Self Ownership and Reproductive Rights
Built into the idea of inalienable rights is the presumption that they are, in fact, necessary and legitimate. It is simply understood that each individual should have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, the way natural rights of women have been understood and applied in the United States has never followed these lines. Originally, women in the US were considered the property of their fathers and then their husbands. Although this is no longer explicitly the case, women's educational and professional lives continue be constrained and foreshortened by patriarchal cultural and political formations and expectations.
One of the most powerful infringements on women's rights that has been constant in throughout the history of the US is women's rights to make decisions about their bodies, and about their families. Life for women means not only the choices and opportunities given, but also the right to make and manage life. In essence, this is the right of the body. In her article "Women, Sexuality, and Environmental Justice in American History," Nancy Unger discusses the ways in which Native women have used reproduction to fight oppression. Native women have practiced abortions, abstinence, and prolonged lactation to manage their families and communities. By claiming ownership of their own bodies, they claimed power.
The idea of birth control as a way to negotiate positions of power is not an idea limited to the history Native women in the Americas. Nancy Unger's article points out that while Native Americans practiced birth control as part of their rights within Native cultures, African American women also used biological and social planning practices in response to their brutal enslavement and their continued social and legal subjugation by a white supremacist state after slavery. Through claiming rights to their own body's reproduction, African American women used abortions to control the extent to which their bodies were implicated in the reproduction of slavery itself. This "not only reduced their masters' supplies of new generations of forced laborers, but also served as a kind of strife...contributing to higher prices for women considered to be promising 'breeders'" (50).
It is important to note that women not only controlled their own fertility but that of the earth. Slaves used fertilizer inventively to thwart slave-produced crops; and they would lose, steal, or break tools. They did this in an attempt to decrease the profits that slave owners made from crops. Power, in this context, was located in and through slave bodies' as biological, social, and ecological entities. While these historical events point to the powerful nature of reproduction, Unger's article goes on to prove how this power is stolen from women.
Unger discusses how the US endorsed, funded, and implemented sterilization program on Native American reservations. It is estimated that sterilization programs succeeded in "rendering infertile 23 percent of all Indian women of childbearing age west of the Mississippi" (57). In this way, Unger clarifies that practices of social and biological management don't mean the same thing outside the control of the women whose lives they impact. When decided and implemented by patriarchal and white supremacist state systems, controlling reproduction was a key tool in the hands of the oppressors.Unfortunately sterilization programs continue to be implemented today, and are targeted toward poor women, women of color, women in prison, and Native women on reservations.
Sterilization and related restrictions of women's rights are an obvious act of war against women, hidden underneath what the Judeo-Christian culture has painted as natural, and therefore right. Abortion laws, birth control debates, and access to birth control methods are painted by popular culture as necessary to uphold morality. However, it seems obvious from history that any attempt to limit access to birth control is actually an attempt to constrain the most basic way women can have power: the power over self. Now, it is time for women to take back the right to their lives.