Janae Pierre: It's The Takeaway. I'm Janae Pierre, in for Melissa Harris-Perry.
Today marks the last day of Black Maternal Health Week, a week that sheds light on the rise of maternal mortality in the US. A recent report from the CDC found that since the pandemic, there has been a 40% increase in maternal deaths. That is unacceptably high.
Vice President Kamala Harris: Women in our nation are dying at a higher rate than any other developed nation in our world.
Janae Pierre: As Vice President Kamala Harris remarks, Black women bear the burden of this inequity.
Vice President Kamala Harris: Think about it, regardless of income level, regardless of education level, Black women, Native women, women who live in rural areas, are more likely to die, or be left scared, or scarred, from an experience that should be safe, and should be a joyful one.
Janae Pierre: Black women are over three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. Babies born to Black mothers are half as likely to survive their first year. Black women experience policing, coercion, and disempowerment that takes away agency, during a time that should be a celebration of welcoming new life into this world.
To help us round out Black Maternal Health Week, we're speaking with Loretta Ross. She's an activist, educator, author, and co-founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. Loretta is currently an associate professor for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Loretta, thanks so much for being here.
Loretta Ross: Thank you for having me on your show.
Janae Pierre: I want to begin our conversation discussing the Dobbs' decision, and the subsequent decisions nationwide that have restricted abortion access. Could you contextualize this moment we're in right now?
Loretta Ross: I believe the people who are opposed to abortion, read Republicans, have been using abortion as a political football, as a way to firm up their grasp on power. In other words, I always say, they cheat because they can't compete, because whenever abortion is put to the ballot, the people vote to support women's human rights. They cheat judicially. They made sure they appointed judges that could help them consolidate their political power.
I don't honestly think that the people in the leadership of the Republican Party honestly care about children, because if they did, they'd care about them once they were here. They would curb gun violence, for example. I think it's a matter of holding on to political power. Furthermore, I think you don't even understand the impact of the Dobbs' decision, if you don't have an intersectional analysis that includes race and gender.
I don't believe they want more Black or brown babies born. They kill the ones we have. This is about manipulating the fertility of white women, and if white women don't understand that, they're only seeing half of the picture.
Janae Pierre: Wow. I'm going to stay there a bit and talk more about elected officials. We heard from Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris at the top, talking about maternal health, but this hasn't always been a Democratic issue, right? Justice Blackmun, on the Supreme Court, wrote the Roe decision, and he was appointed by former President Nixon. Talk to me a bit about that.
Loretta Ross: Well, back then, there were pro-choice Republicans. Nixon is the president that's funded family planning. George Bush's father, Prescott Bush, was on the board of Planned Parenthood. It wasn't until the 1970s, when Ronald Reagan started organizing the segregation, as the people opposed to women's rights, gay rights, immigration, into a coalition so he could become president in 1980, that it became verboten for there to be a pro-choice Republican.
Someone who supported family planning and women's rights. This is a fairly recent development. It has not always been the case.
Janae Pierre: You're one of the creators of what we now understand as reproductive justice theory, could you help us understand exactly what that is?
Loretta Ross: Reproductive justice is a new way of talking about reproductive politics, created by 12 Black women, in June of 1994, because we wanted to go beyond the limited pro-choice, pro-life binary, that only focused on abortion. We do support abortion, birth control, and sex education, but as Black women, we also have to fight equally hard for the right to have the children that we want to have. Once the children are here, we fight for the right to raise them in safe and healthy environments.
That, of course, includes bodily autonomy, the right to a gender identity. Reproductive justice has been this transformative framework that has shown that is about the right to have a child, the right not to have a child, the right to raise your children, and the right to control your own body.
Janae Pierre: You wrote an article entitled, The Color of Choice: White Supremacy and Reproductive Justice. In that article, you argue that some women are encouraged to have children while others are discouraged. Talk about that.
Loretta Ross: Well, we have always been subjected, by we I'm saying women of color, to strategies of population control, or what's known as eugenics. Eugenics is a white supremacist obsession with improving the white race. By definition, there's positive eugenics, where they encourage white people to have more children and have better babies. We're going to see more of that, with all of these assisted reproductive technologies that's coming about.
They also have negative eugenics, where they want to prevent certain populations from having children. That, of course, includes Black people, brown people, people who're disabled, people of the wrong sexual, or gender identity, et cetera. We still have that kind of eugenical thinking taking place, together. For example, when Black women have babies, it's seen as a problem for society, either a criminal problem, an educational problem, or an environmental problem.
[unintelligible 00:07:20] were even blamed for the mortgage crisis. We are always problematized, and that's why we have to fight so hard for our dignity and for our human rights.
Janae Pierre: All right. Quick break. Back with more from Loretta Ross, from Smith College, right after this. Okay, we're back with Professor Loretta Ross, from Smith College. She's also the founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. As we end Black Maternal Health Week, I'm just wondering, why do Black women still not get the care that they need today?
Loretta Ross: I think because we misdiagnosed the problem. When you use a racist analysis, you think it's a matter of genes, but when you use a behavioral analysis, then you think people are just making the wrong life choices, not controlling their weight, preventing diabetes, too sedentary, or choosing to live in the wrong neighborhood. I think there's a third explanation. The reason that Black infant and maternal mortality has not gone down is that third explanation, and this is this called weathering.
Whenever your body is under a constant fight-or-flight reaction, where your heartbeat goes up, your heart gets enlarged, your blood vessels constrict, you breathe faster, your whole body is weathering the impact of all this potential harm and trauma that can come at you. Now, most times, that fight or flight instinct should only be triggered when you actually are experiencing extreme danger. Racism, white supremacy, sexism, is creating this concussive, percussive impact on Black women's bodies, but also the bodies of people who are poor.
Interesting, it's not even a matter of class. The body is not designed to be in permanent fight-or-flight mode. We are weathering all of this sociological and social harm. By the time we get pregnant, we're already dealing with enlarged heart, weakened blood vessels, a whole lot of aging complications that are usually only visible in other populations that don't experience that weathering much later in life, and it's leading us to early heart attacks, early onset diabetes.
Even if we live longer, we live with more disabilities. I think it's the third explanation, that was created, by the way, by a woman named Arline Geronimus, called weathering, that we have not integrated into understanding why Black maternal mortality has gone up instead of down.
Janae Pierre: Professor Ross, what can Black women and women of color do to avoid all of this?
Loretta Ross: Well, there's things we can do, but I don't want to assume that we can individually self-help ourselves out of white supremacy, [laughs] because that's not possible. We do need more strategies for dealing with the micro and macroaggressions that we encounter every day. We're always on permanent alert, particularly when you're in a situation where you don't know where that racist blow is going to come from, where that sexist blow is going to come from.
Keeping our bodies in that high state of alert isn't good for them. We can do somatic things to try to de-stress ourselves. We can certainly have stronger and more assertive conversations with our medical providers so that their medical racism doesn't get in the way, but you really can't self-help yourself out of white supremacy. It's not just all in your head. [laughs]
Janae Pierre: I'm wondering, does it surprise you at all that reproductive justice comes out of Black women's experience?
Loretta Ross: No. Black women are really familiar with creating very universalist theory to explain how the world works. It is rumored that all civilization began out of Black women's wombs, or are we surprised? No, I think that when Kimberly Crenshaw named intersectionality, she transformed the world. I believe reproductive justice has had that same impact. It's not that you create something out of old whole cloth.
What you've done is name a phenomenon that changes how everybody sees something. Newton didn't invent gravity, but he certainly changed the world when he named it, and that's what we do with Black feminist theory. We change the world when we name things.
Janae Pierre: Loretta Ross is a co-founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. In 2022, she was the recipient of a McArthur Fellowship Genius Grant, and she's currently an associate professor for the study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Loretta, thanks so much for speaking with us today on The Takeaway.
Loretta Ross: Thank you for having me on your show.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.