In Killing the Black Body, Dorothy Roberts traces how the maintenance of slavery necessitated the domination and control of Black women’s reproductive lives and therefore the control and destruction of Black families and communities. Slave owners held a vested interest in born and unborn Black children; specifically, their potentiality to increase profits for slave owners through the direct sale and/or lease of their bodies or through the additional production of free labor for profit. This interest in Black children stood in direct contrast to slave owners’ interests in Black mothers beyond their enslavement. Black women were valuable insofar as they could produce free labor for slave owners, yet the production of this free labor stood in direct opposition to Black women’s personhood and autonomy. Autonomous, self-determined Black families (and community) also stood in opposition to slave owners’ interest in Black children. Slave owners often promised that Black children would be torn from their parents even before birth, vesting unborn Black children to other enslavers in wills. Thus, Black self-determination and any maintenance of Black families and community served to threaten the maintenance of the institutions of slavery, anti-Blackness, racial capitalism, and White supremacy.  

Black women rebelled against slave owners’ control over their reproductive lives through fighting against the institution of slavery which depended on reproductive oppression. They risked severe punishment for fighting against sexual violence, fled plantations, and feigned illness as forms of rebellion. Black men also rebelled, refusing to father children “destined to become their masters’ property.” Roberts details this history to better understand how slavery informs if not directly shapes how Black mothers, fathers, parents, families, communities, and children are (mis)treated by today’s institutions and, more broadly, the state. 

This history also tells a story of Black rebellion and the ways that Black communities have continued to reject institutions that demand Black people endure suffering, harm and violence. Though slavery was “abolished” by law in 1865, we can better understand modernity as what Saidiya Hartman names the afterlife of slavery wherein Black people experience another phase of enslavement and “skewed life chances”—limited access to health care, education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. Hartman argues that the afterlife of slavery leaves Black people with an ever-present desire for freedom. 

In 1994, a group of Black women in Chicago, referring to themselves as Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, originated and formalized the framework known as reproductive justice. While reproductive justice was formalized in 1994, in many ways, the establishment of reproductive justice gave name to the centuries long work of Black communities to end state oppression and to secure self-determination for their families and communities – a fight for freedom. As mainstream, pro-choice activism dominated conversations about reproductive health, reproductive justice organizers formed a more radical, expansive organizing theory and practice. Reproductive justice organizers understood that reproductive health expanded beyond the circulating debates about the legality of abortion. Not only did many Black women lack access to legal abotion services, but the long legacy of forced sterilization and coercive contraception practices made abortion a much more nuanced, complicated issue. In other words, reproductive justice organizers also contended with the ways in which anti-Blackness and White supremacy created conditions that endangered Black women, children, and families. Reproductive justice expanded beyond the narrow scope of pro-choice activism and called attention to the ways that the state created harm and violence for Black communities in ways that limited their ability to safely parent their children. From forced sterilization, to policing, capitalist exploitation, inadequate and unsafe housing, and food insecurity, reproductive justice organizers recognized that ending reproductive oppression required an expansive analysis and larger demands. That is, reproductive justice organizers recognized that Black freedom and self-determination were crucial components of ending reproductive oppression. And, securing Black freedom and self-determination necessitated rebelling against the violent institutions that rendered Black reproductive freedom impossible. Reproductive justice seeks to create a world where Black children are safe, where Black self-determination is possible, and where material conditions are radically transformed in ways that support Black life. 

Today, in almost every way, the family policing system guarantees that such a world cannot exist. Research shows that Black families are more likely to experience a child protective services investigation and experience a greater chance of being investigated throughout their childhoods. Family policing is a normal part of life for more than half of Black children in some communities. The risk of Black families being swept into the family policing system begins at birth, as drug screening newborns is a common practice that overwhelmingly impacts poor, Black parents. Family policing agents control, regulate, and monitor the behavior of Black families through mandatory services and family case plans. Black children are routinely separated from their families through foster care and adoption services funded by the state. Once Black families are in the foster system, the case follows them forever. New pregnancies are often reported to family policing agencies if families have had previous contact with the system; children born while a parent has an open family policing case are subject to removal. The family policing system acts in concert with other carceral systems like the criminal punishment system, often causing incarcerated parents, who are already separated from their children and communities, to forever lose parental rights as a result of their incarceration. The family policing system is responsible for the continued regulation and punishment of Black families and therefore the continued reproductive oppression experienced by Black parents. 

As Black people fought against enslavement and reproductive oppression, as reproductive justice organizers fight for the creation of a world that affirms Black life and reproductive liberation, communities gathering to abolish the family policing system too are continuing the ongoing struggle against reproductive oppression. Abolishing family policing is a fight for reproductive justice and reproductive justice demands that we end family policing. Foster care violates parent’s ability to care for their children. And, as Laura Briggs argues, “adoption is a signal that reproductive freedoms are not being met.” In other words, the conditions that cause many children to face adoption — lack of access to resources to raise children and limited options for reproductive care — are conditions that would not exist in a society where reproductive justice was realized. The movement to abolish family policing is a movement to ensure that Black children, families, and communities are safe. When we fight for abolition –the ending of oppressive systems, ideologies, and the existing social order— we also fight for the creation of a new world where reproductive freedom exists and where Black children, families, and communities are free. 

By: Maya Pendleton, upEND Contributor