a bird and a bottle

Why I want to be Dorothy Roberts When I Grow Up (Day 2 @ NAPW’s Conference)
January 20, 2007, 4:27 pm
Filed under: feminism/s & gender, Uncategorized

So, this morning I got to sit next to the amazing Dorothy Roberts (law prof and author of Killing the Black Body and Shattered Bonds, two indispensable books about reproductive justice, race, and poverty). My reaction was something like I imagine my older brother would have if he ever met Springsteen. In my head, I was thinking, “oh my gosh oh my gosh. don’t say anything stupid.” And outwardly I was cool. Or at least I hope so.

I just left today’s lunchtime plenary session, which was about who gets to be a legitimate reproducer/mother/parent and why. Professor Roberts (let’s just call her Dorothy), started from the premise (with proof) that black women have been treated badly throughout American history (slavery was not a promising start), and then said, “Racism affects all women. White women are regulated and punished under the same policies as are black women. If you [as a white woman] don’t do what you’re supposed to, you’ll be treated like a black woman too.” If white woman do not conform to the expected norms of motherhood (either by refusing a c-section or choosing a home birth or eating sushi during your pregnancy), she too – under the logic used to justify the prosecutions of (predominantly black) women based on their decision to carry a pregnancy to term in spite of a drug addiction – could be handcuffed and prosecuted. As NAPW often says, women are being told that they must secure perfect birth outcomes…or else.

Today’s lunch panel moderator, Rickie Sollinger, added further complexity to this question of who can legitimately parent (and what that even means) with her reframing of the issue of “choice.” There are three problems, according to Sollinger, with the concept and label of choice: 1) it assumes that all women are making a free choice and that there choices are of equal value and are equally respected; 2) it pretends that so-called “good” and “bad” choices the product of free people and pretends that the most vulnerable are the most powerful; and 3) it reifnroces the law/idea that some women are not legitimate reproducers because once they “choose” to have a child, if they cannot take “proper” care of it, they should not be reproducing in the first place. I think Sollinger is right on. And if we take what she says and combine it with Roberts’s highlighting of the inequities faced and state control practiced particularly by black women but that threatens all women, we see that “choice” is a misnomer at best and a real willful misrepresentation at worst. As Roberts herself said, there is this notion that there is no racism in the U.S. and that we’re all equal, and if you don’t make it [and by extension cannot fulfill the expectation society has for you as a woman or mother], it’s your fault. That doesn’t sound like a real choice to me.

There has been a ton of other interesting stuff today – including, at two panels, a real questioning of the idea of “normal.” What is a normal birth? Or a normal child? What is a disability even? Who is a normal mother? Asking this question is a powerful tool for getting at our own biases, and at how we have bought into social constructs.

I’ve also been deeply disturbed by some of the stories I have heard today. Laura Pemberton, a religious Catholic and vehemently anti-abortion rights woman from Florida, shared her experience of being forcibly dragged to the hospital by her local Sherriff under court order while strapped to a stretcher because she wanted to have a vaginal birth after cesearean (VBAC), against her doctor’s wishes. Pemberton, already a mother of 4 at that time (now a mother of 8 children) did extensive research into VBAC and knew her body and knew that she would be able to give birth vaginally. After 2.5 days of labor her fetus had a healthy heartrate and her uterus was nowhere near rupture. Yet she was forced to udnergo invasive surgery against her will. This does not happen to anybody but pregnant women (in fact, according to a case called McFall v. Shimp it is illegal to force one person to undergo medical treatment for the benefit of another). Another woman (who I will leave anonymous out of respect for her privacy) told of being thrown out of the hospital and told to leave by the backdoor after a doctor diagnosed her as HIV positive. She had checked into the hospital seeking a free tubal ligation, which were in 1989 being granted to poor women in rural South Carolina (eugenics anyone?), and the doctor popped his head into her hospital room, told her she had AIDS and he wouldn’t perform the surgery, and ordered her to put on her clothes and leave through the back door. After a series of negative experiences in which doctors refused to treat her because of her HIV status, she went 5 years without medical care. Today, she is managing the diseas and is healthy, but insensitive care put her health in grave risk. Finally (because this is getting depressing), I heard about a proposed policy in California. The state’s Department of Corrections put out a statement in July 2006 to investiate the cost effectiveness of sterilization in the state’s correctional facilities. That proposal is still on the table. We have gone so far backward in this country that we are back to the historical sterilization of women of color.

There’s a lot to be angry about here, but also a lot of humor and a lot of hope. It’s not often that reproductive justice advocates sit in rapt silence as an admittedly anti-choice woman shares her personal story. And then, when she’s done, stand and applaud.

For more about Day 2, check out BrownFemiPower. Bitch PhD is also blogging the conference (and has the adorable Pseudonymous Kid, as are the other blogs I mentioned yesterday. I’ll be attending a panel about pregnancy in prisons in a few minutes, and hope to post more on that later.


8 Comments so far
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Now I want to be Dorothy Roberts, too. A little over a year ago, I did some research into representations of (male) prisoners in turn-of-the-century American prisons (specifically, around Chicago). The conclusion I came to was that white prisoners and free black men were often viewed in analogous terms, i.e. that prison stripped white men of their identity, lowering them to the status of blacks. This seems to relate closely to what Professor Roberts argued. I will have to track down her books. Thanks!

Comment by professorplum

[…] why we are “pro-choice.” For a long time now, I and others have been using the term reproductive justice to signify a broader idea of the significance of abortion. Because I agree that […]

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[…] Comments a bird and a bottle on Why I want to be Dorothy Roberts When I Grow Up (Day 2 @ NAPW’s Conference)Clitzpa « Topical Portrait Prints 1660-1714 on Language and Gender, part deux.professorplum on […]

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Re the “integrity of the body” argument (one I found MUCH more powerful than the usual feminist “pro-choice” argument) see Susan Bordo’s writing (she’s at the U of KY, I think?). She recounts multiple examples of court cases confirming that NO ONE may force A MAN to undergo medical treatment for another.

Comment by DSchneider

[…] of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health writes about her experience at the NAPW National Summit in […]

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I have had the priveledge of meeting Dorothy Roberts. She’s wonderful! And she’s a homebirth mom!

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