Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

The Increasing Significance of Genes: Reproducting Race

Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

The Increasing Significance of Genes: Reproducting Race

Article excerpt

KILLING THE BLACK BODY: RACE, REPRODUCTION, AND THE MEANING OF LIBERTY. By Dorothy Roberts. New York, New York: Pantheon Books, 1997. Pp. 373. $26.00.


In her new and provocative book, Dorothy Roberts collects stories. There are many, but here are two notable ones. The first involves an African woman and her husband. They live in Italy. A few years ago, in order to obtain assistance in becoming pregnant and carrying a child to term, the couple went to an Italian clinic that specializes in ultramodern reproductive technologies. The clinic helped the couple by providing them with a donor egg and then fertilizing the donated egg with sperm from the couple. The resulting fertilized egg was then implanted into the African woman's womb.

There would seem to be nothing especially remarkable about this particular "miracle baby." After all, the first such birth occurred about twenty years ago, and there have been thousands since. Nonetheless, this particular birth received national media attention. Why? The reason is that the African woman from Italy gave birth to a white child. The child is considered white because both the woman who donated the egg and the African woman's husband are white. The African woman, as the gestational mother, provided no genetic material to the child she bore. The couple, it turns out, deliberately chose the race of the child because they believed that their child "would have a better future if it were white." Although most parents who utilize in-vitro fertilization deliberately choose the race of their children, those choices do not cause fanfare of any kind. So why did this particular birth cause a stir? To answer this question, Dorothy Roberts tells a second story.

This story takes place in the United States under far different circumstances. In an attempt to pressure pregnant drug users into treatment, law enforcement officials from Charleston, South Carolina, in collaboration with the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), instituted a policy of prosecuting pregnant women if their babies tested positive for illegal drugs. Forty-two South Carolinian mothers were arrested under the policy between 1989 and 1994. All but one of them were Black, and the one nonBlack in the group had a Black boyfriend (a fact noted by the nurse in charge of the program). Some of the women were arrested within hours of having given birth. They were taken to jail in handcuffs and leg shackles, still bleeding from delivery.

In her new book, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, Dorothy Roberts argues that these stories share a common element. She claims that these stories provide the basis for the case that "the meaning of reproductive liberty must take into account its relationship to racial oppression."1 Roberts says "books on racial justice tend to neglect the subject of reproductive rights; and books on reproductive freedom tend to neglect the issue of race."2 Because of these gaps, we cannot begin to understand the uproar over a Black woman and her white husband deliberately choosing to carry and give birth to a white child or the impetus behind a program such as the one implemented in South Carolina. To fully understand these stories we must consider an analysis such as the one that Roberts provides us. In seven compelling and fascinating chapters, Roberts traces her argument. Although much of the book's content has appeared elsewhere in the form of law review articles,3 the organization of the book is fresh, and the style is inviting to even the non legally-trained reader.

The material in the book proceeds chronologically. The first chapter, entitled "Reproduction in Bondage," considers the numerous and brutal methods that were used and supported by law to constrain and limit the reproductive autonomy of Black women who were slaves. Roberts demonstrates powerfully how Black women were forced to become "breeders" of additional slaves-their own children. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.