What reproductive justice means to people of color

Dr. Leandra Hernandez addresses reproductive justice during the Roots of Knowledge Speaker Series on Oct. 7. (Graphic by Ivette Pimentel)

Understanding the “horrific” history of racial inequality is necessary in order for modern reproductive justice, said Dr. Leandra Hernandez in the Roots of Knowledge Speaker Series on Oct. 7.

Hernandez began her presentation by explaining how her research is connected to the Roots of Knowledge by looking at the piece called “Genesis of Humanity.” The Roots of Knowledge describes this piece as, “Seated at the base of the Tree of Life are a man and woman who could be interpreted as ancestors of the human race, similar to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic story of Adam and Eve. The tree itself is composed of human beings originating from this prehistoric pairing.” 

“I thought this was particularly fitting for our time today especially as we’re thinking about families, life, and reproductive justice,” said Hernandez about how “Genesis of Humanity” connected to her research. “For me as a Mexican-American woman, I was also drawn to it because as we think about the tree of life interculturally, one of my favorite parts of growing up is the Mexican tree of life or Arbol de Vida.”

“A Tree of Life (Spanish: Árbol de la vida) is a theme of clay sculpture created in central Mexico, especially in the municipality of Metepec, State of Mexico,” according to Wikipedia. “The image depicted in these sculptures originally was for the teaching of the Biblical story of creation to natives in the early colonial period.”

“In order to understand where we are now we have to understand where we came from,” said Hernandez when talking about knowing the history of reproductive injustices in the U.S. because “we don’t focus on it as much… Black women slaves were used as test subjects for reproductive health procedures as early as the mid 1800’s.” 

According to Historical Collections and Archives, during the years 1845-1849 enslaved black women were forced to be performed on for a series of experimental surgeries, performed by J. Marion Sims, that caused complications in childbirth. There have been debates on whether or not those women gave their consent.

“J. Marion Sims is always heralded as the father of modern gynecology, but the process through which he got there is horrific to say the absolute least,” Hernandez said.

“Medical experimentation on people of color was not uncommon practice at the time and continued to occur long after the abolishment of slavery,” according to Historical Collections and Archives. “Such experiments were considered socially acceptable, reflecting the influence of racism on the history of medical research and practice in the United States.” 

Hernandez talked about a documentary she watched during her research called “No Mas Bebes.” According to PBS, “‘No Más Bebés’ tells the story of a little-known but landmark event in reproductive justice, when a small group of Mexican immigrant women sued county doctors, the state, and the U.S. government after they were sterilized while giving birth at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the late 1960s and early 1970s.” 

Hernandez said that “women of color and communities of color have shared concerns about histories of forced sterilization, boarding schools… Mexican and Puerto Rican women have been dealt the same fate.”

“When you think about the interrelated nature of culture and gender and language and access,” said Hernandez of forced sterilizations. “Many of the women did not have forms in literacy levels that they could understand, in languages that they could understand, and they were given forms to sign when they were literally going into labor. They’re under the assumption that the forms that they were signing were for anesthesia and other related medical tests [but] they were signing off to be sterilized.”

According to an article written by Alexandra Minna Stern, professor of American culture, history, and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, “Black women were sterilized at more than three times the rate of white women and more than 12 times the rate of white men. This pattern reflected the ideas that Black women were not capable of being good parents and poverty should be managed with reproductive constraint.”

“All forced sterilization campaigns, regardless of their time or place, have one thing in common,” Stern wrote. “They involve dehumanizing a particular subset of the population deemed less worthy of reproduction and family formation. They merge perceptions of disability with racism, xenophobia and sexism – resulting in the disproportionate sterilization of minority groups.”

Hernandez also spoke about the separation of families at the border who are seeking asylum and said that “there are some families that were never reunited to this day.” 

“Mabel Gonzales Brebe fled the Central American nation with her family and a price on her head to seek asylum at the U.S. border,” wrote the Associated Press. “Instead, U.S. officials separated her from her children, jailed and deported her under President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy to prosecute adults entering the country illegally.”

“Think about the practices of being an engaged and active citizen,” Hernandez said. “[Even if it’s] as small as writing a letter to your politician or something a little larger like volunteering your time or attending a town hall meeting … to contribute to the larger fight toward reproductive justice … We can make a difference for good in the world.” 

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