SSJL Statement condemning the Dobbs decision and upholding the continued struggle for Reproductive Justice
As co-directors of the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab we condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the majority decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. This ruling ushers in a new era of reproductive oppression in the United States and endangers the reproductive bodies, lives, and futures of all people.
The research and analysis produced by our lab builds on the framework of reproductive justice—a framework that affirms reproductive and familial autonomy. Much of our work examines eugenic and compulsory sterilization as a violent state practice of reproductive oppression that has stripped people of their human right to have children. We view the overturning of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and the impending mass denial of abortion and reproductive health care as part and parcel of a “complex matrix of reproductive oppression” that also has encompassed sterilization abuse.1
From 1907 to 1937, 32 U.S. states passed eugenic sterilization laws, empowering authorities to sterilize people based on a wide range of racist, ableist, homophobic, and classist notions of “unfitness.” In 1927, in the infamous Buck v. Bell decision, the Supreme Court affirmed states’ rights to sterilize in the interest of “public welfare,” thereby legitimizing this practice nationally. Not all states passed eugenic sterilization laws, and some used the laws sparingly. Others, like California and North Carolina, implemented eugenic sterilization zealously. Ultimately, based on these laws, in the 20th century, over 60,000 people were stripped of their bodily autonomy and denied the right to make basic reproductive decisions. Moreover, in the 1960s and 1970s, tens of thousands of women of color and poor women were subjected to unwanted sterilization procedures in public hospitals and clinics, spurring lawsuits, congressional hearings, and activism against forced sterilization.
Informed by white supremacy and ableism, eugenic sterilization programs disproportionately harmed the marginalized and dispossessed. These practices worked to further white supremacy through reproductive control, preventing the procreation of the “unfit” and encouraging white middle-class pronatalism. Notably, 20th century eugenicists were driven by the same demographic anxieties about “race suicide” that embolden white nationalists today. White supremacy has fueled the contemporary anti-abortion movement, and increasing violence against abortion providers has been linked to white supremacists and other extremist organizations. It's not surprising that mere days after the Dobbs decision, a MAGA supporter described the decision as a “victory for white life.”
With the Dobbs decision, the Supreme Court not only decimates a long-held constitutional right but also reenacts the logic and harms of the eugenics era by depriving people of the right to make fundamental reproductive decisions and putting them at the mercy of state legislatures, many of which are gripped with an extremist patriarchal fervor. As Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan rightly point out in their dissent (and as has historically been the case whenever and wherever abortion has been criminalized),2 women of means will obtain abortions regardless of their state’s laws. Others seeking to terminate a pregnancy, including low-income people, people of color, incarcerated people, undocumented people, disabled people, and people experiencing a plethora of other circumstances, will be subjected to the legal and geographical barriers being erected and codified throughout the country today.
At their core, both eugenic sterilization and anti-abortion laws are about denying bodily, reproductive, and familial autonomy and disproportionately constrain the reproductive freedom of marginalized groups. When Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the courts affirmed the individual right to decide whether or not to have children. Roe came with limitations and did not eliminate social and economic barriers to abortion, but it was a major win for reproductive rights and women’s health and a bulwark against anti-abortion absolutism. We are devastated to see the decision overturned.
During this moment of grief over the end of Roe, we uphold our commitment to reproductive justice and to ensuring that all people have the freedom and resources to decide not to have a child, have a child, and raise that child in a safe, supportive, and equitable environment.
1 Loretta Ross in Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundations, Theory, Practice, Critique (The Feminist Press, 2017), 62. For more on reproductive justice see: Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Patheon Books, 1997); Loretta Ross, Elena Gutiérrez, Marlene Gerber, and Jael Silliman, Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice (Haymarket Books, 2016); Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction (University of California Press, 2017); and Patricia Zavella, The Movement for Reproductive Justice: Empowering Women of Color Through Social Activism (NYU Press, 2020).
2 See, for example, Leslie Reagan, When Abortion was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (University of California Press, 1998); Alicia Gutierrez-Romine, From Back Alley to the Border: Criminal Abortion in California, 1920-1969 (University of Nebraska Press, 2020); and Jennifer Holland, Tiny You: A Western History of the Anti-Abortion Movement (University of California Press, 2020).
The Sterilization and Social Justice Lab stands in solidarity and support of transgender and LGBTQI+ youth in Texas, in opposition to the Texas anti-transgender executive mandate. It has come to our attention that on February 18, 2022, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton grossly misrepresented an article by co-director and SSJL founder, Alexandra Minna Stern. Paxton’s letter in support of Governor Greg Abbott’s executive mandate inaccurately conflates gender-affirming care for minors with child abuse. In doing so, Paxton draws a false equivalence between forced sterilization and gender affirmation surgeries for minors.
Paxton’s legal opinion distorts both Stern’s article and the history of involuntary sterilization. In fact, we submit that Paxton and Abbott are not dissimilar to the eugenicists of the past who wanted to use the state to intrude on and harm the reproductive and sexual bodies of minoritized and vulnerable people. Rather than exposing this history, they are distorting, and to a great extent, reenacting it. Both eugenic sterilization and the denial of gender affirming medical care use similar paternalistic logic to justify the state’s interference with bodily autonomy. We reject their patriarchal definition of “protection” as anathema to true reproductive and sexual justice.
Our research consistently demonstrates the nefarious and often complicated role of the state during the era of 20th century eugenics and sterilization, when more than 60,000 were subjected to compulsory reproductive surgeries, thus forfeiting their ability to have a biological family. We currently study five states (California, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, and Utah) that maintained eugenic sterilization programs from the 1900s to the 1970s. In fact, we see parallels between the stigmatization of gender and sexual differences intrinsic to eugenic programs, the indelible harms caused by such programs, and the dehumanization of and attack on trans and LGBTQI+ youth currently happening in Texas.
Everyone deserves to feel safe and supported in their community. Below, we have included a few key resources in support of the transgender and non-binary community:
We join the world in mourning the lives of Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Paul Andre Michels, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun, and Yong Ae Yue, who were murdered on March 16 by a violent gunman in a racially-motivated attack in Atlanta. We hope for a speedy recovery for Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, who was injured during this act of terror. We condemn xenophobia, racism, harassment, and violence against Asians, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and other marginalized groups.
While an individual perpetrated this violent act, we recognize how discrimination and racism pervades medical and scientific institutions, whether through ideologies of “race betterment” and eugenics or pernicious and racialized concepts of health, normalcy, sexuality, and perfection. These ideologies are rooted in a long history of institutionalized violence and discrimination against Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders in the U.S., dating back to policies such as the Page Act of 1875, which hypersexualized Chinese women and barred their entry into the country. As researchers, our work documents the role that racism and unfettered violence has played in justifying the diminishment of the reproductive autonomy of communities of color, immigrants, disabled persons, and LGBT+ individuals.
The reproductive justice movement is a response to violence, racism, and state control of bodily autonomy. It demands not only the right to have or not have children but also the human right to exist in safe environments regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, ability, and sexuality. Through our scholarship, we envision a world that adheres to the principles of reproductive justice. Attaining reproductive justice requires us to stand in solidarity against xenophobia, racism, classism, and anti-Asian violence. The racialized misogyny apparent in the Atlanta shooting is a direct result of systemic racism, white supremacy, and oversexualization and racial stereotyping of Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander women in particular.
In solidarity, we redouble our commitments to:
The following resources provide further information, education, and aid:
We join the world in mourning the recent deaths of Breanna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade and we remember with heavy hearts all the Black lives lost before them. We stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and against systemic racism and police brutality.
We understand reproductive justice in the context of state violence. Reproductive justice demands not only the right to have or not have children but also the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy and the right to exist in safe environments. Through our scholarship, we envision a world that adheres to the principles of reproductive justice. Attaining reproductive justice requires Black liberation inclusive of freedom from policing, incarceration, and all other forms of state violence.
We recognize how discrimination and racism pervades medical and scientific institutions, whether through ideologies of “race betterment” and eugenics or pernicious concepts of health, normalcy, and perfection. As researchers, our work documents the role that criminalization and policing has played in justifying the diminishment of the reproductive autonomy of Black people, communities of color, disabled persons, and LGBT+ individuals.
In solidarity, we join the global movement for Black lives and commit to the following:
The following resources provide further information, education, and aid.