When Americans think of reproductive rights for women, they often go straight to abortion. That is what has had the most controversy and media attention, but there’s the opposite side of the reproductive rights spectrum: the right to bear a child.
Being the white, middle-class woman that I am, it’s hard for me to imagine someone not allowing me to conceive and give birth to a child. In fact, it’s incredibly easy for me to see people protesting the fact that I don’t want my own child by either giving it up for adoption or getting an abortion. Many people would probably call me irresponsible, stupid, etc. but I can’t think of a single person or entity that would tell me it was simply not allowed that I bear a child and raise it myself.
This is not the case with many women however. Women of races other than white were discouraged from procreating in the 1920s because the United States had a eugenics program in which a European Protestant population was favored. President Theodore Roosevelt thought that the “wrong” women were reproducing according to Flavin’s book, Our Bodies, Our Crimes. He thought that their genetic backgrounds were unsavory and so thought that their genes should not contribute to the future generations. These minorities in the future fought for the reproductive right to bear a child by arguing for better pay and benefits, state supported child care, and affordable, safe housing.
Race is not the only distinction made in terms of who has the right to bear a child. Women determined “feeble-minded” or who have been incarcerated are also encouraged to be sterilized. Women are even given “no procreation” orders by judges without any kind of legal backing. As a woman who doesn’t want to have any children that I couldn’t afford, it was difficult for me to read that women who were socially and/or economically disadvantaged actually wanted to raise a child on their own. Raising a child while in prison or addicted to drugs or even without much financial support is what I picture a living hell to be like. And especially in the case of women who are addicted to illegal drugs, it’s hard for me to sympathize with their desire to be mothers when they can’t seem to take care of themselves.
I’ve come to realize that the “it’s for the child” arguments can lead down a slippery slope in which women’s reproductive rights are tightly controlled by government, which is as we know, is dominated by men. These women, despite their personal issues, have every right to become mothers. The government should only step in when the mother’s actions actually have a negative effect on the child. And a woman should never be sterilized so that there’s no hope of her ever becoming pregnant, no matter how much personal reformation she undergoes. It sets a poor example for the rest of society whenever women are given court orders not to procreate and men are rarely sterilized in the penal system. When women are stripped of their reproductive rights, it sends the message that they don’t have the ability to be autonomous or have control over their own bodies. And that message, given usually by men, is a dangerous route to defining men and women’s roles in society.