Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty is one of the most alarming books I have ever read. Roberts traces the treatment of black women’s reproduction in America from slavery - when they were whipped in certain ways that would not harm the fetus - to the present day, where we learn that the parameters have changed, but the basic fact of control over black women’s reproduction remains. Roberts also exposes the limits of the ‘reproductive rights’ debate, as black women are more often encouraged or coerced not to reproduce through various methods - including requiring women to submit to Norplant implantation to avoid jailtime, sometimes for child abuse, but sometimes for crimes like theft or burglary. The problem with Norplant is that it is a birth control method controlled by the doctor, not the patient, as it must be surgically removed. Roberts also looks at the criminalization of mothers who use crack - many of whom attempted to reach out for assistance with their drug problems, but could get none.
Roberts expertly avoids falling into what I call the ‘Planned Parenthood Trap’ of arguing the virtue of her subjects, thereby making the issue one of privileges and deserving candidates, not fundamental rights. Planned Parenthood often puts out action alerts when someone is denied emergency contraception at a pharmacy, highlighting how the woman in question is in a monogamous relationship, used contraception but it failed, etc. The problem with this is that talking about the woman’s actions redefines the conversation to focus on her behavior, and the emergency contraception becomes a reward for good behavior - a privilege, as opposed to a right. Roberts uses as her examples women who smoke crack while they are pregnant, women who have a history of physical violence against their children, and still makes the case that they deserve the right to control their own reproductive systems (she does not make the case that the government does not have the right to take children who have been abused away from their parents). Killing the Black Body is incredibly powerful, and incredibly necessary if you are interested in reproductive rights.