“Held: The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion.”[i]
After the Supreme Court published its opinion on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, many people, including myself, were rightfully outraged. We lost the right to reproductive healthcare that we had fought to keep since Roe v. Wade was published in 1973. Despite the constant attacks on Roe from its publication, seeing an end to Roe felt like a shock to the system. However, viewing Dobbs in the historical context of reproductive rights in the United States, the opinion is actually par for the course. After all, the Court never shied away from restricting the bodily autonomy of those in more vulnerable positions. The famous words in the 1927 case Buck v. Bell—“[t]hree generations of imbeciles are enough”[ii]—still have yet to be overturned.[iii]
Many of those who are against the right to abortions argue from a place of religious morality, claiming that life begins at conception. The Court argues that such a contentious debate should be solved through voting, not the Court.[iv] However, the Court forgets that those who are most affected by the Dobbs decision are the same people that have historically been, and still are, barred from voting.[v] Black people are three times more likely to die from pregnancy than non-Hispanic white people.[vi] And because Black communities are exposed to higher rates of negative social determinants of health, Black people make up 28% of abortions despite only holding 13% of the US female population.[vii]
Some may view this decision as an opportunity for states to define life and protect it, but in reality, Dobbs will end up hurting the lives of BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled individuals. And when viewed in context of the US’s historical relationship with the reproductive rights of those most disadvantaged by our society, Dobbs falls into place as the most recent chapter of a long line of egregious decisions supporting one thing—eugenics.
In 1927, the Court published its opinion in Buck v. Bell, upholding Virginia’s Eugenical Sterilization Act.[viii] The case was brought after a poor white woman was forcibly sterilized, but the sterilizations that followed were predominately forced upon BIPOC women.[ix] Elaine Riddick, a Black woman from North Carolina, was one of 7,600 people forcibly sterilized between 1929 and 1974 in North Carolina.[x] Riddick was 13, a survivor of sexual assault.[xi] But forced sterilizations are not a thing of the past. Rather, there are still rampant examples of forced sterilizations being performed on people in the most vulnerable positions of our society. People with disabilities are most often subjected to forced sterilizations through guardianships and conservatorships.[xii] Those held in detention are similarly vulnerable. In 2020, Dawn Wooten, a whistleblower at Irwin County Immigration Detention Center in Georgia, revealed that many of those detained by ICE in the Irwin County facility had hysterectomies performed without their consent.[xiii] While ICE shut down its detention center in Irwin County, the people forced into unnecessary medical procedures will have to live with the lasting effects of their time in Irwin County.[xiv]
While Dobbs and Buck are seemingly opposed, one forcing reproduction, the other preventing reproduction, the end result is the same: disadvantaged and oppressed people do not have a right to reproductive choice or bodily autonomy. Race, class, immigration status, sexuality and gender, and any number of intersecting identities divide us into different groups with different rights. The truth is that Dobbs cannot be viewed in a vacuum. The US has a history of racism, violence, and oppression, and Dobbs is just part of that continuing history. Nonetheless, now that Dobbs has put abortion into the hands of the legislature, those who want to advocate for vulnerable lives should remember that Black lives matter, immigrant lives matter, and disabled lives matter. Until those lives are protected, forcing children into a world where they are subjected to violence and loss of bodily autonomy is not “pro-life,” it is pro-subjugation. Reproductive choice, whether that be freedom from forced sterilization or freedom to terminate a pregnancy, belongs in the hands of the individual, not in the hands of the legislature or the courts.
[i] Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 597 U.S. ___ (2022).
[ii] Buck v. Bell, 24 U.S. 200, 207 (1927).
[iii] The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations, NPR (Mar. 24, 2017, 3:46 PM), https://www.npr.org/2017/03/24/521360544/the-supreme-court-ruling-that-led-to-70-000-forced-sterilizations
[iv] Dobbs, 597 U.S. ___, at 6.
[v] Airenakhue B. Omoragbon, Reproductive Rights: Dobbs v. Jackson and Implications for the Black Maternal Health Crisis, Ctr. for Pol’y Analysis and Rsch. (Feb. 2022), https://www.cbcfinc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/4.27.2022-2022_CBCF_CPAR_DobbsVJackson-WomensHealth_04.27.pdf.
[viii] Jasmine E. Harris, Why Buck v. Bell Still Matters, Bill of Health (Oct. 14, 2020), https://blog.petrieflom.law.harvard.edu/2020/10/14/why-buck-v-bell-still-matters/.
[x] Meena Venkataramanan, She survived a forced sterilization. Activists fear more could occur post-roe., Wash. Post (July 24, 2022, 7:00 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2022/07/24/forced-sterilization-dobbs-roe/.
[xiii] Caitlin Dickerson et al, Immigrants Say They Were Pressured Into Unneeded Surgeries, N.y. Times (Sept. 29, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/29/us/ice-hysterectomies-surgeries-georgia.html.
[xiv] Azadeh Shahshahani & Priyanka Bhatt, ICE Shut Down One Gruesome Detention Center—Then Transferred Immigrants to Another, The Progressive Mag. (June 18, 2021, 9:02 AM), https://progressive.org/latest/ice-gruesome-detention-center-bhatt-shahshahani-210618/.