Fannie Lou Hamer, a brilliant civil rights advocate in the racially dangerous 1960s state of Mississippi, entered a hospital to have minor surgery. She emerged with her reproductive organs altered such that she could never procreate. Unknowingly, she had been the victim of a barbaric act—sterilization without her consent.
In 2002, the state of North Carolina apologized for the irreparable and immeasurable harm many poor Black women and girls endured when their ability to bare children was wrenched away from them by degrading sterilizations performed without their consent or knowledge.
I am a Black woman watching the abominable ways in which powerful white males are attempting to take away women’s rights to control and govern their own bodies, and it dredges up the terrifying history of the many inhumane ways in which Black female bodies have been the site of unconscionable behaviors at the hands of white males.
There is a long history of degradation, damage and harm. So, we must pay attention.
For example, J. Marion Sims, previously dubbed the “father of gynecology,” acquired his knowledge by performing horrific, unsafe, painful, and unsanitary “experiments” on Black women’s bodies. It was the 1800s and these Black women, obviously, lacked agency as they were experimented on without even so much as anesthesia. Until 2018, there was a statue of Sims in Central Park, across from the New York Academy of Medicine, commemorating his life and work. That is, until women demanded its removal.
During slavery, many Black women were violently forced to submit to rape to conceive children in order to increase the enslaved workforce that built this country. Black women were also brutally raped by white men even when they were “married” (although such marriages were not recognized by whites) or already pregnant. Black girls were raped and impregnated by white males, too — sometimes by their own white fathers.
Unrelenting assaults upon Black women continued in the Jim Crow era and made life and community extremely difficult. The appalling 1944 gang rape of 24-year-old Alabamian Recy Taylor by white men from “prominent” families, according to the Chicago Defender newspaper, was just one of many atrocities allowed during a time when access to any semblance of justice was mostly off limits for Blacks. Taylor was a wife and mother whose “rights” meant nothing.
Black people’s lack of equal protection under the law permitted the wanton exploitation of Black women’s bodies in the south and, all too often, in the north, too.
This belief some men possess regarding their “right” to commandeer a woman’s womb, and make life-altering, traumatizing decisions at the site of that woman’s body has to be stamped out and stopped. It is absurd and retrograde. It is a savage assertion of raw power, and it is a way for men to be in perpetual control of a woman’s life.
For if a man rapes a woman, and she becomes pregnant without the option of an abortion, he has continued rights in her life despite this crude and cruel intrusion into her world. It is a naked attempt to circumscribe a woman’s freedom, psychological health, pursuit of happiness, and life.
Here, in 2021, we are once again in a fight over who controls Black women’s bodies — as if it should even be up for consideration. As if Black women’s bodies were property, as if Black women’s bodies were publicly owned, as if Black women are never to have sanctuary in, and possession of, their own bodies. As Fannie Lou Hamer once declared, a “Black woman’s body was never hers alone.” This must be challenged and changed for the good of all.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once noted that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This threat to the settled jurisprudence of Roe v. Wade is a threat to the rule of law and to all women everywhere who value autonomy and freedom. A woman who has an abortion has likely made one of the most difficult and heart rending decisions of her life, but it is her decision to make based on her life’s circumstances.
White men who support this egregious harm to the reproductive freedom of women and girls are lusting for complete, unfettered power and control. Many of these men are the same ones willing to fight to the death over their “right” to run around unmasked in the midst of a public health pandemic.
They are the ones who argue, with respect to vaccinations, that they have the right to control their own bodies. The inconsistency in their arguments is obvious, but perhaps the meaning is not: Only their freedoms are important.
This shameless gambit is inimical to everything this country is supposed to stand for and against. It is an affront to the basic tenets of natural and constitutional law and it must be stopped.