Skip to content

History, race, and birth control: Why aren’t we talking about this?

April 11, 2012

This is an e-mail I received from a friend after she read my post on birth control over at the Good Men Project last month.

It is INCREDIBLE to me the things we don’t think about, and how clearly our views are shaped (aka privilege) by the color of our skin, the religion we practice, the people we choose to love, the amount of money we have, the able-ness of our bodies. Among many, many other things. And how different our experiences can be than someone different from us. The things we don’t have to think about or acknowledge.

And, yes, she’s a well educated Black woman.

From: [A friend]
Sent: Friday, March 19, 2012 11:18 AM
To: [Me]
Subject: Re: had to.

Hi- I FINALLY got a chance to read this…

The following comment is NOT a dissenting opinion or meant to challenge your post in any way, but more my curiosity as a researcher…

I wonder what the demographics of women getting hormonal contraceptives from places that provide care for low-income women (like Planned Parenthood) actually are? In my observed experience, hormonal contraceptives have been a VERY white issue.  For example, I knew many black (and a few Hispanic) mothers growing up who refused to even consider hormonal contraceptives for their children.  My mother and aunt were in this group.  I have heard an attitude of “you don’t know what is in that and shouldn’t put it in your body” even when these parents KNOW that their daughters are sexually active.  From white parents who didn’t want their daughters on [birth control], I heard, “I don’t want to give her permission to have sex.”  These are very different messages.

I actually took myself to [Planned Parenthood] to get birth control as soon as I turned 18, but I knew that my mother would disapprove for the reason above.  As I got older I began to wonder where this attitude comes from.  I have witnessed an extreme distrust of medical professionals in the black community.  This is well-founded.  After all, white folks (the ones in the medical field and making the laws) have been controlling black folks fertility since slavery. There is evidence that suggests that Margaret Sanger was a fan of race sterilization. There are numerous accounts of forced sterilization (the North Carolina forced ster. got a lot a press a couple of years ago) and uninformed (de)fertility treatments in US history.  Black teens in inner-cities in the early 90s were encouraged to get Norplant without ever been fully informed of the side effects- there are still lawsuits pending.  History has told poor blacks not to trust medical professionals with their fertility- and honestly, I understand why.

So, I guess I am interested in who is going to Planned Parenthood and why they are going there. And perhaps more importantly, is anyone going to include the women in the conversation who aren’t going to PP not because they don’t need the services but because they don’t trust the providers. Just thought that it seems ironic to have a concerted effort in getting men to care when there is a whole group of women who (I think) may not be on board.

My two cents.


[A friend]

Would I have ever ever in a million years had these kind of thoughts when discussing the birth control debates?

Are these conversations that we are even having?

What views and histories and narratives and fears are we still fucking missing?

How are our views still clouded?

What can we still learn from one another?

For me, this e-mail was astounding. Not just the content and the valid concerns, but the fact that I had never once thought about them, and never once heard this in the dialogue that goes viral.

Not once.

That, in of itself, is absolutely telling.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2012 7:46 pm

    I just don’t get the crap that the pharma companies get away with, but on the larger picture how is it as a people that the results are so skewed?

    Canadians tend to be like Steven Colbert we don’t generally see race, to market a specific birth control product to one colour or the next just dosen’t sound right to me.

    It seems that once again I agree with you that education is the key, people of all stripes should have legal access and the abilty to use birth control of their choice.

    Good on you Nikki for being pro active at 18, if only more would follow in your shoes.


    • April 12, 2012 7:30 am

      I’m not sure the point my friend was making had to do with marketing. We really did have some terrible racial-driven programs in our history – and the history we don’t want to acknowledge, because we have the privilege to forget, is the one we don’t talk about.

      And I wasn’t proactive, my friend was. My mom had me on birth control pills at 14 after I passed out and threw up on myself due to my periods.

  2. April 12, 2012 6:24 am

    Wow…. that is just mental. It is amazing that these are things that I would not ever even have thought about. Maybe that is due to things being slightly different from where I am from or just because I have never been exposed to this previously.

    It is very important and really good that these things are highlighted,

    • April 12, 2012 7:33 am

      Part of it is the things that don’t happen near us – but part is the fact that we have the White privilege to ignore all of this. It’s the fact that it isn’t near to us in *any* sense – know what I mean? The things we don’t think about!

  3. Mike permalink
    April 12, 2012 9:19 pm


    This email represents a big part of why I have a hard time accepting one of the underlying parts of privilege theory.

    As a white person, I’m not really supposed to question this experience – I’m incapable of having it, so I should just shut my mouth and listen and accept it.

    Yet it also seems to contain a glaring logical misstep. The email author writes that “History has told poor blacks not to trust medical professionals with their fertility” based on several examples of unethical conduct on the part of medical professionals. These events definitely happened, and they are definitely tragic.

    But the rational standard for “not trusting” the medical community should be “Are we better with the medical community or without?” and not “Has the medical community done the right thing 100% of the time?”.

    The author has demonstrated the later not to be true, but has offered no evidence on the former. This seems like a pretty big misstep. How am I supposed to deal with this kind of thing? If I just file it away as “someone else’s experience” then I don’t really grow as a person. Yet it seems too flawed to accept outright. I want to understand, I don’t want to attack, but I feel like I’m being actively dishonest if I don’t question the sort of logic the experience represents.

    • April 19, 2012 3:06 pm


      I suppose there are two main things I want to respond to in your comment.

      1. “As a white person, I’m not really supposed to question this experience – I’m incapable of having it, so I should just shut my mouth and listen and accept it.” As someone who works daily to understand my own privileges and to listen to those who do not benefit from the same privileges, I don’t think this is what the reality of privilege says at all. Instead, it says, “There are innumerable perspectives that we can learn from. Some we can learn from in our own experience. Others we can only learn from in listening to others (since we can never live first-hand the experience of those who do not benefit from the same privilege). I should listen to those other perspectives and try really hard to understand and learn from them because there is incredible wealth in their knowledge.” Instead, you present a limiting, defensive understanding of how those of us should (or must) listen to those who have less privilege than we do. Your perspective assumes in its tone that there is nothing to be learned from those who have less privilege than we do – instead, we should question, push back, and devalue their lived experience.

      In the example Nikki provides, it shows that there are legitimate reasons to be skeptical of the for-profit medical industry that has not always served those who are non-White so well. Does that mean that all of Western medicine should be thrown out? No (and I don’t think there are many who would make that argument). Instead, it suggests that maybe there is reason for women of Color to take pause before accepting the recommendations of the White, for-profit medical world when it comes to their fertility.

      2. You create a false dichotomy when you say that the two questions that must be asked are “Are we better with the medical community or without?” and “Has the medical community done the right thing 100% of the time?”.

      To say “Are we better with the medical community or without” presumes that the “medical community” is above reproach and criticism. In fact, “the medical community” has fucked up . . . a lot! Thus, anyone who takes their own medical care seriously should question what role mainstream, Western medicine should have in their care. Does that mean that they shouldn’t benefit from the mainstream, Western medical community? No! They should, but we should all have an informed role in our own health care, and part of that is understanding and being critical of the historical role that the “medical community” has played in gender and racial oppression.

    • April 23, 2012 8:48 am

      Hi Mike,

      I agree with Jamie’s response: We can’t set up privilege, or the lived experiences of others, in such black and white terms. First, we should never set up any one person’s experience as the end-all-be-all truth for everyone – yet that is precisely what privilege does. It says “this is the only experience that is real” and negates or downplays another. I feel like your comment makes this clear – because it actually strives to completely undermine and dismiss this experience. Period. Setting up such drastic statements only works to create straw men that we’re then forced to accept – either all the medical community or none, either we all trust medicine or we don’t – as if that is the point this person was trying to make. Dismissing people in this way is not conducive to dialogue, and actually works to entrench your privilege as the sole voice on the matter.

      Instead, we need to strive to listen and understand others, not to dismiss them or negate what they’re actually trying to say. The concerns and history brought up here are both absolutely valid.

  4. April 13, 2012 7:20 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing this! I had not thought of these issues from a racial point of view but have had a few “white” girlfriends who have no interest in using hormonal birth control. They expressed that they felt this way from being a teenager. I made the trek to PP as an 18 year old before going to college. It was a godsend.

    • April 23, 2012 8:49 am

      What was so glaring for me is that I had never thought about this history in this context. Overlooking it seems a big, huge, misstep. Not to say we can’t move forward from it, but still.

  5. April 20, 2012 12:15 pm

    So glad you posted about this! While in college, I did a year of research on women of color and reproductive healthcare (both academic and field study) while working at an abortion fund in Philadelphia and it’s very true that there is a distrust between many women of color and the medical community. Many of the women I worked with were Medicaid recipients and America’s stigmatization of social welfare and the social construction of the “welfare queen”, coupled with modern medicine’s close relationship with capitalism, has created a hostile and low-quality heathcare system for these women. Maternal mortality rates among women of color in this nation are ATROCIOUS and a clear indication that structural violence is at play here.

    It’s totally true that at the moment, the face of the reproductive rights movement tends to be perceived as a young white woman. But the truth is that women of color are just as much at the forefront of the fight for reproductive as anyone else. I think the legacy of white privilege in the feminist movement still plagues us in this way and one of the hardest things for myself to face as a feminist is this history and thinking about how to try to better integrate an awareness of racial justice and white privilege into feminism today.

    It’s really hard to say whether or not Margaret Sanger was motivated by eugenics, but most of the leading feminists of color argue that she was not. I recommend this article:

    “We decided to have abortions. We invited Margaret Sanger to place clinics in black neighborhoods. We are part of the civil and human rights movement. We protected the future of black children, not our opponents. We helped women.”

    Sister Song is a wonderful resource to explore this issue more:

    • April 23, 2012 8:54 am

      Thank you for responding! I agree that the fact I’d never thought about this, or that women’s rights and health have never, in my experience (which is singular, yes, but also telling), been discussed with this history, is a big indication of the need for feminism to address its racial roots and white privilege. I’ve heard many black women discuss how they don’t identify with feminism for these very reasons, but this, to me, was a really stark example at how we still might be failing.

  6. April 20, 2012 1:58 pm

    Really fascinating stuff Nikki, and really really important. This is something all women, of all races, religions etc. should be talking about. Thank you for facilitating the conversation.

    • April 23, 2012 8:55 am

      Agree that the point is we should be talking about this more. Certainly the point that women of all racial and cultural backgrounds are at the forefront of the fight for women’s health, it’s still important to discuss it from multiple POVs and backgrounds…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: