Loretta Ross on Racist Reproductive Oppression

By Jenny Brown

Loretta Ross courtesy of lorettaross.com  

At an NWL conference in August 2014, African-American feminist organizer and theorist, Loretta Ross of SisterSong responded to the idea of women calling a birth strike for better conditions and what that would mean for African-American women.

Ross argued that established powers in the U.S. have, since the end of slavery, tried to reduce the number of births to African-American women through forced sterilization and its modern equivalents, like pushing dangerous long-lasting birth control such as Depo-Provera on young women of color.  But, she said, racist reproductive oppression cannot be understood separately from white supremacist policies in all areas of U.S. life, from housing to welfare to health care to police murder to imprisonment. Her message was that these racist activities can’t be overturned if they’re seen as isolated, unrelated issues.

“It is equally important to understand how the U.S. system of white supremacy facilitates reproductive oppression, an aspect understated by the mainstream movement,” Ross wrote in 2006. “The concept of reproductive justice works similarly for white women as well because their individual decisions are directly tied to their communities – in particular, racist fears triggered by the decreasing percentage of white children born in the United States. Many of the restrictions on abortion, contraception, scientifically-accurate sex education, and stem cell research are directly related to an unsubtle campaign of positive eugenics to force heterosexual white women to have more babies. In contrast, children of color are often deemed unwanted, excessive and perceived as a threat to the body politic of the United States by being described as a “youth bulge” creating a dysfunctional education system, economic chaos, environmental degradation, and a criminal underclass.” (From “Understanding Reproductive Justice.”)

The meeting with Loretta Ross grew out of the Shulamith Firestone Women’s Liberation Memorial Conference on What Is To Be Done, organized by Redstockings in October 2013.  Redstockings invited Ross to testify, as she and her group are the originators of the concept of “Reproductive Justice,” a broader approach to matters of reproduction than “abortion rights,” or “choice.”  At the Firestone conference, many NWL attendees wanted to follow-up with Ross about her comments, in particular, her interesting reaction to Jenny Brown’s testimony about a birth strike.

As a result, the Women of Color Caucus of NWL and Redstockings then called a meeting to discuss these ideas and invited Ross to participate.  It was stimulating enough that the Caucus encouraged more interaction, and Ross offered to do a seminar on Reproductive Justice for the whole group.
Ross, who is based in Atlanta, met with us August 23, 2014 in Gainesville, with a video link to New York and audio links to participants who couldn’t be in either place.

More of Ross’s writing on these topics can be found in Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice (South End Press, 2004). SisterSong’s website is www.sistersong.net. Ross’s 2007 article defining and defending Reproductive Justice from distortion is in Off Our Backs and can be found at the blog constructed by Redstockings for the Shulamith Firestone conference, www.womenwhatistobedone.wordpress/readings. Ross’s article is among
a number of must-read feminist and radical classics available there.