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(en) NEA #10: Putting the Control Back in Birth Control: Racism, Class and Reproductive Rights by PJ Lilley and Jeff Shantz

From Northeastern Anarchist <northeastern_anarchist@yahoo.com>
Date Wed, 27 Apr 2005 07:36:10 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
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"Rape, racism, sexism, and capitalism have been consistent elements in a
long history of documented assaults against the reproductive sovereignty of Black
women." [1] -Theryn Kigvamasud’ Vashti, Communities Against Rape and Abuse
As anarcha-feminists, when we think of "reproductive
rights" we usually first think of a woman's right to
choose when/where/how she has children in terms of her
access to free, safe abortions and multiple birth
control technologies. We might think of Emma Goldman
standing on a soapbox risking arrest to talk to women
about condoms, or of our sisters currently standing on
the front lines doing clinic defense actions. But on
the flip side of the same coin is the right to choose
to have a child, and the access to health care and a
safe environment to enable that choice. Creeping
liberalism and racism manifest when the equation that
abortion equals "individual choice free from state
interference", or the interests of white, middle class
women become the dominant interpretation of
reproductive liberty.

As Dorothy Roberts said to Ms. Magazine, too often the
movement puts more vigor into defending abortion
rights than into fighting against the limitations put
on black women's rights to reproduce. "It's a fatal
obfuscation of the principle from which women's demand
for reproductive rights springs: that is, the right to
be, the right to exist on equal terms with all other
women and men, and to create (or choose not to create)
others like ourselves." As she argues, increased
access to effective new contraceptives does not
necessarily enhance or improve women's reproductive
freedoms. [2]

Racist, patriarchal states and bosses have worked
together to exercise control over women's bodies using
bribes, coercion, and outright force. Slave-owning
plantation masters find their modern-day counterparts
in the export processing zones and maquiladoras of
today. The USAID bureaucrats and "family cap" welfare
administrators selectively offering Norplant and tubal
ligation echo those moral regulators and eugenicists
who sterilized women in poor houses, asylums and
brothels in the past.

Their tactics range from social assistance incentives,
which are often linked to long-term (often unsafe)
birth control, to the daily pressures on factory
workers to take the Pill, and even so far as
state-backed mass sterilization programs. Here we will
examine some of these more recent attempts (in our
area of Canada and the US) to limit reproductive
freedom. Our focus is on the corporate and
state-backed implementation of Norplant, and on the
more street-based example of vigilantism practiced by
a group calling themselves "Project Prevention", and
on welfare reform projects in the past decade.[3]

Historically, when we look back at the eugenics
programs in the past century, it has clearly been
women of color, the disabled, the sick, the women
labeled "loose", and overall the poorest women who are
the main targets.

Modern eugenics emerged from the Social Darwinism of
the late 19th century. Eugenicists' scheme to apply
biology to the task of ridding humanity of
"undesirables" while promoting "desirables," was
explicitly stated by Francis Galton, who coined the
term eugenics. Eugenic doctrines, espoused by
biologists, physicians and notably the emergent social
science disciplines of Psychology and Sociology,
attributed poverty and criminality to an individual's
biological make-up rather than the failings of social
systems. Instead of looking at political and economic
processes characterizing industrial capitalist
expansion, proponents of eugenics identified various
categories of people who were held responsible for a
broad range of social problems and whose reproduction
supposedly posed a threat to social stability.

The United States was the first country to sanction
eugenic sterilization for those deemed "unfit." The
state of Indiana had a forced sterilization law as
early as 1907 which was applied to petty criminals,
alcoholics, the homeless, unwed mothers, prostitutes,
and children with so-called "discipline problems,"
after they had been herded into prisons, asylums,
poorhouses, poor farms, orphans' homes, and reform
schools. By the late 1920s sterilization laws had been
enacted in 24 states in the US, primarily in the
Atlantic region, the Midwest and California.

The performance of eugenic sterilization programs in the US during
the 1930s is cited as a major influence on the enactment of
sterilization laws in Nazi Germany. While racist Darwinism was
espoused only by a minority, even in US states that enacted eugenic
laws, Nazism elevated the doctrine to a central position, declaring it
official teaching after 1933. As Kevles notes:

"SS academies, in conjunction with university professors, tried to
prove that races develop physical characteristics that can be directly
linked to modes of behavior. In an attempt to "purge" the German
population of "unworthy" members, about 400,000 men and women
were sterilized (criminals, prostitutes, some poor people, alcoholics,
members of mixed races, and others). On the same grounds, some
people were forced to have abortions and many were killed within the
so-called euthanasia program." [4]

But the racist, classist bias in many birth control programs was
certainly not limited to the American racists and German Nazis. Even
erstwhile progressives succumbed to eugenics' claims. In
Scandinavia, sterilization was widely supported by Social Democrats,
as well as noted liberals such as Gunnar Myrdal, in planning for the
emerging welfare state. In Sweden thousands of women were
sterilized for reasons of eugenics between 1930 and the 1970s. Up to
60,000 were sterilized without consent on such grounds as having an
"unhealthy sexual appetite."

Throughout Scandinavia as well as parts of Canada and the southern
US sterilization achieved broad support. This was largely related to
economic rather than eugenic considerations, as sterilization
presented a means of reducing relief and institutional care for the
poor. In Alberta, the 'Sterilization Act' of 1928 (started under the
father of right-wing politician Preston Manning) specifically targeted
people in mental health institutions, but also aimed at native women,
new immigrants, the disabled, unwed mothers, women accused of
lesbian 'tendencies', and so on. It was only finally ended in 1972,
after sterilizing more than 2,000 Albertans.

In the US, Margaret Sanger, a founder of Planned Parenthood who
was championed as an early feminist by some in the 1970s, proposed
in "A Plan for Peace" (1932) that Congress establish a special
department for the study of "population problems" and appoint a
Parliament of Population to direct and control the population through
a directorship representing various branches of science. Sanger
insisted that among the main objectives of the Population Parliament
would be "to keep the doors of immigration closed to the entrance of
certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the
stamina of the race, such as feeble minded, idiots, morons, insane,
syphilitic, epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in
this class barred by the immigration laws of 1924." Once controlling
"the intake and output of morons, mental defectives, epileptics"
Sanger suggested that "the second step would be to take an inventory
of the second group such as illiterates, paupers, unemployables,
criminals, prostitutes, dope-fiends; classify them in special
departments under government medical protection, and segregate
them on farms and open spaces as long as necessary for the
strengthening and development of moral conduct." [5]

Following World War II, eugenics was largely discredited, through
scientific criticism and the opposition of civil libertarians as well as
the stigma of its deep connection with the Nazi regime. Still
sterilization programs persisted in Canada and Sweden until the
1970s. In addition, echoes of eugenics can be found in recent
controversies such as attempts in the US to compel poor women,
especially welfare recipients, to undertake risky birth control devices
such as Norplant. Eugenics brought together the economic and moral
regulation of women's lives, bodies and labor.

A key element that propped up the attempts to justify these
sterilizations was an explicit "ableism," the belief that those who for
whatever reason, and in whatever manner, are less "abled" should
also be stopped from procreation, by whatever means necessary.
Here there has always been a complaint about "burdens to society,"
or reference to saving "tax-paying citizens." As Kigvamasud'Vashti
puts it, "The value of people with disabilities is too often measured in
capitalists terms - in fact, when officials are determining if a person
meets the [US] federal definition of disability of the ten criteria
considered is whether the person is economically self-sufficient."

The group known as "Project Prevention" (formerly known as
C.R.A.C.K., Children Requiring A Caring Kommunity [sic]) plays on
exactly these types of able-bodied supremacist notions. Since the
early 90's, this organization has targeted poor women in many major
US cities. Started by a white woman who adopted from the same
mother four black children with prenatal exposure to crack, their
main project is "cash for birth control for drug and alcohol addicts."
They offer $200 to women who agree to sterilization or long-term
birth control (you get the $200 immediately if you have your tubes
tied or get a Norplant implant or $200 in installments over one year if
you go with Depo-Provera or Lunelle). Acknowledging that more
poor women are going to go for the $200 than rich, they flier poor,
Latino and Black neighborhoods, at homeless drop-ins and shelters,
and wherever they feel prostitutes or drug users might frequent.
Without any concern for the short or long term health, safety or well
being of the women, they use coercion, intimidation and essentially
guilt them into giving over direct control over their reproduction.
With all Project Prevention's fund raising and venture capitalist
support, they give nothing to rehab treatment or housing programs
where they recruit. They ignore the fact that if a woman is chemically
addicted and in poverty, then she's also more likely to be homeless
and at greater risk of rape. By telling these women they're "out of
control" and that they and their children a "burden on society,"
C.R.A.C.K. lays down a lot of shame and discouragement just when a
woman may be ready to seek treatment and support, and reinforces
instead that her life is not so valuable, and she should just take the

Knowing that 'tax-paying capitalist' evaluations of life are often
completely ass-backwards, feminist activists in Seattle and other
cities organized themselves to tear down the Project Prevention
flyers. Still, they keep on coming, and also keep trying to pass
legislation to make "prenatal crimes" punishable by jail and

United States' legislation targeting poor mothers has really taken off
in the area of welfare reform. In August of 1993, New Jersey was the
first state to impose the family cap for welfare recipients, and by
1998, there were 21 states with some form of capping policy,
whereby a (often single) woman with children receiving assistance
wouldn't find any additional support if she bore another child. By
1998, 20,000 children were denied benefits in New Jersey, but it
hadn't had any real effect on birthrate, and of course, served to drive
many women-led families into deeper poverty.

Also starting in the 1990s, Norplant was favored by politicians and
legislators as a means of population control. Underlying the
distribution and administration of Norplant were racial and class
based politics geared towards the control of poor women and
especially poor black women.

These plans to require women on welfare to use birth control are
nothing new. They have long circulated as part of neo-conservative
capitalist policy to regulate the working class. For example, part of
Margaret Sanger's Plan for Peace, Part E reads: "To insure the
country against future burdens of maintenance for numerous
offspring as may be born of feeble minded parents by pensioning all
persons with transmissible disease who voluntarily consent to

In 1973, University of Chicago physiologist Dwight Ingle, in his
sweetly titled book, Who Should Have Children?, advocated
population control as an alternative to the welfare state.

Ingle proposed that individuals who could not provide their children
with a healthy environment or biological inheritance - including
people with genetic defects or low intelligence, welfare recipients,
criminals, drug addicts, and alcoholics - should be encouraged, or
forced if necessary, to refrain from childbearing. [6]

Incredibly, Ingle fantasized about a future age in which tech advances
would see the insertion of pellets containing an "anti fertility agent"
under the skin of every woman of childbearing age. In order to have
the pellets removed women would have to apply for a license. The
state would determine who was qualified for parenthood under the
guidelines provided above by Ingle. With the invention and
dissemination of Norplant in the 1990s, Ingle's nightmarish plan
seemed to stand at the threshold of realization.

Thousands of poor black women in the US were targets of an
aggressive campaign to have Norplant inserted for reproductive
control, with the goal of decreasing their birth rate. The Population
Council, a non-profit organization that pushes so-called "family
planning" in poorer countries, originally developed Norplant.
Pharmaceutical giant Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories distributed it in the
US. Norplant is made up of six silicone capsules filled with the
synthetic hormone levonorgestral, which are implanted just under the
skin of a woman's upper arm. Once inserted Norplant prevents
pregnancy for up to five years. Only sterilization has a better record of
preventing pregnancies.

Immediately upon its approval by the US Food and Drug
Administration (FDA), politicians and social commentators seized
upon Norplant as a useful way to control the birth rates of poor black
women. If its long-acting, effective and convenient character made it
the perfect contraceptive, as its advocates claimed, it also made it the
ideal tool for governments to control the reproduction of poor women.

Only two days after Federal approval of Norplant, the Philadelphia
Inquirer ran a chilling editorial entitled, "Poverty and Norplant: Can
Contraception Reduce the Underclass?" The editorial explicitly put
forward a racist and eugenic position, offering a coercive combination
of contraception and race. It went on to propose Norplant as a
solution to inner-city poverty, suggesting that “the main reason
more black children are living in poverty [itself a statistical lie] is that
people having the most children are the ones least capable of
supporting them.”[7] The editorial finished by endorsing the use
of financial incentives to "encourage" women on welfare to use

Not surprisingly, journalists around the country, from Newsweek to
the New Republic leaped to the Inquirer's defense to take up the call
for coercive Norplant incentives. David Frankel, director of
population sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, was even more
aggressive: "Despite the infantile reaction of some black staffers [who
opposed their boss' editorial]…birth control incentives would not be
genocide. Such incentives would be a humane inducement to social
responsibility."[8] Here again is the racist mythology that poverty is a
result of personal irresponsibility and the only solution is "tough love"
to force the negligent to "be responsible." Given the class character of
battles over reproduction, of course, not all supporters of Norplant
incentives were white. DC Mayor Marion Barry asserted that, "when
you start asking the government to take care of [your babies], the
government now ought to have some control over you." [9]

The public media pressure put Norplant at the center of a new
program of population control politics and government programs for
poor women. At the same time that neoliberal governments across
the US were cutting social programs, public funding for Norplant
became a popular budget item. It costs up to $500 to implant, $365
for the capsules and $500 to remove, and was directed towards poor
women through Medicaid.

By 1994, otherwise cost-cutting governments had managed to spend
$34 million on Norplant-related benefits. Half of the women in the
US who used Norplant were Medicaid recipients. States also made
millions of dollars available to provide Norplant to low income
women who were ineligible for Medicaid. Wyeth-Ayerst set up The
Norplant Foundation contributing almost $3 million per year to get
Norplant kits to poor women. The company profits partly by targeting
the devices at women who cannot "control discontinuation of the
product.” [10]

Norplant was becoming the only acceptable form of welfare
expenditure, as if poor women were poor only because they had
children. Never mind that having Norplant inserted did nothing to pay
the rent or buy food. Of course, this was primarily about moral
regulation and the social control of poor women's bodies since it was
directed, even as food and housing provisions were being cut, at
women who were already poor but had no children.

Incentives were not enough for some governments. Within two years
of Norplant's release, several state legislatures put forward measures
either offering financial bonuses for Norplant use or even requiring
implantation as a condition of receiving welfare benefits. In 1993
Tennessee passed a law requiring anyone receiving public assistance
to be notified in writing about the state's free provision of Norplant. A
North Carolina bill would have required all women having a
state-funded abortion to be implanted with Norplant. Bills proposed
in Maryland, Mississippi and South Carolina would have made
Norplant mandatory for women on welfare.

In case there was any doubt about the eugenic basis of Norplant
distribution, Nazi and former-KKK Grand Wizard and Louisiana state
representative, David Duke put forward a bill paying women receiving
welfare $100 a year to use Norplant as part of his "concrete proposals
to reduce the illegitimate birthrate and break the cycle of poverty that
truly enslaves and harms the black race" by "promoting the best
strains, the best individuals."[11]

Other experimental measures (such as the "contraceptive vaccine")
will likely follow Norplant as methods to reduce the fertility of black
women in the US. Such contraceptive vaccines, administered by
injection, can be given without a woman's full knowledge or consent.
In addition, the contraceptive effect cannot be reversed once the
"vaccine" is put into a woman's bloodstream. Clearly, such
technologies are a threat to women's re/productive autonomy.

For Norplant, Depo-Provera or IUD, women cannot simply stop
using it when they want to. This so-called convenience contributes to
its coercive application. The provider controls it, not the women who
use it. Once it is implanted it does not rely on a woman's consent and
it is easily monitored: the rods are in or not. Health care providers can
impose their moral decisions on poor women by refusing to remove
it. Ensuring that implants remain in is easily done if governments
mandate use. Day-to-day management of birth control is removed
from women and given to a technology and the health care system
that so badly services poor women. It is not about reproductive
freedom but rather about pushing technologies on specified groups in
order to achieve social outcomes favorable to elites.

Welfare policy is clearly dictated by capitalist economics and
radicalized class politics as the struggles over Norplant show. Quite
significantly the move by governments to push Norplant on poor
women occurred at the same time that awareness of its negative
health effects was growing, a factor leading wealthier white women,
who enjoyed greater reproductive choices, to reject Norplant en
masse. In a telling example of corporate and government complicity,
governments stepped in to rescue their corporate partners by
providing, and subsidizing, a market for the increasingly
unmarketable technology. Politicians and editors of the capitalist
press once again joined together to target explicitly poor black
women for Norplant distribution. These media myths rarely have
white counterparts in their representations. They play upon deeply
manipulated fears in the US about black reproduction. Norplant was
primarily distributed in centers with higher proportions of black
welfare recipients, even though most women receiving welfare are
not black. Because black women are five times more likely to live in
poverty or receive welfare and three times more likely to be
unemployed than white women in the US, policies directed at women
receiving welfare and poor women are a not so sly way of targeting
and controlling the lives of black women.

This plays into longstanding welfare ideology or propaganda that
blames black single mothers for everything from "deviant lifestyles,"
welfare "dependency, " moral "degeneracy" and other terms that
cover up what are really systemic socio-economic failings of
capitalism. Rather than being a condemnation of capitalist economies
these issues blame women for the viciousness of capitalist relations
that brutalize them. Thus race and class politics work together to
propel coercive birth control policies.[12]

As the case of Norplant further illustrates, these politics are played
out globally. Most clinical testing for Norplant took place in Brazil,
Indonesia and Egypt. Numerous ethical breaches occurred in testing
of extremely poor and often illiterate women. As well researchers lost
track of large numbers of users - upwards of 30 percent in come
cases. In Bangladesh, Norplant clinical trials were conducted on
almost 600 women in urban slums. Clinicians did not obtain
informed consent to participate and clients were not given prior
medical exams. Women were given monetary incentives for the
insertion and discouraged from reporting problems. The studies were
carried out by the national family planning and biomedical research
organization, the Bangladesh Fertility Research Program.

Poverty and racism combine to drive an argument that women's
health can be sacrificed for the supposed good of society or to address
social problems that are not their making.

Internationally, feminists are making a strong argument that it is not
over-population, but over-consumption by the richest 20% of the
planet that is causing resource shortages and is destroying the
environment. Also, socializing the costs of health care is crucial for
our survival. Right now in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the infant
mortality rate for black babies is 2.24% and 0.75% for white. It is a
perpetuation of basically a 'caste' system to maintain the racist status

Struggles for real reproductive liberty must be - can only be - part of
struggles against racism and economic exploitation. Besides doing
our clinic defenses for women seeking abortion, and just as
vigorously as we would fight Nazis in the street, we need to confront
the racists in the boardrooms that set welfare policy, and the right
wing that organizes behind groups like "Project Prevention."[13] As
one activist feminist put it, "Oppression needs to be eliminated, not
the reproductive capacity of women."[14]



[1] Fact Sheet on Positive Prevention /C.R.A.C.K., prepared by
Theryn Kigvamasud'Vashti, Communities Against Rape and Abuse,
[2] Interview with Dorothy Roberts, by Moira Brennan. Ms.
Magazine, April 2001.
[3] A future article in the NEA series on reproduction will address the
context for migrant laborers and women in newly industrialized
[4] Eugenics and human rights - Statistical Data Included British
Medical Journal, August 14, 1999 by Daniel J Kevles
[5] Sanger, Margaret. "Plan for Peace." Birth Control Review, 1932,
[6] Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction
and the Meaning of Liberty. Pantheon Books, 1997, page 110
[7] ibid, page 106.
[8] ibid, pg. 107
[9] ibid, pg. 108
[10] ibid, pg. 128
[11] ibid, pg. 109
[12] ibid, pg. 112
[13] see their website at www.projectprevention.org for a listing of
cities where they recruit
[14] Hartman, Betsy - Cracking Open CRACK, zmag.org, 2000


The Northeastern Anarchist: Repro Series

For working women, control of one's own body is constantly another
turf battle in the class war. In this second article in our series on
reproduction, we look at birth control and sterilization in the context
of other attacks on the poor.


PJ Lilley and Jeff Shantz are both proud anarchist parents who are
members of Punching Out Collective (NEFAC-Toronto) and the
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty


This essay is from the newest issue of 'The Northeastern Anarchist'
(#10, Spring/Summer 2005)... which includes essays on dual power
and revolutionary strategy, analysis of strikes (failed BC general
strike) and labor organizing (Montpelier Downtown Workers Union),
an interview with an Iranian anarchist, further critique of participatory
economics, looking back on five years of NEFAC, and much more!

The Northeastern Anarchist is the English-language magazine of the
Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists (NEFAC),
covering class struggle anarchist theory, history, strategy, debate and
analysis in an effort to further develop anarchist-communist ideas
and practice.


To order a copy, please send $5ppd ($6 international). For
distribution, bundle orders are $3 per copy for three or more copies,
and $2.50 per copy for ten or more.

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Back issues are $2ppd ($3 international) per copy; special offer
package for the entire set of back issues (#1-9) now only $15.

Checks or money orders can be made out to "Northeastern
Anarchist" and sent to:

Northeastern Anarchist

PO Box 230685 Boston, MA 02123

email: northeastern_anarchist@yahoo.com

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