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Reproductive Justice Timeline
Trigger warning for graphic content.
Reproductive Justice Timeline
The reproductive justice timeline is a history of reproductive oppression in the United States. Unlike most histories, this timeline centers the experiences of people of color.
Oppression is the prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control; the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel or unjust manner. Reproductive oppression looks at the way reproduction, especially the reproduction of people of color, are controlled in an unjust manner.
During slavery, Black women in bondage were denied the rights of motherhood and treated as ‘breeders’ whose children were sold by their owners. Slavery represented the absolute denial of reproductive rights and self-determination. This system was at the very foundation of the country’s development and was in place for nearly 250 years.
Congress passes the Comstock Act which makes it a crime to distribute via mail or to import information about contraception and abortion.
In the early 1900s, the eugenics movement takes hold in the U.S. In 1911, a Harvard biologist named Charles Davenport advocates for selective immigration and state-enforced sterilization to prevent the reproduction of ‘bad stock.’
19th Amendment ratified, giving women, mainly white woman, the right to vote. Black women would wait nearly five decades more before the Voting Rights Act.
Buck v. Bell – the Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of Virginia’s involuntary sterilization law, setting the stage for sterilization abuse.
“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
– Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Buck v. Bell
By the mid 1930’s, 21 States have passed eugenics laws.
In 1937, Puerto Rico enacted Law 116, the last eugenics sterilization law passed under United States territorial jurisdiction, making sterilization legal and free for women in Puerto Rico while offering no alternative methods of birth control. It was not repealed until 1960.
The first Oral Contraceptive, Enovid, is tested in Puerto Rico. Women had only been told that they were taking a drug that prevented pregnancy, not that this was a clinical trial, that the Pill was experimental or that there was a chance of potentially dangerous side effects. research involving human subjects was much less regulated than it is today.
From 1950-58, Dr. Clarence Gamble conducts population control experiments in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico by assisting the island-wide campaign to promote, ‘la operación’. By 1965, 35% of Puerto Rican women have been sterilized.
Griswold v. Connecticut – the Supreme Court found that the right of married couples to use contraception is protected by the fundamental right of privacy found in the 14th Amendment and the other guarantees in the Bill of Rights.
Nancy Hernandez, 21, is charged with a misdemeanor. The California judge gave her the option of sterilization with probation or she would have to serve 6 months in prison —she chose prison.
In Prince George’s County, Maryland, three unmarried mothers are arrested when applying for welfare. The judge says that if they have any more children, they will be placed in Foster care.
The Title X Family Planning Program, officially known as Public Law 91-572 or “Population Research and Voluntary Family Planning Programs,” was enacted under President Richard Nixon in 1970 as part of the Public Health Service Act. Title X has provided family planning and preventative health services for low income people.
A group of women, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, were frustrated by doctors who dismissed their concerns. They were frustrated by the lack of information on sexual and reproductive health and created a booklet which later became a book. It was the first of its kind, made by women for women.
Eisenstadt v. Baird – the Supreme Court grants unmarried people the right to access birth control.
The United States Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Bill in 1971. If this bill had become law, it would have provided a multibillion-dollar national day care system designed partially to make it easier for single parents to work and care for children simultaneously, thereby alleviating strain on the welfare system. President Ricard Nixon vetoed the bill in 1972.
Roe v. Wade – The Supreme Court legalizes abortion.
The first legal challenge to sterilization abuse was brought by Norma Jean Serena, a Native woman of Creek-Shawnee ancestry.
The Committee to End Sterilization Abuse was formed in the late 1970s by women of color in order to address the experiences of women of color with coercive sterilization practices. It is founded to stop racist population control begun by the federal government in the 1940’s.
The Hyde Amendment is passed, restricting federal funding for abortions. *Medicaid laws differ by state. State funding may cover abortion services.
On October 3, 1977, Rosie Jimenez, a 27-year-old mother of one and an aspiring teacher, died from an unsafe abortion. The Hyde amendment blocked Rosie’s path to access abortion.
Carey v. Population Services International – The Supreme Court found that the right of minors to use contraception is protected by the 14th Amendment.
Reports indicate that 42% of Native American women have been sterilized by coercive means.
U.S. Officials were found to have administered Depo-Provera to over 50 “mentally impaired” native women.
The New England Journal of Medicine published a study indicating that 81% of court ordered medical interventions—cesarean sections, hospital detentions—involve women of color. 24% of these interventions involved women who did not speak English as their primary language.
The Philadelphia Inquirer publishes an editorial written by Donald Kimelaman promoting Norplant as a solution to inner city poverty. He argues that ‘the main reason black children are living in poverty is that people having the most children are the ones least capable of supporting them.”
Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey – the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Pennsylvania’s spousal notification requirements but uphold the 24 hour waiting period restrictions and parental consent provisions. Court says that restrictions on abortion are permissible as long as they do not place an undue burden on a person’s right to choose abortion.
A California judge orders Darlene Johnson, a Black woman, to accept temporary sterilization with Norplant as a condition of her parole.
Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is signed into law.
Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity (CRACK, now named Project Prevention) offers substance users $200 for consenting to long-term birth control or permanent sterilization. According to the founder, Barbara Harris, “We don’t allow dogs to breed, we spay them. We neuter them. We try to keep them from having unwanted puppies and yet these women are literally having litters of children.”
The passage of Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of ’96 eliminates welfare as a public entitlement and sets a five-year limit on the receipt of benefits. A purpose of the law is to ‘prevent out of wedlock pregnancies’ and encourage two-parent families.
The federal government no longer has to provide prenatal care for undocumented immigrants. The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals stated, “We conclude that the denial of prenatal care is not unconstitutional however we also conclude that citizen children of alien mothers are entitled to automatic Medicaid benefits for a year after birth.” *Medicaid laws differ by state. Check with your local office to confirm what is and isn’t covered.
March for Women’s lives was held on April 25th. Latina Institute, along with other women of color organizations, were instrumental to changing the name of the March to reflect the broad definition of reproductive health, rights, and justice.
Emergency contraception is made available over-the-counter for women 18 & older.
Health care reform, or the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, is signed into law. The legislation excludes many immigrants and contains the most egregious anti-choice measures since Hyde.
The bill SB 1070 goes into effect in the state of Arizona. It requires police officers to determine individuals’ immigration status during a stop or arrest if there is “reasonable suspicion” that the individual is undocumented. LGBTQ people of color are particularly stopped by police and arrested.
Students around the country mobilize in support of the DREAM Act, which gives undocumented students a path to U.S. citizenship. DREAMers borrow from the LGBTQ+ community’s notion of “coming out,” and come out as undocumented and unafraid. Many of the DREAMers are queer and include this aspect of their lives into their analysis.
The law, known as HB2, is a Texas measure passed in 2013 that led to the closure of 80% of the state’s abortion clinics. After H.B. 2 there were only 8 out of 41 providers left.
Because of pressure from the people, the North Carolina government established a $10 million fund to offer the victims of forced sterilization reparations for the violation of their reproductive rights and autonomy. Approximately 7,600 people were sterilized between 1929 and 1974, some unwittingly, and all without consent.
Whole Woman’s Health is one of several providers suing to overturn the law H.B. 2. The law required abortion providers have admitting privileges with a hospital and that all abortion clinics comply with hospital-like “ambulatory surgical center” standards. This law creates an undue burden on Texas women to exercise their reproductive rights.
Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt – the Supreme Court strikes down H.B. 2 in Texas.
On January 21, 2017, millions of people participated in Women’s Marches around the world to send a message to the new administration: women’s rights are human rights and that the people are united against attacks on immigrants, Muslims, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ communities and reproductive rights.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions used a Bible verse to defend his department’s policy of prosecuting everyone who crosses the border from Mexico, suggesting that God supports the government in separating immigrant parents from their children. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes,” Sessions said.