Never Fear: History Lessons

BY TEAGAN WEBB ’19

Contemporary conversations about birth control, inside and outside of Mount Holyoke, frequently sanitize or ignore its deeply racist history. It’s important to not just think of birth control as an abstract human right, but also as a contextualized practice which continues to be held in the forgotten history of people of color in this country. In order to advocate for access — here’s looking at you, other white democrats! — we blindly celebrate without consideration for the bodies of the past.

Birth control, from the beginning, was made for white middle-to-upper class women. They had financial and social access to careers and “liberated” sex lives in a way that people of color did not. 

Angela Davis in her book “Women, Race and Class” speaks about the pro-birth control, pro-choice feminist movement of the 70s’ as exclusionary, not a person of color to be seen from the board rooms to the march speakers. It’s not that POC didn’t want access to choice and safety — in fact, they were the ones who needed it the most. They abstained from participating as a critique of white activists for their inability to see that the causes for which one would pursue an abortion (poverty, violence, instability) disproportionately affected people of color.

 So while many celebrate the choice, we must recognize that these medical practices don’t fix systemic issues. This is a classic case of white feminists branding and prioritizing their own neoliberal ideology over the voices for whom they claim to advocate. 

The testing of birth control, before it came on the market in 1960, was a horrible scientific misconduct. John Rock and Gregory Pincus conducted the first mass testing on Puerto Rican women, at three times the dose we use today. In “Matters of Choice: Puerto Rican Women’s Struggle for Reproductive Freedom,” Iris Lopez writes that they took advantage of the poorest neighborhoods in Puerto Rico, satisfying governmental concern about “population control” on the island. Six women died of blood clots and countless others experienced intense side effects. These product trials, which lasted years, were not only an example of unethical science, but also of colonial control and the exploitation of people of color.

If this information is all brand-new to you, ask yourself why that is. What are the ways that privilege has exempted you from shouldering the burden of social change?

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