The White Dude Knows Best approach to women’s health

White Dude Knows Best! Above: Men who want to control the bodies of women they deem unfit mothers. Louisiana state Rep. John LaBruzzo (left) and Texas state District Judge Charlie Baird (right).

It’s been quite a week for government violation of the bodily integrity of poor women and women of color. First, there was the judge in Texas who set “not having children” as a condition of a woman’s parole. (I just linked in the WFR on Sunday, but Cara discussed it at length. Go read her post.)

And today, via several readers, comes the news that John LaBruzzo, a state legislator from Louisiana, wants to pay low-income women $1,000 apiece to get sterilized. Everything about this is so incredibly offensive, I don’t know quite where to begin. Let’s start with a quote from LaBruzzo:

“We’re on a train headed to the future and there’s a bridge out, ”
LaBruzzo said of what he suspects are dangerous demographic trends.
“And nobody wants to talk about it.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Low-income women having children is a “dangerous demographic trend”?! Sounds like the recent round of racist propaganda we saw related to the “Demographic Winter” movie. (Film summary: You should be panicked because brown people are reproducing at faster rates than white people.) But LaBruzzo protests that he is not a racist — he’s a problem-solver!

LaBruzzo said other, mainstream strategies for attacking poverty,
such as education reforms and programs informing people about family
planning issues, have repeatedly failed to solve the problem. He said
he is simply looking for new ways to address it.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, he’s a racist, ‘ ” LaBruzzo said. “The hard part is to sit down and think of some solutions.”

It’s not as if this country has ever done a good job providing low-income women with the tools and information to make their own decisions. Programs that aim to do that have been consistently underfunded and poorly implemented. So no, we haven’t tried all other options. And even if we had, his idea is still completely appalling.

LaBruzzo is correct that it’s very easy to say he’s a racist. Because, um, he’s espousing a historically racist policy. What he clearly deems to be a new and creative solution has unfortunately been around a long time. Compulsory or coercive sterilizations for low-income women, disabled women, and women of color were extremely common up until the 1970s, and slightly less common but nevertheless occurring with regularity the the decades since. The paternalistic attitude that “certain women” cannot be trusted to make their own reproductive decisions is still an underlying theme of a lot of backwards legal and policy decisions. LaBruzzo and Texas judge Charlie Baird are part of this despicable tradition.

I’m in the midst of reading Jeanne Flavin’s soon-to-be-relased book, Our Bodies, Our Crimes. In it, she explains the early-1900s roots of how sterilization became the common way of dealing with poor women’s sexuality:

control was ruled out due to fears that should it “catch on” among the
white Protestant middle classes, their birth rates would be even
further reduced. So it came to pass that sterilization emerged as a
eugenics strategy.

How far is this attitude, really from LaBruzzo’s worries about “dangerous demographic trends”? Flavin also writes,

is questioned here is the notion that a judge has the right to order
them, or anyone, to be sterilized or not to reproduce. This is arguably
one of the most difficult premises for the general public to accept: that
a woman’s reproductive rights–including her right to procreate–are
distinct from whether or not she might be a “good” pregnant woman or a
“good” mother.
These rights reside in her existence as a human being, along with the rights to control her body.

(Emphasis mine.) In her post on the Texas court case, Cara breaks it down further:

If the government has the right to demand that people stop procreating,
it means that the government has the right to control our consensual
sex lives.  It means that the government has a right to decide who is
and is not worthy of the right to control over their own bodies, and
who is and is not worthy of the right to give birth.  It means the
government has a right to decide what medical procedures people undergo
— from birth control, to sterilization and/or temporary sterilization,
to abortion.

shouldn’t come as a surprise, then that LaBruzzo also opposes any
woman’s right to choose abortion. This is a Daddy Knows Best approach
to women’s health. In this case, as is often true, the paternalism has
a disproportionate effect on low-income women and women of color. Let’s hope his proposed policy does not go through, and the Louisiana legislature instead rededicates itself to providing low-income women with the tools to determine their own reproductive futures.

Check out National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which does great work on these issues. I also recommend Flavin’s book, and Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body.

Related Posts:
Voices of Justice Now: Sterilization in the Prisons
Do we have the right to decide the fate of disabled youth?
Who’s allowed to reproduce?
Sterilize bad parents?
$450,000 granted to 9 women for forced sterilization

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