44. The End of Roe v. Wade? (with Dorothy Roberts)

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Today’s show is all about reproductive health, rights and justice. We are unpacking the Texas abortion law, S.B. 8, talking about the Supreme Court, and what the legacies of legislative interference with reproductive decision-making and autonomy mean for women, people who can become pregnant, and for U.S. democracy.

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00:00:04 Michele Goodwin: 

Welcome to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. Magazine, a show where we report, rebel and tell it like it is. On this show, we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advancing the promise of equality. Join me as we tackle the most compelling issues of our times. On our show, history matters. We examine the past as we think about the future. 

On today’s show, we’re talking about reproductive health rights and justice. We’re unpacking the Texas abortion law, SB8, talking about the United States Supreme Court, and what the legacies of legislative interference with reproductive decision making and autonomy mean for not only women and people who can become pregnant, but for American democracy, and we’re diving right in with a very special guest. 

I’m joined by Professor Dorothy Roberts, author of the award winning Killing the Black Body, and as well Shattered Bonds, and the forthcoming page-turner Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families–and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. She is the George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology, and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights at the University of Pennsylvania. It is my honor and privilege to have her on our show. 

In the past week, news cycles have turned to Texas and the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade, and now they’re beginning to see that the Texas law has remnants of racism in it, that’s embedded in it, in the language of it, but these are issues that are not new. You have long spoken about these issues at the intersection of race and sex and women of color’s bodies and Black women’s bodies, and in fact, I remember the day that I saw Killing the Black Body on the shelf in 1997 in a bookstore with my daughter. So, what began your work in this lane?

00:02:15 Dorothy Roberts:

Well, my very first entrée into the topic of reproductive freedom, at least as a scholar and an activist, was contesting the prosecutions of Black women for drug use during pregnancy in the late 1980s, early 1990s. I became a law professor in part because of those prosecutions. I’d always wanted to teach and do scholarship, but when I saw those prosecutions and other ways in which pregnant women were being constrained and controlled, it really was the push to get me into investigating what was going on and speaking out and writing out against it, and so, I started teaching in 1988, which was right when the so-called crack epidemic was going through Black communities, but more importantly, the US government and state governments were attacking Black communities for crack use as if it were an especially horrendous form of drug use, and prosecutors were beginning to prosecute Black women in particular. 

This was a time when the false image of the crack baby was being promoted. The idea that Black women’s drug use somehow had stronger, more horrific effects on their babies than other kinds of drug use, that played on all sorts of stereotypes about Black women being irresponsible reproducers, and the criminalization of Black women and their children because the crack baby was supposed to turn into a criminal. So…

00:04:10 Michele Goodwin: 

This was what was being written about in newspapers.

00:04:13 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah.

00:04:14 Michele Goodwin: 

That there was this brave new world, that teachers were going to have to watch out for Black children in kindergartens bringing guns and knives to school and threatening their classmates and blowing up the buildings and things like that.

00:04:28 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah. That’s right. There was this idea that for some reason crack cocaine in particular deprived women of maternal instinct. There was some kind of chemical transformation that went on, and that Black children who were exposed to crack cocaine in utero were deprived of any kind of social consciousness, and so, they were predicted to be incapable of following the law. They were supposed to all become criminals at an early age and be predestined to welfare dependency and incapable of learning. 

These ideas were being promoted in newspapers, and there were doctors and nurses who were claiming that this was, you know, a real phenomenon they had discovered. Of course, now we know that was all shoddy science and just made up hyperbole.

00:05:24 Michele Goodwin: 

A myth.

NBC’s Tom Brokaw delivers a report on “cocaine babies,” 1988. (Screenshot / Youtube)

00:05:25 Dorothy Roberts:

It was a total myth we know was false, but when I started reading about the prosecutions, I immediately thought of them as turning a public health crisis into a crime, and a way of punishing Black women for having babies. It was just so obvious to me that this was not about protecting Black children. That’s not how US policy has been ever.

00:05:53 Michele Goodwin: 

Ever, right?

00:05:54 Dorothy Roberts:

Ever.

00:05:54 Michele Goodwin: 

It’s actually hard to find US policy that was steeped in protecting Black children, Black women, Black men, right?

00:06:02 Dorothy Roberts:

Right, more so than white babies because they were…the facts show that white women use drugs during pregnancy at the same rates, but yet, Black women were being, first of all, reported by doctors for drug use to social services and prosecutors. One study in Pinellas County, Florida found that Black women were being reported at 10 times the rate as white women who used drugs during pregnancy. So, this was clearly targeted at Black people, and there’s just no plausible way you could say that these prosecutors were more interested, right, in protecting Black babies than white babies. 

So, it was very clear for many reasons why…also, it’s just not protecting a fetus to lock the fetus’ mother up in, you know, a dingy jail cell without prenatal care and the stress of incarceration. It was clearly devaluing Black women for having children, and at the time there wasn’t that much being written about prosecuting pregnancy, criminalizing pregnancy. 

For women who wanted to have babies, there was, of course, a mainstream reproductive rights movement that was advocating for abortion rights, but that movement tended to see these issues as separate, and I really saw them as the same issue. This is about punishing women in particular, but also, you know, trans men who could become pregnant, but punishing people, especially women, for their decisions during pregnancy, whether it’s to terminate a pregnancy or continue a pregnancy. It’s about controlling women’s bodies, you know, through…and the way in which racism has always intersected with misogyny and sexism in order to control, in particular, the bodies of women of color, and a whole history of…

00:08:26 Michele Goodwin: 

A whole history of that.

The U.S. Health Care System Is Failing Pregnant People. The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act Is a First Step Forward
(Pxhere / Creative Commons)

00:08:27 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah, and particular kinds of policies that are targeted at Black women, and I saw all of that in both these punishments of Black women who were having babies and lots of policies besides the prosecutions that do that, as well as trying to keep women from terminating a pregnancy if that’s what they wanted to do.

00:08:54 Michele Goodwin: 

Well, Killing the Black Body is landmark, and it’s coming up on its 25th anniversary. It’s one of the few books within the broader landscape where people celebrate it, where over and over again new classes of students and people, you know, go to Twitter, go to Instagram, hold up the book, put it on their table and say here it is. They have truly learned something, and I want to come back to that because you’ve written Shattered Bonds, soon coming out is going to be Torn Apart, and there also have been other books that you’ve written that have not been on this side of the issue dealing with genetics and things like that, which we’ll get to. 

You opened the door to this conversation then about Texas and SB8 and what has taken place there because as you say you saw back then in the 1980s and ‘90s this intersection between abortion and also the lack of reproductive health access, the policing of Black women’s bodies, the targeting of them, the withdrawing of support that would have been needed for prenatal care and other things. So, how did you respond? How are you responding to what’s taking place in Texas right now?

00:10:09 Dorothy Roberts:

Well, I think it’s just an atrocious attack on women’s autonomy, women’s freedom, women’s health, women’s lives. We know that without access to safe, legal abortion, women, especially impoverished women, low-income women, and women of color, are going to be forced into dangerous, life threatening situations. The idea that the state can ban a health decision shows a lack of valuing of women’s lives and freedom. It’s really horrific. It’s hard to put in to words how terrible this law is. It’s a kind of vicious kind of law because it’s…everything about it is duplicitous, you know? It’s…you know, they say well, you have six weeks to get an abortion. No, you don’t. You don’t have six weeks. You…it’s six weeks from…you know, I can’t even start at how phony it is, every aspect of it. Six weeks from when they detect a fetal heartbeat. It’s not even a fetus. It’s an embryo. So…

00:11:48 Michele Goodwin: 

Exactly. It’s an embryo. It’s not even a fetus. Right.

00:11:51 Dorothy Roberts:

It’s not even a fetus. So, this idea that we’re trying to protect fetal life when there’s a heartbeat, that by itself is phony, and…

00:12:04 Michele Goodwin: 

Well, in fact, the law itself…let’s talk just a little bit about the law.

00:12:07 Dorothy Roberts:

Sure.

00:12:07 Michele Goodwin: 

So, what is it that the Texas lawmakers have created in SB8? What are the contours of this law?

00:12:15 Dorothy Roberts:

Okay. So, one contour is what we were just talking about, that it supposedly protects fetal life after a heartbeat can be detected, which is around six weeks. So, at that point it is illegal to perform an abortion, and so, now in order to get around the idea that what they’re actually doing is punishing women and deterring them from getting healthcare and risking their lives, instead of having in the law any kind of penalty on the person who wants an abortion, right, who’s seeking an abortion, the penalties are on doctors who perform abortions. 

Then the next part of it is how do you end up…how is the state going to go about imposing these penalties? Well, it’s deputized ordinary, private citizens to sue anyone they suspect, right, has performed an abortion or aided and abetted the performance of an abortion, which could…that is a whole range of people. So, it’s done two things here. It’s deputized citizens to hunt down women basically, right, and deputized ordinary citizens to spy on and report on and harm and interfere in the health and freedom of their fellow citizens. That’s like a police state.

Policing and Surveillance: How Texas’s Abortion Law Could Add To Systemic Racism
Abortion rights protesters demonstrate outside the Texas State Capitol in Austin. Advocates argue state lawmakers have “unleashed” a law they will not have full control over. (Roxy Szal)

00:13:55 Michele Goodwin: 

Well, so, how would you respond then to what an editor of a major magazine shared with me before the Supreme Court’s opinion, which was that something similar to what you’ve said, sounds extremist, this hunting down? I was informed well, that just sounds extreme and something that is fitting for left wing news. What’s your response to that?

00:14:20 Dorothy Roberts:

But that’s what the law does. It’s not extremist. All we’ve done is state what the law says. It says that anyone who suspects that someone has performed an abortion or aided someone to get an abortion can sue them and get 10,000 dollars or more if they win this lawsuit, and their attorney’s fees paid. That is…what’s the point of that? It’s clearly an incentive for people to track down women who have abortions. I mean, clearly.

00:15:04 Michele Goodwin: 

Well, you know…yes. So, one has to wonder just what this looks like from American history, and I wonder if for you at all, did it trigger any kind of sense of we’ve seen this before?

00:15:20 Dorothy Roberts:

Well, the Fugitive Slave law. Exactly. The Fugitive…well, I’ll tell you, it triggered two things. One is the Fugitive Slave law deputizing US citizens to track down escaped enslaved people and help in their capture. It sounds like that. The other thing it reminded me of relates to the work I’ve been doing on the child welfare system and the way, which I call family policing, and the way in which citizens are deputized to report people for child abuse and neglect, which sounds, if you don’t know, and I don’t mean to get off track, Michele.

00:16:03 Michele Goodwin: 

No, not at all, because that is a part of this story, right? I mean, it’s a part of the larger picture. What happens next?

00:16:11 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah. So, if, you know, if you might think oh, that sounds good to have people report on other people who are harming their children, but what actually happens is that people report on people out of revenge. They report on, you know, ex-boyfriends. They report on their girlfriend and claim that she is maltreating the children. 

What also happens is service providers, who are mandated reporters, not knowing what else to do to help someone who actually needs help will report, and then the family gets involved in an investigation and they don’t actually get the services that they need, and also as I mentioned earlier…you’re right, all of this gets connected because as I mentioned earlier, there is a history of reporting on Black mothers in particular for things that others would not be accused of. 

And so, I mentioned this study in Pinellas County, Florida that showed that despite in the study white women actually having a slightly higher rate of drug use during pregnancy, Black women were reported 10 times as often. So, whenever you have this kind of deputizing of people to investigate, spy on, and report on others, it’s impossible to separate that from the kinds of stereotypes about Black women in particular that circulate in our society and the way in which many Americans have been willing to put Black women in harmful situations in order to achieve some other broader policy goal.

00:18:02 Michele Goodwin: 

Right, or it’s kind of Black women, as Loretta Ross mentioned to me, Black women being used as roadkill in the fight for white women to have restricted reproductive rights.

00:18:16 Dorothy Roberts:

Absolutely. Absolutely.

00:18:18 Michele Goodwin: 

So, why is it that people don’t pay attention to how Black women are affected by this? What’s interesting is that there have been some that have said oh, we shouldn’t compare this to slavery. White women weren’t enslaved, and what they’re forgetting is that there are Black women in Texas, right? Like, there are Black women…

00:18:34 Dorothy Roberts:

Exactly.

00:18:34 Michele Goodwin: 

Who are affected by this law.

00:18:37 Dorothy Roberts:

And affected more, both because Black women are less likely to have the means to go to another state or find a doctor who will perform the abortion, you know, somehow secretly. That’s always happened throughout history, even when abortion was banned, find some exception, find a way to do it, or you know, what it takes to get an abortion, Black women are less likely to have the means to do it, and that means the money. It means the ability to leave work and go on a trip, you know, to seek out an abortion, maybe you have to wait, and all that goes into that, and also, Black women have a higher rate of abortions. So, they’re more likely to be affected by a law that severely restricts, really virtually bans abortions in the state. 

So, Black women are going to be affected by this law, and more so. Also, another way in which abortion and pregnancy, wanted pregnancy are connected is the high rate of maternal mortality for Black women, which is, I’ve seen 2, 3, 4 times the rate of white women. We should remember that maternal mortality means death from pregnancy related causes, which covers the gamut of reasons why a woman may die from a pregnancy.

Despite being in one of the richest nations on earth, moms in the U.S. are dying at one of the highest rates of any country in the developed world. (Blink O’fanaye / Flickr)

00:20:12 Michele Goodwin: 

So, then what does this mean in Texas? So, you’ve just laid this out brilliantly, right? So, there’s SB8. It imposes an abortion ban after six weeks. It deputizes random Texas citizens to spy on, to hunt down, to make guestimates about who’s maybe going to have an abortion and who’s aiding and helping, who gave 10 dollars, 15 dollars, who’s giving the ride, the Uber, right, all of that, and you’ve also shared that in the backdrop of this that there is a nationwide crisis of maternal mortality and that the rates of this are far more extreme for Black women than any other group that happens to be in the country. 

So, how does one reconcile this in Texas, and how do you make sense of the Supreme Court’s intervention/non-intervention? The Supreme Court unwilling to intervene in this case. What do you make sense of that? How?

00:21:12 Dorothy Roberts:

It all comes down to controlling women, and especially Black women. So, there’s so many seeming contradictions when you ask well, why would you have a law that would encourage women to end a pregnancy? And by that, I mean not giving support to someone who wants to have a baby. Welfare law, I’m not sure exactly what the law is in Texas, but in many states, there are laws called family caps which held exclusion policies that deny welfare benefits to someone who becomes pregnant while on welfare. That’s clearly…

00:21:52 Michele Goodwin: 

Wait, wait, wait. Stop, Dorothy.

00:21:53 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah.

00:21:53 Michele Goodwin: 

Stop. 

00:21:54 Dorothy Roberts:

Okay.

00:21:54 Michele Goodwin: 

Wait, wait. So, you’re saying like across the country, there are states that have laws that deny welfare benefits if you get pregnant while on welfare?

00:22:05 Dorothy Roberts:

Yes. Exactly. So, the new baby that’s born while you’re on welfare…but many of the laws go back nine months to make sure you didn’t get pregnant while you were on welfare.

00:22:17 Michele Goodwin: 

So, that’s more tracking, right? Like, implicit in the laws.

00:22:19 Dorothy Roberts:

Oh, absolutely.

00:22:21 Michele Goodwin: 

The embedded tracking what women are doing, and whether they’re…

00:22:23 Dorothy Roberts:

Yes. Absolutely. Well, welfare law is, I call it behavior modification. So, you know, the federal guarantee to public assistance to raise a child was ended in 1997, or 1996. 1997 was another law that sped up termination of parental rights. Again, all of these are connected in ways of controlling in particular Black mothers because the image of the Black welfare queen was behind all of this, and so, the point of the law is to deter women who are receiving welfare from having more children. 

“The point of the law is to deter women who are receiving welfare from having more children,” says Prof. Dorothy Roberts. (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture / Flickr)

You are not going to get any increase in your welfare benefits if you have a baby while you’re already receiving welfare. That is the asserted purpose of it. Congress allowed it, and now states, upwards of 20 states…I’ve lost track of which ones have, and some of them haven’t.

00:23:22 Michele Goodwin: 

Because it’s just so nutty that of course…

00:23:24 Dorothy Roberts:

And so…

00:23:24 Michele Goodwin: 

One would almost want to lose track just not to have that mental image…

00:23:29 Dorothy Roberts:

Right.

00:23:29 Michele Goodwin: 

Of children being denied care.

00:23:31 Dorothy Roberts:

Exactly, but look. This is deliberately to deter women from having a baby. Okay. So, it is also an incentive to terminate a pregnancy if you get pregnant while you’re on welfare. Those are the same people who are behind these laws that also want to ban abortion. 

So, they’re incentivizing it on one hand, and they’re discouraging it, or you know, worse on the other hand, but so, then you could say well, that’s contradictory. No, it’s not contradictory if you think that the aim of these legislators is to control women’s bodies, especially Black women’s bodies. So, it sounds…

00:24:11 Michele Goodwin: 

Why is it that people have such a hard time understanding that then? Because the way in which you lay it out is, again, it becomes crystal clear that all of that is about control, but why is it that people don’t get that and understand it?

00:24:26 Dorothy Roberts:

They don’t want to. They don’t want to. There is…oh, if we had five hours, we could really get into it.

00:24:34 Michele Goodwin: 

Oh, you know what? I am hoping for the five hours. Audience, prepare. There will be a date. There will be a time, and we’ll start out with fireside chats, and there will be an evening keynote, all of that, where you will have me and Professor Dorothy Roberts together. Yes, we need five hours and fireplaces and wine.

00:24:50 Dorothy Roberts:

Well, the only reason I say that is because everything we’ve been talking about, whether it’s banning abortion, prosecuting women for having babies, right, which seems contradictory, but it isn’t, taking away their babies once they’re born, you know, all of these…locking women up, and all of this targeted at Black women in particular, but all…and again, when I say targeted Black women, that doesn’t mean these policies don’t affect other people as well. They do, but this is my point. My point is that all of these targeting of Black women in these policies shores up an approach to taking care of human needs which is punitive, which says you have to rely on a biased market, you know, a racist, capitalist, sexist, ableist market to make it in this world, or in America anyway, and if you can’t do it, if you don’t have the money to do it, we are going to punish you. 

We’re going to stigmatize you and punish you, investigate you, send, you know, your fellow citizens after you, you know, and these policies that are so punitive toward Black mothers in particular build up this idea that it’s Black mothers’ faults, you know, why there’s poverty in the Black community, why there’s lack of adequate education, lack of adequate healthcare. 

Black-Women-Demand-Action-on-Black-Maternal-Health-Crisis
Washington DC, September 30, 2017, where thousands participated in two marches, The March for Racial Justice and The March for Black Women.

It’s all because of these irresponsible Black mothers, and as long as we punish them, we’ve taken care of the problems, when in fact all that Black mothers are being blamed for are actually structural inequities, you know, inequities of gender, inequities of race, inequities of disability, and inequities of wealth, and so, that…but getting to your question, why don’t people want to see this? Because not everybody wants to confront those inequities. It’s easier to say oh, we’ll come up with a policy that blames these bad mothers and regulate them, you know, figure out…or punish them in the end, jail them, take their kids away, than to deal with the deep structural inequities that still mark our society, and I think that’s why Black women make such good scapegoats for all of that.

00:27:36 Michele Goodwin: 

Throughout time they truly have. Well, so, one would expect then that the United States Supreme Court could see through all of that. These are individuals who are charged with upholding civil liberties and civil rights and being able to essentially pierce the veil. So, last week the Supreme Court on a matter of appeal considered whether to intervene with the Texas law and impose an injunction, and the Court decided not to do so. 

It did so with what’s been called the shadow docket, which means that we had an opinion of about a page that was unsigned. So, we don’t know who the author was of the five justices on the Court that joined in. They were all part of the conservative majority, but interestingly enough, Chief Justice John Roberts dissented. So, what do you make of the Supreme Court and its response to SB8? And we have the Mississippi abortion law coming up next, too.

00:28:44 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah. Well, the Court, even before this very unfortunate politics and division on the Court, you know, before the Trump appointments, already was dealing with abortion by allowing states to impose lots of restrictions, and one way of looking at the Texas case is that it continues down that path of allowing restrictions that effectively for many, many people ban abortion. This is the most extreme, but we can see it as part of what’s been going on ever since the Casey decision that allowed for restrictions as long as they weren’t a so-called undue burden, which itself is horrendous, the idea that it’s okay for a state to put roadblocks in front of people to exercise their constitutional rights. That doesn’t sound right, but that’s what…

00:29:49 Michele Goodwin: 

That was what that was. So, would you say that as people now are questioning whether the Mississippi case or SB8 happens to be the end of Roe v. Wade, but would you say that the end of Roe v. Wade actually could be tracked to a time much closer to Roe v. Wade?

00:30:06 Dorothy Roberts:

I agree. I agree. So, we could go all the way back to Harris v. McRae, which allowed…

00:30:12 Michele Goodwin: 

Oh, break it down. Okay.

00:30:14 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah.

00:30:14 Michele Goodwin: 

I am here with the queen. Yes.

00:30:15 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah.

00:30:16 Michele Goodwin: 

So, take us there.

00:30:17 Dorothy Roberts:

We could go all the way back to the Hyde Amendment and its exemption of abortion as having to be covered by Medicaid. You know, it allowed for states not to cover, and the federal government, not to cover termination of pregnancy, a medical procedure, right, for people’s health, not to be covered by Medicaid. So, from the jump, you know, within a decade, already people who needed funds, you know, impoverished people, low-income people who needed money to pay for an abortion were already denied federal funding in many states, and that was allowed at any rate by the US Supreme Court. 

So, immediately there was a chipping away at Roe, and then with the Casey decision that allowed for states to deliberately pass laws that were intended to keep people from getting abortions. You know, again, what kind of justice is that to say that the government can put roadblocks in front of you to keep you from exercising your constitutional rights? But the Supreme Court allowed for that, and so, we see hundreds of laws being passed, and I do think we need to see the Texas law as one of many, many laws, and the Mississippi law, two of many, many laws that have prevented, effectively prevented abortion for many, many people, and so, there’s that part of it, but also, it’s just so obvious now that this is a right, you know, right wing agenda to interfere with women’s reproductive freedom and with reproductive justice by the split in the Court.

00:32:24 Michele Goodwin: 

Right. So, on the Court, there’s Justice Clarence Thomas, and just as Clarence Thomas in dissents and concurrences, has been raising the alarm saying that the wool is being pulled over the eyes of Black women, that Black women don’t understand the fact that abortion has really been a tool of the oppressor. It’s a tool of white supremacy, and that Black people need to become woke to this, and there are others then at state level that are enacting laws that use the names of abolitionists.

00:33:03Dorothy Roberts:

Right. So…

00:33:03 Michele Goodwin: 

Like Frederick Douglass and what not.

00:33:04 Dorothy Roberts:

Frederick Douglass. Right.

00:33:06 Michele Goodwin: 

Yes, and that claim that what they’re doing is protecting Black women, their safety and health, by enacting laws that would restrict Black women’s rights to abortion. What do you make of Justice Clarence Thomas along that line of thinking, and also the state efforts that claim that abortion harms Black women?

00:33:26 Dorothy Roberts:

Well, they’re just bogus arguments. They’re historically flawed. Thomas’ argument that abortion was a tool of eugenics is just historically wrong. Eugenicists preferred sterilization, which by the way, if you oppose abortion and you failed to pay for needs to take care of a child, as I was mentioning before, what is the solution? Sterilization. That is what the right wing wants, and there’s been a long history of sterilization abuse of Black women, as well as impoverished women and women who were seen to have disabilities. So, it’s…

00:34:13 Michele Goodwin: 

This is scary, what you’re talking about, Dorothy.

00:34:16 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah, but it’s…

00:34:16 Michele Goodwin: 

That’s some scary stuff. So, you just said what the right wants is for people with disabilities, Black women, others, to be sterilized?

00:34:28 Dorothy Roberts:

Well, I would say that that is a right wing agenda item. I don’t want to say that everybody in the, you know, who has right wing politics supports sterilization. What I’m saying is that historically, sterilization has been a weapon against devalued populations, devalued groups of people.

00:34:54 Michele Goodwin: 

And it has been right? 

00:34:56 Dorothy Roberts:

Yes.

00:34:56 Michele Goodwin: 

Including at the Supreme Court in 1927 in Buck v. Bell.

00:35:00 Dorothy Roberts:

Absolutely.

00:35:00 Michele Goodwin: 

And even what Fannie Lou Hamer later on called the Mississippi appendectomy where we know that there were little Black girls, 12 years old, 13 years old, who were being coercively and forcefully sterilized in Mississippi. So, what you’re speaking to, and you don’t see a significant right wing response to it, right, detention centers even in California correction institutions, and you don’t see this kind of level of legislating saying no, we have to get rid of coercive sterilization and forced sterilization.

00:35:34 Dorothy Roberts:

Right. That’s the preferred method, and I don’t want to put it all on the right wing because there were also people who were considered on the left, you know, and progressives during the eugenics era. There is still this idea that abortion can be a way of solving social problems, which I oppose. I see abortion as a way of, one of the ways of ensuring freedom in decision making, reproductive freedom, this freedom over one’s body. You know, going back to the idea of slavery, abortion, forcing someone to have a child against their will is a type of captivity. 

So, Thomas is just wrong historically when it comes to the role of abortion or…it didn’t have a role during the eugenics era, and the idea that abortion is some form of control of Black people and Black women, that is, that’s just false. It also denies autonomy to Black women as if Black women somehow can’t make decisions about their own bodies, that they are bamboozled by white people, is just not right. I’m not going to say in the, among people on the Court who’s bamboozled. I would say…well, I will say it. Thomas in a lot of his ideas seems very bamboozled by politics, but in addition, the anti-abortion people, advocates have used Black women in ways to try to advance their agenda, and so, one example of that is a poster that went up, a big billboard that went up and posters against buildings that said that the most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb, which of course sounds like sterilization rhetoric, you know? 

The Texas Ban and the Migration Injustice
Outside the Supreme Court after the decision on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a June 2016 Texas abortion case. (Adam Fagen / Flickr)

The idea that Black women’s wombs are dangerous is the same kind of rhetoric used to justify keeping Black women from having children, and again, seems contradictory. No, it’s not if you understand that the mission here is control and supervision and surveillance and punishment of Black women’s decisions for themselves and control over their own bodies and futures and lives. The idea that Black women can make good decisions for themselves, for their families, for their communities, trust Black women, that is the method…

00:38:46 Michele Goodwin: 

That just seems so far removed, right?

00:38:47 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah.

00:38:48 Michele Goodwin: 

It is so far removed from these narratives. Well, you know, you are the George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology, and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights. You’re a Professor of Africana Studies, and also the Director of the Program on Race, Science, and Society, and did I also say Professor of Africana Studies?

00:39:12 Dorothy Roberts:

Yes, you did.

00:39:12 Michele Goodwin: 

But I say all of that because you bring such a wealth of preparation and training to these matters, and that’s reflected in the work that you’ve done. We’ve talked about Killing the Black Body, but there’s also been Shattered Bonds, and also Torn Apart, and so, I want to ask how those two works, Shattered Bonds published in 2001, and Torn Apart which is coming out next year in 2022, how those works also fit into the discourse about reproductive justice? Because some people think that well, you know, that’s really about abortion, but what’s the kind of broader picture when we’re thinking about reproductive justice?

00:39:56 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah. So, first of all, I got interested in refuting racist myths about Black mothers that circulate in the child welfare system from my work on opposing the prosecutions of Black women for drug use during pregnancy. When I began investigating those prosecutions, I discovered that the main way the state punishes Black women who use drugs during pregnancy is to take their babies away from them, and so, I began to work with Black mothers who had experienced that and saw that they were harmed at a wider scale by child welfare policies than even by these prosecutorial policies. 

And so, that opened my eyes to the rampant racism in the child welfare system and the very high rates of removal of Black children from their families and their placement in foster care, which is very damaging, and also the way in which Black mothers’ rights were terminated at a far higher rate. 

I mentioned earlier that the law that ended the federal guarantee to welfare in 1996 was followed by another law in 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act, and that law sped up termination of parental rights, and once again, there were these images, these myths about neglectful Black mothers who would not give up their children for adoption, so you know, we had to speed up termination of parental rights. So, in my own history, I saw those two issues very much connected, the prosecutions of Black mothers and taking their babies from them, and then reproductive justice has three major principles, or recognizes three major rights. 

The right, not only the right not to have a child and to terminate a pregnancy, but also the right to have a child, which contests the population control, sterilization abuse, those kinds of policies, the prosecutions of Black women, but also, thirdly, the right to raise your child in a healthy, nurturing, safe environment without the state or others trying to take your children, harm your children. You know, this is connected to the way in which law enforcement has criminalized Black children, has even brutalized and killed Black children. So, all of these are part of reproductive justice. Reproductive…

00:43:05 Michele Goodwin: 

And all of these are kind of part of a link because when I think about what comes next in Texas, in some ways you’ve been predicting that and writing about that in these books, and also across law review articles and other social science kind of work, which is that when people are then forced to carry pregnancies that they don’t want which could lead to death, which you’ve talked about, maternal mortality. On the other hand, it could lead to giving birth and then the policing starts all over again for these women and their children.

00:43:39 Dorothy Roberts:

Yes. So, that’s why I call it family policing because the system is geared to accusing parents of child neglect, and let me say, most children in foster care, the vast majority are there because of accusations of neglect. Sexual abuse and physical abuse are a small portion of why children end up in foster care, and neglect is almost always confused with poverty. The definition of neglect in most child abuse statutes is basically a definition of poverty. The parents do not have the means to provide for their children, whether it’s provide medical care, education, food, housing. Homelessness is a big reason why children get taken from their parents and put in foster care, and again, Black children have higher rates of poverty. They’re more likely to be impoverished for longer periods of their childhoods, and they also, they and their families have this stigma, you know, this myth of dysfunction that plays into reporting and investigating of Black families. 

So, let me just cite one statistic I found as I was working on my new book, Torn Apart. More than half of Black children will be investigated by Child Protective Services by the time they turn 18. Half. It’s 53 percent of Black children. Now, that should alarm us. Like, how could it possibly be that…?

00:45:26 Michele Goodwin: 

Everybody listening right now should be absolutely alarmed by that. 

00:45:31 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah.

00:45:31 Michele Goodwin: 

Fifty-three percent.

00:45:33 Dorothy Roberts:

Yes. So, and an investigation can mean, and it usually means, case workers coming to the home. They’re usually let in because they can threaten that they will take your children if you don’t cooperate. They’re often accompanied by police officers. This can lead to violence, police violence against Black people in the home. Maybe some of your listeners heard about the case of Syesha Mercado, the former…

00:46:08 Michele Goodwin: 

Yes. Right. Right. She was on one of those popular shows, like a Bachelor or Bachelorette kind of show, right?

00:46:14 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah. It was the singing…I’m terrible at these. I should know the name, but it was her voice. Maybe it was The Voice. [Editor’s note: Syesha Mercado was a contestant on American Idol.] I might be saying the wrong one, but she and her husband, her partner, brought their son, their toddler son while she was pregnant with their daughter to the hospital to get care because she was having trouble transitioning the toddler from breastfeeding to solid food, and she got reported for malnourishing the boy, and they took him. They put him in foster care. 

Then she gave birth to her daughter while they were fighting to get their son back, and the police surrounded them on the highway, sheriff’s deputies, and forced her to give the baby who was literally breastfeeding in the back of the car, give the baby over to Child Protective Services. She was 10 days old. There was no evidence whatsoever that this baby was harmed in any way, and they kept the baby for nine days, and then returned the baby to her. So, what is the point of this trauma? Can you imagine being surrounded by police officers and being forced to give up your 10-day-old baby?

00:47:47 Michele Goodwin: 

As you’re breastfeeding.

00:47:48 Dorothy Roberts:

As you’re…yes. They let her pump some milk, but she’s like how are you going to feed my baby? They let her pump…

00:47:56 Michele Goodwin: 

And even the surveillance of that, right? I mean, even if they’re not directly watching her as she’s pumping, right, it all is the kind of specter of surveillance and the shaming and the humiliation that goes with it.

00:48:08 Dorothy Roberts:

Absolutely. Absolutely. It is all about shame, humiliation, surveillance, punishment, control, and far too often it ends up with termination of parental rights, which is at a far higher rate for Black children, which means that you lose your legal bond with your children, and children with their parents. You know, when former President Trump enforced his family separation policy, I think Americans…

00:48:43 Michele Goodwin: 

It was chilling. Really, really chilling.

00:48:44 Dorothy Roberts:

It was chilling, and Americans paid attention and we heard about the trauma of taking children from their parents. Well, that happens to Black children every day in America, that they are taken from their parents usually because the parents don’t have the means to care for them the way that the state says they should without providing what the parents need. They need material support and income, but what happens is they get put into parent training classes and psychological counseling.

00:49:21 Michele Goodwin: 

Without the resources that they need.

00:49:23 Dorothy Roberts:

Without the resources they need.

00:49:23 Michele Goodwin: 

They need fair wages. They need healthcare.

00:49:25 Dorothy Roberts:

Exactly. Exactly.

00:49:27 Michele Goodwin: 

Right? They need to be able to have food. 

00:49:30 Dorothy Roberts:

Housing.

00:49:30 Michele Goodwin: 

Many Americans live in food deserts. Housing. 

00:49:32 Dorothy Roberts:

Housing.

00:49:32 Michele Goodwin: 

All of those structural things, and instead they’re put through parent training, which does not address whether there is a grocery store in your neighborhood. 

00:49:41 Dorothy Roberts:

Absolutely.

00:49:42 Michele Goodwin: 

It doesn’t address the infrastructural problems in the community, and it doesn’t address whether there’s access to medical care nearby.

00:49:50 Dorothy Roberts:

Absolutely, and for many…I’ll just give one aspect of this. For many Black families who cannot afford the medical care that a child who may have behavioral needs or mental health needs, they are forced to give up custody of the child to the state, and Black children are much more likely to be put in what are called residential treatment centers, which recently have killed young Black men, like Cornelius Fredericks in one very recently where they are kept under guard, and he threw a piece of bread in the cafeteria and end up being asphyxiated by staff and killed, you know, by staff.

00:50:40 Michele Goodwin: 

This is a really daunting image that is painted through your books and through this conversation. Killing the Black Body, the Shattered Bonds, Torn Apart.

00:50:50 Dorothy Roberts:

Torn Apart.

00:50:51 Michele Goodwin: 

Right, but in reality, these are the kind of…these are the calls. This is the blinking red light that you’ve been shining on a movement, that you’ve been shining on state policies and federal policies, on the Court. We do need that five hours. I want us to have that five…I am committed to those five hours. 

But for the next few minutes that we have, I want to close on something that I hope that you can help to give us some direction. So, I am wondering how do we frame what comes next? I mean, I usually ask at the end of our show what’s the silver lining? It’s hard to kind of ferret out a silver lining here, although maybe one comes to us from history, you know? What did Black women do centuries ago to try to address these issues? What do you see as pathways forward, silver lining?

00:51:47 Dorothy Roberts:

Sure. Well, there are several movements that have come up, and of course they have roots to abolitionist movements during the slavery era even and throughout the 20th century, but recently, more recently the reproductive justice movement, which really came into its own in the 1990s. The term was coined in the 1990s, and it now has blossomed into a really strong movement that understands the connections among these issues and has been spearheaded by Black women and other women of color. I think it’s a really exciting movement. 

Also, the prison abolition movement, which goes back, again, we could trace its roots, but the idea of abolishing the prison industrial complex from the 1980s. People around the world learned about it last summer with the global protests against police violence, and now, I write about in Torn Apart, and one of the reasons I decided to write a new book about the child welfare system was because of an emerging movement to end this punitive, really horrible way of addressing children’s needs that ends up harming children. 

There’s so much evidence that children who are in foster care, especially if they age out of foster care and are just left on their own, some of them, you know, left literally at a homeless shelter with nothing, there’s been some ways of trying to fix it, but really what we need is a complete dismantling of the way that America handles child welfare now and a transformation of the approach to children and families, and that movement is emerging. 

So, I really have great hope that as these movements understand the connections we’ve been talking about and come together in a common mission to end these punitive ways of addressing human needs and addressing violence, that instead we have an approach that is caring, that treats all people, you know, actually as equal human beings, right, that dismantles these hierarchies of gender and race and class and ability, and that builds a world that takes care of people, you know, as if we are all as we are equal human beings, and we do have evidence that that can work. We have our histories. I think Black women’s history of taking care of families and communities in loving, emancipatory ways is a wonderful roadmap for us. We just need to pay more attention to it and learn from those examples. 

You know, just to give one example, Black midwives and doulas who had to care for birthing people when we were excluded from segregated hospitals, right, that didn’t let Black people in. That tradition is being resuscitated, and it is just one piece, right, of how we know we’re already building this world. We just need more people to be willing to support it and be part of a movement to create it and strategize about the kinds of laws we need, and the kinds of mutual aid networks we need to create, and the kinds of community-based caring resources that we need to create, but I’m really, really hopeful that we can do it. 

It’s difficult. We have laws, like this one in Texas, and all the other ones being passed in Texas and other places, you know, to try to keep us from voting, to try to keep our children from learning about racism in the school, you know, all of these kinds of laws to prevent protests that are being passed, but I think we have now a stronger movement, like you know, it’s like a new abolitionist movement during the slavery era, like the Civil Rights Movement. I really think we’re at a moment like that.

00:56:53 Michele Goodwin: 

Oh, we’re at that point.

00:56:55 Dorothy Roberts:

Yes. Yes.

00:56:55 Michele Goodwin: 

We’re at that time.

00:56:56 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah.

00:56:58 Michele Goodwin: 

Well, Professor Dorothy Roberts, it has been my pleasure to be with you today. Thank you so much for joining us. The author of Killing the Black Body, Shattered Bonds, and Torn Apart. Thank you so much.

00:57:14 Dorothy Roberts:

Thank you, Michele. It was wonderful to engage with you. I really appreciate it.

00:57:21 Michele Goodwin: 

Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin.” I want to thank my guest, Professor Dorothy Roberts, author of the forthcoming book Torn Apart, for joining us and being part of this critical and insightful conversation, and to our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the full story. We hope you will join us again for our next episode where we will be reporting, rebelling, and you know telling it like it is, as usual. It will be an episode you will not want to miss. 

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This has been your host, Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is. On The Issues with Michele Goodwin is a Ms. Magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal and Oliver Haug. Our social media intern is Lillian LaSalle. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Marsh Allen, and music by Chris J. Lee, and social media assistance from Lillian LaSalle. Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.