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Brooklyn’s Family Court was rife with gossip during my time representing children, teens, and young adults involved with the family regulation[1] (also known as “child welfare”) system. One rumor concerned youths living in institutions who had removed their own IUDs, hoping to become pregnant. Its tellers’ tones were contemptuous toward the young people who had risked their health in pursuit of riskier pregnancies that would destroy their futures. I winced in imagined pain and went on to the next case; immersed in the system, I did not think to question that framing.

I have questions now: Had those young people given informed, uncoerced consent to the state-funded[2] insertion of IUDs? What were their reasons for choosing self-retrieval? Had they experienced mistreatment[3] by doctors? How long would they have waited for care? Would professional removal have been less painful, or less risky[4]? Are Black youths who choose to give birth gambling their health – or wisely playing their hands?[5]  If their prospects truly[6] were bleak,[7] whose failure[8] did that reflect? How could the people whose decisions[9] separated families lack the basic empathy to see why the young people they “helped[10]” craved love?

NCLR Family Law Attorney Nesta Johnson with her Mother

High COVID death rates in Black communities were misattributed[11] to distrust of doctors. Pundits discussed Black men, invoking the shameful Tuskegee Study, but rarely discussed Black women, who also died in droves[12], or the violation and exploitation[13] of Black women’s bodies. Victim-blaming is familiar to family regulation apologists, who claim that racial disparities reflect “disproportionate need” (i.e., disproportionate poverty) – yet those disparities persist after controlling for poverty. Reducing poverty is an effective[14] way to increase child well-being – yet funds intended to reduce child poverty are instead diverted[15] into systems that perpetuate it.

As a feminist-founded organization, NCLR has championed reproductive and bodily autonomy, and the right to privacy, as fundamental human rights. NCLR stands in opposition to mandated reporting[16], and to fetal personhood legislation that will criminalize mothers. NCLR supports pro-community funding models and abolitionist reforms to the family regulation system, including direct cash transfers as the first-line solution to so-called child neglect.[17] NCLR advocates for legal protections for surrogates and gamete donors while opposing racist, classist laws and policies which imply that criminal propensity and educational attainment are heritable.

Everyone who can become pregnant has the right to choose whether and when to give birth. Everyone has the right to legal, safe, accessible general and reproductive health care, including prenatal, natal, and postnatal care, as well as infertility, contraception, and abortion care. Everyone has the right to refuse invasive, unwanted medical procedures.[18] Everyone has the right to parent their children in safe[19] communities, free from unwarranted[20] state intrusion. Systemic distrust of Black women robs them of their children[21] and of their very lives. In 2020, Black women were three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes, regardless of their income[22] or education level. Black infants also face a heightened risk of death.

It is no surprise that the states that have most cruelly curtailed access to abortion care have the worst[23] maternal and child health outcomes – and the highest Black populations. [24]

The LGBTQ+ community knows that control[25] is not care, and autonomy is crucial to well-being.

Until we achieve racial and economic equity, we cannot achieve reproductive equity.

To achieve racial and economic equity, we must trust and support[26] Black women.

Not just today. Not just this week. Not just this month.

Trust Black women.

Every day.

[1] Learn more about the term “family regulation” here.  

[2] In  Killing the Black Body,, Dorothy Roberts explains why this is problematic.

[3] Black patients endure poor treatment in medical settings, and Black pain is routinely undertreated.

[4] IUD self-removal is generally safe.

[5] Due to weathering and toxic stress, adolescence is the safest time for a Black woman to bear a child.

[6] The state is a terrible parent. People who grow up in foster care face abysmal outcomes.

[7] Few foster care survivors attend college; even fewer graduate.

[8] The system which charges parents with “educational neglect” overwhelmingly fails youth in its “care.”

[9] Those decisions frequently reflect a “better safe than sorry” approach, which leads to sorry results.

[10] The family regulation system is a policing system, not a helping system.

[11] Undervaccination in Black communities reflects barriers to access, not resistance to vaccination.  

[12] The COVID-19 death rate for Black women is exceeded only by that of Black men.

[13] Physicians have experimented upon, “harvested” from, and forcibly sterilized Black women’s bodies.

[14] Cash transfers to poor families have positive effects on child health which persist through adulthood.  

[15] Read “The Hidden Bill for Foster Care” to learn how families pay for their own oppression.    

[16] Mandated reporting perpetuates bias while failing to increase child safety.

[17] “Child neglect” is poverty by another name. Women and girls in particular benefit from cash transfers.

[18] Poor birthing women are drug-tested without consent; women have been ordered to use contraception.

[19] Reproductive, racial, and environmental justice are inextricably intertwined.

[20] Family regulators claim that separation is a last resort, however, unwarranted separation is common.

[21] Black mothers are reported for substance abuse at wildly disproportionate rates. 

[22] The harrowing birth experiences of Beyoncé and Serena Williams show that even celebrity is no shield.

[23] A discussion of that supposed “public health paradox” can be found here.

[24] Wealthy white men controlling poor Black women’s bodies is quintessential White supremacy. 

[25] Bills restricting abortion rights and trans rights are animated by the same craving for control.

[26] Contact your representatives today and urge them to support the Black Maternal Health Momnibus.

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