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Racism, Birth Control
and Reproductive Rights
When nineteenth-century feminists raised the demand for “voluntary motherhood,” the
campaign for birth control was born. Its proponents were called radicals and they were
subjected to the same mockery as had befallen the initial advocates of woman suffrage.
“Voluntary motherhood” was considered audacious, outrageous and outlandish by those
who insisted that wives had no right to refuse to satisfy their husbands’ sexual urges.
Eventually, of course, the right to birth control, like women’s right to vote, would be more
or less taken for granted by U.S. public opinion. Yet in 1970, a full century later, the call for
legal and easily accessible abortions was no less controversial than the issue of “voluntary
motherhood” which had originally launched the birth control movement in the United
Birth control—individual choice, safe contraceptive methods, as well as abortions when
necessary—is a fundamental prerequisite for the emancipation of women. Since the right of
birth control is obviously advantageous to women of all classes and races, it would appear
that even vastly dissimilar women’s groups would have attempted to unite around this
issue. In reality, however, the birth control movement has seldom succeeded in uniting
women of different social backgrounds, and rarely have the movement’s leaders popularized
the genuine concerns of working-class women. Moreover, arguments advanced by birth
control advocates have sometimes been based on blatantly racist premises. The progressive
potential of birth control remains indisputable. But in actuality, the historical record of this
movement leaves much to be desired in the realm of challenges to racism and class
The most important victory of the contemporary birth control movement was won during
the early 1970s when abortions were at last declared legal. Having emerged during the
infancy of the new Women’s Liberation movement, the struggle to legalize abortions
incorporated all the enthusiasm and the militancy of the young movement. By January,
1973, the abortion rights campaign had reached a triumphant culmination. In Roe v. Wade
(410 U.S.) and Doe v. Bolton (410 U.S.), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right
to personal privacy implied her right to decide whether or not to have an abortion.
The ranks of the abortion rights campaign did not include substantial numbers of women
of color. Given the racial composition of the larger Women’s Liberation movement, this was
not at all surprising. When questions were raised about the absence of racially oppressed
women in both the larger movement and in the abortion rights campaign, two explanations
were commonly proposed in the discussions and literature of the period: women of color
were overburdened by their people’s fight against racism; and/or they had not yet become
conscious of the centrality of sexism. But the real meaning of the almost lily-white
complexion of the abortion rights campaign was not to be found in an ostensibly myopic or
underdeveloped consciousness among women of color. The truth lay buried in the
ideological underpinnings of the birth control movement itself.
The failure of the abortion rights campaign to conduct a historical self-evaluation led to a
dangerously superficial appraisal of Black people’s suspicious attitudes toward birth control
in general. Granted, when some Black people unhesitatingly equated birth control with
genocide, it did appear to be an exaggerated—even paranoiac—reaction. Yet white abortion
rights activists missed a profound message, for underlying these cries of genocide were
important clues about the history of the birth control movement. This movement, for
example, had been known to advocate involuntary sterilization—a racist form of mass
“birth control.” If ever women would enjoy the right to plan their pregnancies, legal and
easily accessible birth control measures and abortions would have to be complemented by
an end to sterilization abuse.
As for the abortion rights campaign itself, how could women of color fail to grasp its
urgency? They were far more familiar than their white sisters with the murderously clumsy
scalpels of inept abortionists seeking profit in illegality. In New York, for instance, during
the several years preceding the decriminalization of abortions in that state, some 80 percent
of the deaths caused by illegal abortions involved Black and Puerto Rican women.1
Immediately afterward, women of color received close to half of all the legal abortions. If
the abortion rights campaign of the early 1970s needed to be reminded that women of color
wanted desperately to escape the back-room quack abortionists, they should have also
realized that these same women were not about to express pro-abortion sentiments. They
were in favor of abortion rights, which did not mean that they were proponents of abortion.
When Black and Latina women resort to abortions in such large numbers, the stories they
tell are not so much about their desire to be free of their pregnancy, but rather about the
miserable social conditions which dissuade them from bringing new lives into the world.
Black women have been aborting themselves since the earliest days of slavery. Many
slave women refused to bring children into a world of interminable forced labor, where
chains and floggings and sexual abuse for women were the everyday conditions of life. A
doctor practicing in Georgia around the middle of the last century noticed that abortions
and miscarriages were far more common among his slave patients than among the white
women he treated. According to the physician, either Black women worked too hard or
… as the planters believe, the blacks are possessed of a secret by which they destroy the fetus at
an early stage of gestation … All country practitioners are aware of the frequent complaints of
planters (about the) … unnatural tendency in the African female to destroy her offspring.
Expressing shock that “… whole families of women fail to have any children,”3 this doctor
never considered how “unnatural” it was to raise children under the slave system. The
previously mentioned episode of Margaret Garner, a fugitive slave who killed her own
daughter and attempted suicide herself when she was captured by slavecatchers, is a case in
She rejoiced that the girl was dead—“now she would never know what a woman suffers as a
slave”—and pleaded to be tried for murder. “I will go singing to the gallows rather than be
returned to slavery!”4
Why were self-imposed abortions and reluctant acts of infanticide such common
occurrences during slavery? Not because Black women had discovered solutions to their
predicament, but rather because they were desperate. Abortions and infanticides were acts
of desperation, motivated not by the biological birth process but by the oppressive
conditions of slavery. Most of these women, no doubt, would have expressed their deepest
resentment had someone hailed their abortions as a stepping stone toward freedom.
During the early abortion rights campaign it was too frequently assumed that legal
abortions provided a viable alternative to the myriad problems posed by poverty. As if
having fewer children could create more jobs, higher wages, better schools, etc., etc. This
assumption reflected the tendency to blur the distinction between abortion rights and the
general advocacy of abortions. The campaign often failed to provide a voice for women who
wanted the right to legal abortions while deploring the social conditions that prohibited
them from bearing more children.
The renewed offensive against abortion rights that erupted during the latter half of the
1970s has made it absolutely necessary to focus more sharply on the needs of poor and
racially oppressed women. By 1977 the passage of the Hyde Amendment in Congress had
mandated the withdrawal of federal funding for abortions, causing many state legislatures
to follow suit. Black, Puerto Rican, Chicana and Native American Indian women, together
with their impoverished white sisters, were thus effectively divested of the right to legal
abortions. Since surgical sterilizations, funded by the Department of Health, Education and
Welfare, remained free on demand, more and more poor women have been forced to opt for
permanent infertility. What is urgently required is a broad campaign to defend the
reproductive rights of all women—and especially those women whose economic
circumstances often compel them to relinquish the right to reproduction itself.
Women’s desire to control their reproductive system is probably as old as human history
itself. As early as 1844 the United States Practical Receipt Book contained, among its many
recipes for food, household chemicals and medicines, “receipts” for “birth preventive
lotions.” To make “Hannay’s Preventive Lotion,” for example,
[t]ake pearlash, 1 part; water, 6 parts. Mix and filter. Keep it in closed bottles, and use it, with or
without soap, immediately after connexion.5
For “Abernethy’s Preventive Lotion,”
[t]ake bichloride of mercury, 25 parts; milk of almonds, 400 parts; alcohol, 100 parts; rosewater,
1000 parts. Immerse the glands in a little of the mixture.… Infallible, if used in proper time.
While women have probably always dreamed of infallible methods of birth control, it was
not until the issue of women’s rights in general became the focus of an organized movement
that reproductive rights could emerge as a legitimate demand. In an essay entitled
“Marriage,” written during the 1850s, Sarah Grimke argued for a “… right on the part of
woman to decide when she shall become a mother, how often and under what
circumstances.”7 Alluding to one physician’s humorous observation, Grimke agreed that if
wives and husbands alternatively gave birth to their children, “… no family would ever
have more than three, the husband bearing one and the wife two.”8 But, as she insists,
“… the right to decide this matter has been almost wholly denied to woman.”9
Sarah Grimke advocated women’s right to sexual abstinence. Around the same time the
well-known “emancipated marriage” of Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell took place. These
abolitionists and women’s rights activists were married in a ceremony that protested
women’s traditional relinquishment of their rights to their persons, names and property. In
agreeing that as husband, he had no right to the “custody of the wife’s person,”10 Henry
Blackwell promised that he would not attempt to impose the dictates of his sexual desires
upon his wife.
The notion that women could refuse to submit to their husbands’ sexual demands
eventually became the central idea of the call for “voluntary motherhood.” By the 1870s,
when the woman suffrage movement had reached its peak, feminists were publicly
advocating voluntary motherhood. In a speech delivered in 1873, Victoria Woodhull
claimed that
(t)he wife who submits to sexual intercourse against her wishes or desires, virtually commits
suicide; while the husband who compels it, commits murder, and ought just as much to be
punished for it, as though he strangled her to death for refusing him.11
Woodhull, of course, was quite notorious as a proponent of “free love.” Her defense of a
woman’s right to abstain from sexual intercourse within marriage as a means of controlling
her pregnancies was associated with Woodhull’s overall attack on the institution of
It was not a coincidence that women’s consciousness of their reproductive rights was born
within the organized movement for women’s political equality. Indeed, if women remained
forever burdened by incessant childbirths and frequent miscarriages, they would hardly be
able to exercise the political rights they might win. Moreover, women’s new dreams of
pursuing careers and other paths of self-development outside marriage and motherhood
could only be realized if they could limit and plan their pregnancies. In this sense, the
slogan “voluntary motherhood” contained a new and genuinely progressive vision of
womanhood. At the same time, however, this vision was rigidly bound to the lifestyle
enjoyed by the middle classes and the bourgeoisie. The aspirations underlying the demand
for “voluntary motherhood” did not reflect the conditions of working-class women, engaged
as they were in a far more fundamental fight for economic survival. Since this first call for
birth control was associated with goals which could only be achieved by women possessing
material wealth, vast numbers of poor and working-class women would find it rather
difficult to identify with the embryonic birth control movement.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century the white birth rate in the United States
suffered a significant decline. Since no contraceptive innovations had been publicly
introduced, the drop in the birth rate implied that women were substantially curtailing their
sexual activity. By 1890 the typical native-born white woman was bearing no more than
four children.12 Since U.S. society was becoming increasingly urban, this new birth pattern
should not have been a surprise. While farm life demanded large families, they became
dysfunctional within the context of city life. Yet this phenomenon was publicly interpreted
in a racist and anti-working-class fashion by the ideologues of rising monopoly capitalism.
Since native-born white women were bearing fewer children, the specter of “race suicide”
was raised in official circles.
In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt concluded his Lincoln Day Dinner speech with the
proclamation that “race purity must be maintained.”13 By 1906 he blatantly equated the
falling birth rate among native-born whites with the impending threat of “race suicide.” In
his State of the Union message that year Roosevelt admonished the well-born white women
who engaged in “willful sterility—the one sin for which the penalty is national death, race
suicide.”14 These comments were made during a period of accelerating racist ideology and
of great waves of race riots and lynchings on the domestic scene. Moreover, President
Roosevelt himself was attempting to muster support for the U.S. seizure of the Philippines,
the country’s most recent imperialist venture.
How did the birth control movement respond to Roosevelt’s accusation that their cause
was promoting race suicide? The President’s propagandistic ploy was a failure, according to
a leading historian of the birth control movement, for, ironically, it led to greater support
for its advocates. Yet, as Linda Gordon maintains, this controversy “… also brought to the
forefront those issues that most separated feminists from the working class and the poor.”15
This happened in two ways. First, the feminists were increasingly emphasizing birth control as a
route to careers and higher education—goals out of reach of the poor with or without birth
control. In the context of the whole feminist movement, the race-suicide episode was an additional
factor identifying feminism almost exclusively with the aspirations of the more privileged women
of the society. Second, the pro-birth control feminists began to popularize the idea that poor
people had a moral obligation to restrict the size of their families, because large families create a
drain on the taxes and charity expenditures of the wealthy and because poor children were less
likely to be “superior.”16
The acceptance of the race-suicide thesis, to a greater or lesser extent, by women such as
Julia Ward Howe and Ida Husted Harper reflected the suffrage movement’s capitulation to
the racist posture of Southern women. If the suffragists acquiesced to arguments invoking
the extension of the ballot to women as the saving grace of white supremacy, then birth
control advocates either acquiesced to or supported the new arguments invoking birth
control as a means of preventing the proliferation of the “lower classes” and as an antidote
to race suicide. Race suicide could be prevented by the introduction of birth control among
Black people, immigrants and the poor in general. In this way, the prosperous whites of
solid Yankee stock could maintain their superior numbers within the population. Thus classbias and racism crept into the birth control movement when it was still in its infancy. More
and more, it was assumed within birth control circles that poor women, Black and
immigrant alike, had a “moral obligation to restrict the size of their families.”17 What was
demanded as a “right” for the privileged came to be interpreted as a “duty” for the poor.
When Margaret Sanger embarked upon her lifelong crusade for birth control—a term she
coined and popularized—it appeared as though the racist and anti-working-class overtones
of the previous period might possibly be overcome. For Margaret Higgens Sanger came from
a working-class background herself and was well acquainted with the devastating pressures
of poverty. When her mother died, at the age of forty-eight, she had borne no less than
eleven children. Sanger’s later memories of her own family’s troubles would confirm her
belief that working-class women had a special need for the right to plan and space their
pregnancies autonomously. Her affiliation, as an adult, with the Socialist movement was a
further cause for hope that the birth control campaign would move in a more progressive
When Margaret Sanger joined the Socialist party in 1912, she assumed the responsibility
of recruiting women from New York’s working women’s clubs into the party.18 The Call—
the party’s paper—carried her articles on the women’s page. She wrote a series entitled
“What Every Mother Should Know,” another called “What Every Girl Should Know,” and
she did on-the-spot coverage of strikes involving women. Sanger’s familiarity with New
York’s working-class districts was a result of her numerous visits as a trained nurse to the
poor sections of the city. During these visits, she points out in her autobiography, she met
countless numbers of women who desperately desired knowledge about birth control.
According to Sanger’s autobiographical reflections, one of the many visits she made as a
nurse to New York’s Lower East Side convinced her to undertake a personal crusade for
birth control. Answering one of her routine calls, she discovered that twenty-eight-year-old
Sadie Sachs had attempted to abort herself. Once the crisis had passed, the young woman
asked the attending physician to give her advice on birth prevention. As Sanger relates the
story, the doctor recommended that she “… tell (her husband) Jake to sleep on the roof.”19
I glanced quickly to Mrs. Sachs. Even through my sudden tears I could see stamped on her face an
expression of absolute despair. We simply looked at each other, saying no word until the door had
closed behind the doctor. Then she lifted her thin, blue-veined hands and clasped them
beseechingly. “He can’t understand. He’s only a man. But you do, don’t you? Please tell me the
secret, and I’ll never breathe it to a soul. Please!”20
Three months later Sadie Sachs died from another self-induced abortion. That night,
Margaret Sanger says, she vowed to devote all her energy toward the acquisition and
dissemination of contraceptive measures.
I went to bed, knowing that no matter what it might cost, I was finished with palliatives and
superficial cures; I resolved to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of
mothers whose miseries were as vast as the sky.
During the first phase of Sanger’s birth control crusade, she maintained her affiliation
with the Socialist party—and the campaign itself was closely associated with the rising
militancy of …
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