77 pages 2 hours read

Dorothy Roberts

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1997

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Summary and Study Guide


Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (1997) by legal scholar Dorothy E. Roberts is a study on the history of reproductive rights in the US as they pertain to African American women. The book combines historical, sociological, and legal frameworks to examine how federal and state governments have infringed on Black women’s bodies from the antebellum era to the 1990s. Although the book was published 24 years ago, many of its statements about access to birth control and inadequate prenatal and neonatal care for Black women remain relevant. Roberts demonstrates how impositions on Black women’s reproduction affect Black people collectively—and how race-based reproductive policies reassert white supremacy. Given the book’s context, this guide summarizes the author’s research on rape, drug use, sexual abuse, and medical abuse, among other injustices.

Roberts, who has taught at Harvard, Rutgers, Northwestern, and Stanford universities, is currently a professor of Africana Studies and director of the Program on Race, Science, and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include race and gender, which are particularly evident in Killing the Black Body, as well as criminal justice and bioethics. In addition, Roberts serves on advisory boards at organizations that focus on Black women’s health, child protection reform, and ethical genetics research.

Plot Summary

Killing the Black Body takes a broad view of history, starting in the antebellum period and ending in the 1990s (when the book was published), to describe how American law has trampled on Black women’s reproductive rights. Roberts starts with enslaved women, noting how society exploited their reproductive capacity to produce more slaves yet took little care to ensure that enslaved women carried healthy pregnancies to term.

Roberts then moves forward to the early 20th century when birth control first became available. Although the technology was meant to give women greater reproductive freedom, it also became a tool of reproductive control. Control of Black women’s reproduction, often state-mandated, continued throughout the century via sterilization programs and initiatives to encourage Black women to take Norplant and Depo-Provera. When a state was unable to get Black women on birth control, it used the War on Drugs to prosecute any Black woman with cocaine in her system. This persecution of crack-using and crack-addicted Black women, despite the attempts of many to seek treatment while pregnant, has helped determine who deserves to reproduce and who doesn’t. Similarly, the efforts of some states to get Black women on welfare to take long-term contraception was an attempt to stem their reproduction because of a belief that poor women, particularly poor Black women, made inadequate mothers.

Conversely, reproductive technologies such as in-vitro fertilization (IVF) became a key means for wealthy—usually white—women to increase their chances of having a genetically related child. While such technologies have given many couples hope in their objective to have a blood-related child, Roberts contends that the focus on consanguinity has reinforced harmful ideas about race while reasserting the dominance of paternity as a key aspect of parenthood.

Roberts encourages a reframed thinking about reproductive rights and liberties. While protecting the right to an abortion is important, according to Roberts, it’s also limiting. When a woman wants to have a child, the infrastructure to have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy parent-child relationship also ought to exist. Roberts suggests that this reframing of social policy would best occur if society placed Black women at the center of discussions about reproductive rights. Among all US women trying to assert their reproductive liberties, Black women have received the poorest treatment from governments, justice systems, social work systems, and health care systems. The experiences of Black women can help other women understand the perils they face when exercising their reproductive rights. 

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By Dorothy Roberts