Policing African American Motherhood from Every Angle


This post is part of our week-long series on the personal impact of the current state of reproductive health, rights, and justice.


by Alicia Walters

Walters is a consultant to reproductive justice organizations through her company Creative Justice Works. She is a participant in the Strong Families project Echoing Ida. Follow her on Twitter, @aliciamwalters.


study by Lynn Paltrow (National Advocates for Pregnant Women) and Jeanne Flavin (Fordham University) recently published in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law elucidates a decades-long strategy to marry the War on Drugs and anti-abortion activism where low-income African-American pregnant women are—if not the primary targets—the majority affected. Paltrow and Flavin identified over 400 cases from post-Roe 1973 to 2005 involving women of all races, in which the fact that a woman was pregnant provided an opportunity for major violations to her physical liberty. African-American women represented more than half of these cases. According to Paltrow, this is the new “Jane Crow.”

In order to arrest, incarcerate, and institutionalize pregnant women for legal acts like “noncompliance” with a doctor’s orders, prosecutors distort state homicide, child abuse, and “feticide” laws—the latter meant to protect pregnant women from violence. As a result, many women have endured gross violations of their privacy, religious liberty, and suffered from infection, wrongful conviction, and even death.

As mentioned, a disproportionate majority in the study’s cases were African-American women. African-American women in the study were more likely to be reported to the police by health care providers, arrested, and subject to felony charges. The study’s findings are consistent with reports of the racially biased application of the drug laws from disproportionate testing to well-documented targeting of pregnant African-American women in particular. The War on Drugs is manifesting quite systematically in the misapplication of child abuse and homicide law for the purpose of controlling women’s bodies, a disproportionate number of them Black, Paltrow and I believe, not coincidentally.

I often hear the question from African-American women, “What do they [the right] want? We either have too many kids or too many abortions. Which is it?” The truth is, to them, it’s both.

The current evidence is obvious. Racist anti-abortion billboards erected across the country for the past several years shaming Black women in their own communities and making such idiotic and offensive claims as, “The most dangerous place for a Black child is in the womb.” Media campaigns like this one that exploit Black folks’ tendency to distrust the health care industry in order to convince us that our right to choose abortion is nothing but brainwashing. This recent study is yet another confirmation that there is a systemic movement hell bent on our incarceration, the separation of our families, and ultimately, our loss of humanity. Whether the right is attempting to culturally shame and legally prevent our access to abortion or target us for incarceration, above all, they seek to police Black bodies and criminalize Black motherhood thereby limiting our power of self-determination and autonomy.

And yet, on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it would be nice if things were that cut and dry: good doctors are politically left and provide abortions, bad doctors are on the right and don’t support abortion. The truth is that for Black women, there is manipulation on both sides of the aisle, in all regions of this country. Racism and its manifestation in health care are not limited to the South or anti-abortion health care providers. When a Black woman walks into a doctor’s office, hospital, or clinic, just like everyone else, she wants help. She also wants to be seen as fully human and autonomous, capable of making good decisions for herself. Unfortunately, health care professionals on both sides often see a woman who is uneducated and unfit to mother—a myth this culture has successfully perpetuated. Why else would both the good and bad doctors so often find a way to make her NOT a mother by either assuming she wants or encouraging an abortion or incarcerating her when she desires to mother? The common denominator in this situation is racism.

I am disgusted, but not surprised that those who see all Black people as criminals have found sinister ways to pass and interpret laws that keep a disproportionate amount of Black folks behind bars. What I want is for our movement—the one about autonomy and liberation—to recognize the nuance, the underlying racism on both sides, be honest with each other, and find a new way forward. One that we determine collectively; that includes and is empowered by those of us this society constantly tries to dis-empower and disenfranchise. Now is the time to embrace the complexity, confront the reality, and combat the racism that compounds oppression in this country.

[Editor's Note: more people than just cis women need and want access to affordable reproductive health care, including abortion.]


This post is part of Still Wading: Forty years of resistance, resilience and reclamation in communities of color, a series by Strong Families commemorating the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade. Cross-posted here with author’s permission.


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