dorothy Roberts intertwines legal, race, and gender analysis to address these issues and shows these injustices’ roots in history, all the way back to the enslavement of Black women and their lack of reproductive agency then. She offers solutions that emphasize expanding the definition of liberty as well as the government’s role in advancing both social and individual justice.

I would recommend this book to anyone and especially those in the fields of healthcare, social work, and similar settings where we think we are doing “good” when in reality we may be perpetuating misogynoir and classism. Though published in the 1990s this book’s topics are still relevant to today. The writing is often dense and packed with information, so I would prepare yourself for that if you pick this one up.
Profile Image for Greta.
2 reviews2 followers
September 1, 2014
When I first read this book it was sophomore year of College, and it was assigned for one of the most enlightening courses offered - Prisons, Punishment, and Democracy. Recently I wanted to revisit the horrible truths revealed/explored in the texts assigned in the course. "Killing The Black Body" is certainly not a light read, but if you're looking for honest information about shocking political policies, Black history, the truth about the exploitation of Black women and the forced control of their reproduction check this book out. Perhaps the most shocking fact about this book is that a lot of the blatant reproductive genocide in the United States occurred in the 1990's. Clearly racism plays a role in part of our political policies and this is a great book to cite as evidence for it.
Profile Image for Dan Sharber.
226 reviews73 followers
March 1, 2012
simialar to The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, this book uses the existing racial caste system and social dynamics of poverty to look at reproductive questions - both abortion as well as ivf and other fertility treatments. the author does a fantastic job with that. the only drawback for me was there was too much time spent discussing constitutional theory, specifically whether a liberty based view or an equality based view is better. while i suppose that is important, what is left out of the social justice framework is the empowerment of people fighting for their own rights. the book could've used a grassroots organizing component to go with its social justice framework rather than a somewhat deference to the supreme court and constitutional law.
Profile Image for Jessica.
593 reviews3,387 followers
September 30, 2007
Important book. I'm just being smarmy with the recommendation: this is essential reading for anyone who wishes to clarify her or his perspective on reproductive rights.

Roberts is good: even if you're no beginner when it comes to understanding how oppression of some groups contributes in less-than-obvious ways to the oppression of others, and how the interests of some relatively privileged women have not just eclipsed but seriously undermined the interests of less-privileged others, this book will enhance your understanding of that process, as well as of gender, race, reproductive rights and yes, really, even "the meaning of liberty."

It changed my thinking. I would even go so far as to say that this book changed my life.
Profile Image for Niv.
55 reviews
April 14, 2021
I was first introduced to this book via excerpts that were assigned in college courses on race and reproductive health. The excerpts alone were very fascinating, but I do believe that this is a book that should be consumed in its entirety. Dorothy Roberts' argument, that Black women have long been denied reproductive autonomy (and worse, that this structural denial of reproductive justice threatens the liberty of all women and all Black people), is thoroughly researched and documented. I challenge anyone to come up with an equally researched counterargument. Dorothy Roberts scarcely makes a claim that isn't backed up with ample proof, making it quite difficult to refute her argument.

That all being said, this is not an easy read, particularly if you are a woman, but especially if you are a Black woman. This book is a thorough accounting of the ways that the U.S. (government officials, medical institutions and private citizens alike) have sought to control the reproductive lives, and subsequently the bodies of Black women. From rape and forced breeding during slavery to eugenics, forced sterilization and the coerced use of birth control to the denial of assistance for fertility issues, the details are stomach-churning, frightening, and angering. Roberts proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the preservation and perpetuation of white genetic lineage has taken precedence over ensuring the liberty of Black women.

This is a hefty read. With the academic language and heavy subject matter, this isn't a book that you'd want to read in one sitting. I took the book chapter by chapter, and each took time to reflect upon and digest. However, this is a book that is worth the effort. Though it was written in 1997, it has particular relevance in today's atmosphere of Black Lives Matter & the renewed struggle for reproductive justice.

The best part about this book, in my opinion, is that unlike many similar Sociological works, Roberts doesn't simply lay out the problem, she also provides a solution. She provides a good argument for centering race not only in feminist movements, but also in constitutional interpretations of liberty. I love a thorough read, and Dorothy Roberts more than delivered on that front. I doubt that anyone could read this book and not be convinced by Roberts' argument.
Profile Image for Ashley Marie .
1,218 reviews376 followers
September 28, 2022
A searing look at the fight for reproductive justice. This would be an excellent precursor to Michelle Alexander's THE NEW JIM CROW. It reinforced what I've been learning as I've been studying various current issues: that is, if we are not intersectional, we're not doing it right. All of these systems are connected.

Narrated nicely by Shayna Small.
Profile Image for Stacia.
825 reviews101 followers
March 10, 2021
I probably don't have my full-fledged feminist card as I've never really read much non-fiction about reproductive rights. So, it was especially interesting for me in that I learned a lot in general & also more specifically about how/why the white perspective (conservative &/or liberal) often differs from the Black perspective on reproductive rights & body autonomy. Sometimes the end goals may be the same, but the reasoning is different. Sometimes the end goals may be different for a variety of reasons. Lots of history, culture, race, & legal information here; lots of food for thought & discussion. Fascinating & eye-opening, but also chilling, heartbreaking, & infuriating.

(I would love to see an updated addendum to cover the years since this was first published in the 1990s, but I know that would be a major undertaking for the author.)
Profile Image for Michelle.
584 reviews23 followers
July 25, 2016
Although Dorothy Roberts may have written this analysis of challenges for black women's reproductive rights in the late 1990s, it is, if anything, even more depressingly relevant today. Many white feminists get a bad rap for focusing on abortion rights to the exclusion of all else in the world of reproductive politics, and Roberts incisively highlights this by raising the issues of coercing long-acting contraception through public programs and punishments mothers on welfare receive for their stigmatized childbearing choices. Reading about the extensive historical double standards for white and black women's reproduction is a total eye-opener, even for someone with a strong interest in reproductive health and social justice issues. Although there are potentially some positive changes coming in the healthcare system, it remains to be seen whether this will help America shift from a focus on "negative" rights to a focus on "positive" rights - but if the current 'contraception debate' (ugh) in this political climate is any indication, progress might be a long time coming, especially for black women caught in the system's reproductive catch-22.
Profile Image for Megan.
433 reviews21 followers
March 1, 2017
2.5. I found the first half of the book, including the Norplant and birth control vaccine debate, to be very engaging and historically important. The second half of the book, however, was difficult to get through. Some of Roberts' arguments -- such her claim in "The Welfare Debate" that black women are being punished for having children -- are a bit of an intellectual leap. Instinctively, I feel that her belief is right; academically, I wanted to see that connection made concretely in the text. Instead, there's a lot of "X is true, and so therefore Z must also be true" reasoning going on, which works fine for the author - who after all eats, sleeps, and breathes these ideas. For the reader, it felt like a crucial middle was missing from her argument. I got the intro and the conclusion but none of the supporting evidence.

I had a similar problem with her claim in Chapters 6 and 7 that liberties should be sacrificed for equality in some circumstances. Her example came in the form of "new reproductive" techniques such as IVF that are -- or can very easily be -- abused by the privileged white. How would limiting access for everyone to those technologies improve equality? I don't think that question was ever answered well enough for my liking, and when you're talking about putting (possibly) major limits on people's access to medical technologies, your arguments have to be TIGHT.

Definitely worth a read, though I might suggest to friends to stop short of Chapter 5.
Profile Image for Jonathan.
74 reviews
March 23, 2014
"A broader understanding of reproductive freedom does not reject abortion rights in favor of a right to procreate. Rather, it sees the right to terminate a pregnancy as one part of a broader right to autonomy over ones body and ones reproductive decisionmaking."

This is a thoughtful and meticulously documented treatise on reproductive freedom, which Roberts defines as distinct from conventional notions of "choice." Roberts places black women's reproductive self-determination at the center of her discussion, tying together compulsory procreation of enslaved women, the early birth control movement and its ties to eugenics, the US' involuntary sterilization programs of the early 20th century, social control of poor women via welfare, and the prosecution of pregnant drug users (crack users, to be specific). It seems like a dizzying array of topics, and Roberts defines a clear through-line. Only the section on assisted reproductive technology does not mesh, which she tacitly acknowledges.

I loved this book and it challenged me to think about familiar topics in a new light. Dorothy Roberts is brilliant and is also a clear, persuasive writer. I recommend this to anyone with interests in reproductive rights, civil rights, black feminism, and their intersection.
29 reviews12 followers
December 22, 2009
A very important book on the history of medical abuse meted out upon women of color and how this practice, rooted in racism and the epitome of objectification, unfortunately still continues today. While Dorothy (whose other writings on bioethics I've enjoyed) lays an important outline of oppression and abuse of (mostly) black women medically, she mentions-- but doesn't much chronicle-- their resistance to these practices leaving the reader unsatisfied. Stories of resistance are just as important as stories of oppression, they force us to remember that the subject of oppression has dignity, has remained human, with an identity other than that of "victim" and is thus capable of fighting for their own rights. Otherwise, though, the book is enlightening, horrifying, and infuriating, all at the same time.

P.S: Also, perhaps she didn't wish to tread too closely upon Angela Davis' "territory" but I was surprised that she failed to mention medical abuse which goes on in prisons. This occurs in both genders, but is particularly grotesque during instances in which the prisoner is female.
Profile Image for Ashley.
500 reviews19 followers
August 2, 2013
This is one of those fantastic books that is desperately in need of a revised or second edition. Roberts analysis is as insightful and powerful as ever, yet many of the examples that figure prominently in "Killing the Black Body" date from the Clinton years. While they remain useful, an updated version would extend these into the contemporary "War on Women" setting. I particularly appreciated the final chapter on the meaning of reproductive liberty v. equality.

This is an excellent book for anyone interested in the historical roots of today's reproductive justice debates. Roberts covers the legacy of slavery, early 20th century eugenics, and contemporary welfare policy. It's not an easy read, you will have your own politics and preconceptions challenged (even if you identify as proudly "pro choice") but isn't that what makes a book worth reading?
Profile Image for Adrian Chiem.
65 reviews
July 4, 2020
This is required reading — certainly as someone who is hoping to be an OB/GYN, and who is working towards a better understanding of what it means to fight for equity and positive liberty — but for anyone who is trying to understand the greater context of our current fight for reproductive rights.

It is not enough to learn of Sims' cruelty in learning about gynecology; it is not enough to learn about Margaret Sanger and the history of Planned Parenthood. It is the BARE MINIMUM to understand that fighting for access to abortions is certainly important, but that the whole of reproductive liberty will never been realized until the fight is appropriately framed within a social justice framework that recognizes centuries of racial oppression.

This was written in 1997. I'm grateful that I have the privilege to learn.
Profile Image for Krysten.
464 reviews16 followers
October 19, 2013
When people try to argue that racism and/or sexism are over in America, they should be required to read this book. When they use phrases like "two-term Black president" or "men's rights" they should try to see what the fuck is actually going on in this country.

I read this book in 2006. It's stuck with me. But at the end of the day I know I experienced it from a position of white privilege and all I can be is horrified.

Profile Image for Kharm.
99 reviews11 followers
December 3, 2009
This was really an excelent book if you'd like to learn about the ways our society has consistantly discriminated against Black/poor women's reproductive rights.

My problem was that it felt like she was ignoring the class issues to focus on the race issues, or she acted as if they were somehow one in the same. As if all poor people are Black. Umm, no.
Profile Image for Abby Russo.
195 reviews10 followers
June 9, 2020
This book provided a thorough and extensive background on how black motherhood has systemically been devalued in American Society and gave new ideas about how reproductive liberty should be viewed to make a more just society. Essential reading for a better understanding of race in the US as well as intersectional identities of black women. The historical background gave a lot of context to how the reproductive policies in the country have developed as well as the laws that ground them.
Profile Image for Corvus.
563 reviews147 followers
January 16, 2021
Even though there are some missed opportunities to discuss ableism, and some ableist comments, as well as frequent quoting of big name terfs like Janice Raymond (despite the better alternative of Black radfems offering information oddly,) it was written in the 90s and includes so much important and we'll researched information and analysis still unfortunately applicable to today, so 5 stars. I learned a ton from this book that I had not from the books that have come after it and have likely been inspired by it. This and Medical Apartheid are both required reading for sure, especially for USAmericans.
Profile Image for Grace.
152 reviews
August 14, 2020
I learned a ton from this book. Killing the Black Body opened my eyes to an experience with reproduction rights that looks very different from my own. Roberts provides an in-depth look at the ways our views of reproduction freedom have failed Black women, historically and, unfortunately, today. Though a bit dense, this is well worth the read!
9 reviews
June 5, 2012
Its a very college level book so as a highschooler i found it hard to understand at some times. It was very straight forward and hit very intresting points that i think some people are scared to talk about. Race. It shows how black women are shown as welfare rats and have no goal or anything. I think everyone should read this. Everyone.
Profile Image for Leslie.
25 reviews1 follower
May 1, 2011
Dense and exhaustive, the case Roberts makes is rock solid. If reproductive rights for black women simply means access to birth control and abortion to you, then you are the target audience for this book.
Profile Image for Donald Allen.
6 reviews2 followers
January 7, 2013
Everyone out there should read this book. I stumbled upon this book when I was doing some research about poor black women and how the government controls their homes, bodies and who stays with them in a home.
683 reviews9 followers
April 9, 2018

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, by law professor Dorothy Roberts, was first published in 1997, but the topic it addresses, the relationship between race and concepts of reproductive freedom, are no less fraught today than they were 20 years ago - in fact, these issues, in the era of Black Lives Matter, may be even more crucial now.

White feminism has long framed reproductive freedom as the freedom not to bear children, and advocated for access to birth control and abortion. What this fails to recognise is the ways in which reproduction for black women is a story that begins with forced rape and abduction of children during slavery, and continues through eugenicist narratives to coerced administration of birth control and forced sterilisation.

“...we need to reconsider the meaning of reproductive liberty to take into account its relationship to racial oppression. While Black women’s stories are sometimes inserted as an aside in deliberations about reproductive issues, I place them at the center of this reconstructive project. How does Black women’s experience change the current interpretation of reproductive freedom? The dominant notion of reproductive liberty is flawed in several ways. It is limited by the liberal ideals of individual autonomy and freedom from government interference; it is primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women; and it is focused on the right to abortion. The full extent of many Americans’ conception of reproductive freedom is the Constitution’s protection against laws that ban abortion. I suggest an expanded and less individualistic conception of reproductive liberty that recognizes control of reproduction as a critical means of racial oppression and liberation in America. I do not deny the importance of autonomy over one’s own reproductive life, but I also recognize that reproductive policy affects the status of entire groups. Reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy. It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

By tracing social responses to black women’s reproductive history, fertility and family choices, Roberts demonstrates the ways in which reproductive freedom has many different meanings for black women. Where white ablebodied women have in general been encouraged to have children, leading to a construction of reproductive freedom as the choice not to reproduce except on her own terms, the mass of historical and social meanings surrounding reproduction for black women leads to a far more complex formulation of what it means for them to have full autonomy over their reproduction.

Roberts begins where all narratives of black people in the Americas must begin, with the conditions of slavery. Black women were seen not only as labourers, but as the source of new slaves to add to the labour force. While systematic breeding of slaves was not common, most slaveowners were well aware of the economic benefits of black women’s fertility. Childbearing was encouraged, barrenness punished. Rape was common, both at the hands of white men, and black men chosen as mates for potentially fertile women. At the same time, black women had no rights to their children, who were legally the property of their owners. Their children might be taken from them, and sold away or rented out without any recourse. Even when their families remained intact, mothers often had little choice over the rearing of their children. As healthy slaves were required to work long hours, childrearing was often assigned to older or disabled slaves who could no longer work at hard labour.

Roberts goes on to discuss the shift in social pressures brought to bear on black women once slavery was abolished and their reproduction no longer benefits owners. The growing eugenics movement, based in a belief that a range of character traits from intelligence to moral behaviour were hereditary in nature, combined with racist constructions of black people as unintelligent, sexually promiscuous, morally lax, lazy, insubordinate, and otherwise undesirable, began to argue for limitations on reproduction among black people, as well as other “undesirable” groups. Sterilisation of both men and women in these groups, as well as limited access to prenatal and perinatal care for the poor were advocated as means of preventing the passing on of inferior genes.

“I turn to a discussion of eugenics because this way of thinking helped to shape our understanding of reproduction and permeates the promotion of contemporary policies that regulate Black women’s childbearing. Racist ideology, in turn, provided fertile soil for eugenic theories to take root and flourish. It bears remembering that in our parents’ lifetime states across the country forcibly sterilized thousands of citizens thought to be genetically inferior. America’s recent eugenic past should serve as a warning of the dangerous potential inherent in the notion that social problems are caused by reproduction and can be cured by population control.”

However, Roberts acknowledges the complexity of black attitudes toward birth control. Many black women used various forms of birth control, from abstinence to barrier methods to post-coital douching and abortion. Over the first half of the 20th century, the birth rate among black women fell to the same levels found among white women. The ambiguities result from the mixed messages for birth control. Many white birth control advocates - and some Black advocates as well - used the language of eugenics, while most black advocates talked in terms of spacing families, improving maternal health and decreasing infant mortality. At the same time, a significant number of black voices called for blacks to resist family planning as a firm of racial suicide, and indeed, to raise birth rates in order to outpace white population growth.

Roberts devotes considerable space to a discussion of the use of Norplant as a birth control method aimed at - and in some cases forced upon - poor and minority women, with particular emphasis on preventing pregnancy among unmarried teens and women on welfare. Issues ranging from unethical testing on Third World women to lack of long-term testing, to side effects, health risks and problems with implant removal, point to a ‘solution’ adopted without much thought fir the real concerns of women, as a measure to control the reproduction of the poor, and particularly women of colour. Part of the hidden coerciveness of Norplant comes from the fact that, unlike other forms of contraception, which a woman can simply decide not to use, Norplant can only be discontinued with the intervention of a medical practitioner.

“Being able to get Norplant removed quickly and easily is critical to a user’s control over reproductive decisionmaking. Yet poor and low-income women often find themselves in a predicament when they seek to have the capsules extracted. Their experience with Norplant is a telling example of how a woman’s social circumstances affect her reproductive “choices.” A woman whose insertion procedure was covered by Medicaid or private insurance may be uninsured at the time she decides to have the tubes removed. A woman who had the money to pay for implantation may be too broke to afford extraction. Some women have complained that they learned of the cost of removal—from $150 to $500—only after returning to a physician to have the implants taken out.”

Other key examples of the policing of Black women’s bodies and reproduction focused on in Roberts’ examination of race and reproductive freedom include the prosecution and incarceration of poor, and primarily black, pregnant and post-natal drug users on charges of child abuse, child neglect, and similar crimes. She shows clearly that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the goals here are not to protect black fetuses or to fight drug abuse, rather, that the factor driving such prosecutions is the desire to control black reproduction. She also dissects the American welfare system, showing how it is designed to penalise poor black women with children. A discussion of new reproductive technologies such as IVF observes the ways in which the costs if these technologies, and the fact that they are not covered by Medicaid or many insurance plans, make them inaccessible to Black women and families who are infertile or otherwise having difficulty in having a child.

Roberts concludes her examination of race and reproduction by examining the ways in which the liberal understanding of liberty as a defense of individual choice fails to provide true social justice and equality. Modern American law and society has focused on liberty as a protection from government intervention, and ignored the potential for equality that can come from government action. To ensure equality in the area of reproduction, as in many other areas, requires a balance between liberty and equality as guiding principles. This formulation of a positive, progressive idea of liberty:

“... includes not only the negative proscription against government coercion, but also the affirmative duty of government to protect the individual’s personhood from degradation and to facilitate the processes of choice and self-determination. This approach shifts the focus of liberty theory from state nonintervention to an affirmative guarantee of personhood and autonomy. Under this postliberal doctrine, the government is not only prohibited from penalizing welfare mothers or crack-dependent women for choosing to bear children; it is also required to provide subsistence benefits, drug treatment, and medical care. Ultimately, the state should facilitate, not block, citizens’ efforts to install more just and egalitarian economic, social, and political systems.”
Profile Image for Leah M.
1,120 reviews32 followers
February 19, 2023
I came across this book in a collection of books to read regarding abortion and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. It’s been on the back burner of my TBR, as I slowly work through the backlog, but I figured that Black History Month was the perfect time to get this read started. I read it in audiobook version, and while it is densely packed with facts and information, narrator Shayna Small kept it intriguing and engaging for the entire time. Since I read this as an audiobook, I didn’t keep track of trigger warnings, but beware, there are plenty—including enslavement, sexual assault, violence, medical experimentation, racism, and substance use, just to name a few.

It’s organized in a linear manner, starting with the challenges that enslaved women faced, and how those impacted not only the women, but the men and the children as well. Enslaved women were frequently subjected to sexual assault, and didn’t have a say over the control of their families, which could be broken up at any time at the whim of the slaveowner. In addition, enslaved people were tasked with their responsibilities to the slaveowner as their primary job, and childcare came second, to the detriment of the children, who had higher rates of mortality. Enslaved women were even experimented on to advance medical learning, with Dr. Sims, considered the father of modern gynecology being known for his extensive surgeries on enslaved women (without anesthesia of course), leading to the persistent myth that Black women can handle more pain than white women.

While the introduction of birth control was viewed as a positive for so many people, Black women were once again thrown under the bus. If you’ve read Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, you already have some insight into what this meant for women of color. In an effort to control birth rates among Black women, they were forced to take birth control or even get sterilized without even realizing it, based in the principles of eugenics.

Once crack cocaine came onto the scene, with the hysteria about crack babies making headlines across the nation, the legal system decided to come down hard on Black women, while simultaneously ignoring white women who used substances during their pregnancy and gave birth to babies who tested positive. Yet Black women in the same situation were taken to jail and forced to terminate parental rights, often heading to jail directly from the hospital. The welfare system also exerted control over the reproduction of Black women, promoting the idea of a “welfare queen,” or a Black women indiscriminately giving birth to multiple children simply to remain on welfare, when in reality, the system is stacked against a woman with even one child. A single parent who is struggling financially can probably find a job, but factor in childcare, rent, food, transportation, clothing, and any other basic needs, and a job doesn’t even cover the minimum. Each additional child means that more money is needed to get on your feet, and it becomes harder to get off welfare and become independent.

Reading this book gave me even more of an idea as to what Black women have gone through in the last few centuries, and it isn’t a pretty picture at all. This is the ugly side of American history that needs to be understood, and while we all know about the Tuskegee experiments, there’s so much more about the way America has worked to uphold the ideals of white supremacy while continuing to oppress Black people. Despite telling Black people that they are free and have the same freedoms as anyone else in America, after reading this book, it’s plain as day to see that this hasn’t been the truth at any point, and there’s a really long way to go before this is anywhere close to being true.

This is an incredibly powerful book, and despite the fact that the story only goes through to the 1990s, it’s still relevant today. There’s a long history of systemic racism in America, and it’s hard to ignore after reading this book. This is one of those books that needs to be required reading, to help people understand about the systemic racism, misogynoir, classism, and control that has and continues to be exerted over Black women, especially poor Black women, in an effort to start making the changes that are needed to improve our society.
Profile Image for Margaret Carmel.
593 reviews31 followers
February 28, 2021
This is one of the most important books I've read in years.

Killing the Black Body walks through hundreds of years of American history and dissects all of the ways Black women's reproduction have been controlled by the government or society in general. There's so much horrifying history here, but what makes it is Dorothy Robert's razor sharp analysis of what it all means. Point for point, she breaks down her arguments and helps the reader understand all of the ways the Black women's reproductive rights in America have been curtailed.

Starting with slavery and going all the way up to the introduction of new fertility technology in the 1990s, Roberts covers so much history here it will make your head spin. She dives into the government's sterilization of women of color, the prosecution of women using crack cocaine, the close tie between birth control advocates and the eugenics movement and more. Every chapter is chock full of horrifying history you may not have known and her stunning legal analysis that would convince nearly any skeptic at how deeply racist these systems are. It blew my mind.

This is so essential, especially to anyone interested in women's rights on both sides of the abortion debate.
Profile Image for Megan.
58 reviews
December 23, 2022
The writing is a bit dry but this is an absolute must read, especially in 2022 with the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade. Roberts brings out an important perspective for bodily autonomy that's deliberately overlooked by mainstream liberal media and white feminists. Discussion in present day tends to focus on white women being forced to have children they don't want, but we need to spend far more effort highlighting the healthcare laws and court decisions that prevent black women from having the children they DO want.
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