State Lawmakers Harden the Colorline in Reproductive Health

Slowly but steadily, state lawmakers have worked to limit women's reproductive freedom in the past legislative session.

By Michelle Chen Sep 07, 2010

A handy legislative round-up from the Center for Reproductive Rights sums up the many ways state lawmakers have worked to limit women’s reproductive freedom in the past legislative session. And what a year it’s been.

Leading the charge are a slew of proposed bans on abortion coverage in private insurance exchanges under the health care reform program. As of mid-July, five states (Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee) had enacted bans. Proposed bans in Florida and Oklahoma were narrowly thwarted by a governor’s veto.

Remember that various federal medical programs already contain abortion restrictions–which the White House may soon quietly but dramatically expand as the health care reform plan is implemented. But advocates point out that some of the recent state-level proposals would go much further, not only by targeting the private insurance market but also banning abortion entirely, without federal law’s explicit exemptions for rape and incest.

Backing up the push for outright abortion bans is a more subtle anti-choice attack through coercive ultrasound policies, which pressure women to view an ultrasound image before terminating a pregnancy. (The assumption being, apparently, that women who seek abortions must be either mentally deficient or misguided victims of liberal brainwashing).

While such policy proposals impact all women, it’s almost a given that they’ll fall especially hard on those who are poor, of color, or immigrants. It’s no wonder that anti-choice politics have found a home in Mississippi, where legal abortions among Black women are extraordinarily prevalent. Anti-abortion policies are also predictably virulent in Arizona, where Latina immigrants have been demonized as criminal breeders who are "dropping anchor babies" like landmines.

Oddly, Latinas, as political images, are simultaneously victims of a rollback on reproductive rights as well as targets of paranoid delusions about allegedly excessive fertility. Politicians seem bent on both denying them the dignity of motherhood and robbing them of control over their sexual and reproductive lives.

Yet the schizoid politics behind these campaigns recall the long, disturbing history of draconian reproductive policies and the Latino community, according to University of Arizona Women’s Studies professor Nicole Guidotti-Hernández, writing at Ms.:

Not only does the theory of the anchor baby frame the Latina body as "uncontrollable" in its reproduction, but it also criminalizes women for having children and, therefore, accessing social services. The implication is that all Latina women are not citizens, have too many children, can’t control their sex drives, have children to access U.S. citizenship by proxy and are to blame for the overtaxing of the U.S. welfare system. This could not be further from the truth.

These ideas about Latina women’s bodies and hyper-reproduction are not new. Feminist historians such as Elena Gutierrez, Natalia Molina and Laura Briggs have all documented how the state has long targeted Puerto Rican women and women of Mexican origin. Public health policies were often designed to demean and discipline the bodies of Latina women, casting their sexualities as "deviant." The colonial desire to supposedly "save these women from themselves" — in actuality, to save the state from welfare costs — are localized in the figure of what Gutíerrez has called "the hyper-fertile baby machine."

We may be past the era of cruel reproductive social engineering, but we may see something more sinister now emerging in its place: an era of political dehumanization of women of color, which is poised to legislate away their power to determine when and how they will raise the next generation of their communities.