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Reproductive Justice

August 31, 2022

At The Guardian, Prof. Dorothy Roberts explains why the reproductive justice movement must be more collective and go beyond abortion rights.

Dorothy E. Roberts, George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights, recently spoke to The Guardian about reproductive justice and why the movement needs to bring reproductive justice out of the margins and into the center… . 

From The Guardian:

For many women of color, the right to control one’s reproductive destiny has always been about much more than the right to abortion… .

You’ve written about the reproductive justice movement, and your book Killing the Black Body is an important contribution to this cause. For those who are unfamiliar, could you explain your work and the movement?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I began looking into the prosecutions of Black women who were pregnant and taking drugs.

These prosecutions were racist and sexist in my opinion, and they were part of a long history of policing and penalizing Black women’s reproductive choices, bodies and lives.

This work on fighting the criminalization of Black moms and pregnant women during the so-called crack epidemic in the US prompted me to explore the numerous policies that were founded on vilifying stereotypes about Black mothers and blaming Black women’s childbearing for a range of social ills, and then adopting punitive and villainizing actions.

That’s what inspired me to write Killing the Black Body.

In 1994, while I was writing Killing the Black Body, a group of Black women met at a pro-choice conference and coined the phrase “reproductive justice” to describe a holistic approach that puts Black women at the center and incorporates our experiences of having our childbearing decisions punished and devalued. While the mainstream reproductive rights movement focused on abortion, we expanded the definition of reproductive freedom to include not only abortion but also [freedom from] state interference. Reproductive justice includes the right to abort a pregnancy and also to raise a child in a safe and supportive community.

Roberts, an acclaimed scholar of race, gender, and the law, recently published Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families — And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World​ (Basic Books, 2022). She is also the founding director of the Penn Program on Race, Science & Society in the Center for Africana Studies and her other books include Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century (New Press, 2011); Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Books, 2002), and Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Pantheon, 1997). She also recently penned “Race,” a chapter in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, focusing on race as a political construct and the historical regulation of Black women’s bodies.

Roberts joined the University of Pennsylvania as its 14th Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with joint appointments in the Departments of Africana Studies and Sociology and the Law School. She is the author of more than 100 scholarly articles and book chapters as well as a co-editor of six books on topics such as constitutional law and women and the law.

Read Roberts’ full interview at The Guardian.