Course:ANTH213/2024/topic/Reproducing Reproduction

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Titian. (circa 1550). The Fall of Man [oil on canvas]. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. This classical painting expresses the biblical origin of reproduction.

In biology, reproduction is the process by which human beings, among other organisms, sustain and increase their species. Within the human context, however, reproduction is a far more nuanced process that is dictated by systemic mechanisms. Historically, reproduction has been linked to the need for labor and the exploitation of land, both of which are two key factors in the capitalist system. Importantly, capitalism is also linked with forms of oppression such as discrimination and exploitation of human groups. For the purposes of this article, the focus will remain on the intersectionality between racism and gender that is characterized by reproductive oppression; a phenomenon that can be coined as ‘stratified reproduction’.[1] Indeed, some groups are strongly encouraged or even forced to reproduce, while the reproduction of other groups is devalued and actively suppressed.

Within the context of stratified reproduction, it is important to emphasize the agency of racialized women, as these women seek sterilization and other forms of reproductive healthcare of their own accord. This agency is highlighted in the example of Puerto Rican women - a racialized group of women - who sought sterilization independently of systemic pressures for their own wellbeing.[2] Despite the existence of reproductive racism, women who might suffer under this form of oppression do not live at its whim.

This article aims to investigate stratified reproduction as a tool for racial oppression. Through a global lens that traverses across and the Global North and South, colonial oppression and contemporary reproductive rights are analyzed as sites of stratified reproduction.

Reproduction: The European Colonial Project

For centuries race and reproduction have been strategically linked during the creation of Colonial Empires. Social control and the manipulation of reproduction provided European Imperialism with the tools to populate the Empires that they deemed ‘respectable’.[3] This dark history of social control and inequality created the foundations for our current Western Society. Sex in the colonies was about sexual access and reproduction, and to various extents, class distinctions and racial privileges, nationalism, and European identity.[3] This control was dictated by European governments. However, to validate this unequal possession of power, colonial governments had to construct a ‘logical’ basis to assert superiority. European eilites in the colonies defended the notion that they were the rightful hegemony, an easily identifiable social entity from the ‘natural’ community and superior culture.[3] To maintain this hegemony, Colonial Governments strategically promoted specific women as the cultural and physical reproducers of these Empires, linking race and nation for the benefit of racialized Empires.[4] In this investigation into reproduction, this section aims to trace the origin of reproductive control and the construction of race and gender during colonization. Through an analysis of case studies from the 19th and 20th centuries, this section will reveal the intricate relationship between race and gender, and how this relationship shapes reproductive control.

European culture relied on the visual to grant individuals with social status, thus those who were privileged and those controlled by the privileged were determined on the basis of one’s body. “The idea that biology is destiny or, better still, destiny is biology has been a staple of Western thought for centuries”.[5] These biological traits have been the basis for which European culture classifies race and gender. Simone de Beauvoir has investigated the construction of women; Beauvoir argues that repetitive social conditioning supported by cultural definitions of gender creates a woman. “Being a woman is not a natural fact, it is a result of history";[6] As a result of this cultural conditioning, each distinct cultural group outside of the European hegemony has unique representations of women. It is important to explore the cultural contexts in which these ideals of women were created, as they reflect the relationship a society has with its women, and consequently a society’s stance on reproduction. Evidently, “In the West, biological explanations appear to be especially privileged over other ways of explaining gender, race, or class”.[5] European governments used social constructs of gender and the practice of ‘othering’ to justify reducing women down to their bodies. In a society that values the visual and places emphasis on bodies, women fell victim to objectification. European colonial governments viewed women as reproductive bodies above all else, perpetuating their already solidified subordination, hence, control over reproduction was the logical next step for colonial reign.

European women faced subordination through the practice of ‘othering’. Women, Indigenous peoples, Jewish peoples, Africans, the underprivileged, and all those who qualified for the label “different” in varying historical epochs have been considered the embodied, therefore dominated by reason beyond them.[5] Only the white European man was considered the norm in colonial society. Everyone else, including women and non-white peoples were deemed ‘other’. In the eyes of European governments, this emphasis on ‘other’ and biological differences aided in stripping peoples down to their bodies. As stated in ‘Visualizing the body’, “They are the other, and the other is a body”.[5] Imperial governments utilized this construct of ‘other’ to embody those they deemed separate from the norm to justify their objectification. In this case, women faced two forms of oppression, the subjection to social constructs of gender as well the imperial phenomenon of ‘othering’, which ultimately led to their justified objectification and served as grounds for controlling their reproductive rights. Women were restricted from moving to the colonies until these colonies were deemed ‘respectable’. “Since the 19th century, the major North Sumatran tobacco and rubber companies had neither accepted married applicants nor allowed them to take wives while in service”.[3] As a result of this culturally constructed hierarchy between women and men, European colonial elites capitalized on this dominance to enforce reproductive control on their colonies.

Although there was already an emphasis on the visual distinction between the European ‘norm’ and the ‘other’, an acknowledgment of difference was not enough to justify European superiority. Imperial governments had to create justifications for racial hierarchies to perpetuate the notion that some bodies should not have reproductive rights. Eugenics gave European citizens scientific authority to social fears and moral panics about other races.[7] This perpetuation of fear was one of the most used racial tools throughout colonization to justify European superiority. This practice validated the regulation of reproduction on the basis of biology, or rather certain visual traits deemed ‘respectable’. A case study of eugenics from the 1920s exposes the propaganda created by the ruling elites concerned with perpetuating racial inferiority of Indigenous peoples in Asian colonies of Europe. Medical manuals warned that Europeans who stayed ‘too long’ were in grave danger of physical and mental degradation.[3] This European recognition of difference had to be paired with fear and subordination of the ‘other’ to effectively justify reproductive control.

Louis-Antonin Neurdein. (between 1868 and 1900). Regime of Truth: Femme des Oued-Naïls [postcard].

European colonial governments established “regimes of truth”, these truths defended certain beliefs or reproductions of knowledge as reality.[8] Postcards of women produced by French men visiting Algeria for research provided visual representations of the European colonial gaze. In the Colonial Harem postcards, the model presents three distinct and yet closely related advantages, she is accessible, credible, and profitable.[9] The unveiling of these otherwise fully covered women, forced upon them dominant European gender norms. This allowed for their sexualization and reduction to their bodies, ultimately facilitating control over their reproductive rights. Furthermore, the postcards also created the notion that these women required saving. “If the women are inaccessible to sight, that is veiled, it is because they are imprisoned”.[9] This specific “regime of truth” has been coined ‘Orientalism’; Which can be described as colonial representations of non-European cultures, designating those cultures as inferior and reinforcing a perceived centre/periphery hierarchy.[10] This imaginary scenario of imprisonment justified the perceived superiority and savior complex of European men, which discredited the agency of Algerian individuals. The pairing of orientalism as truth, as well as, the already oppressive European construction of gender, paved the way for the French government’s infringement upon Indigenous reproductive rights and withholding of familial support.

Evidently, race and sex are culturally associated with a person’s place in the European colonial hierarchy of power. Throughout colonization, European expectations of gender and reproduction were inflicted upon women in the colonies and within Europe. Reproduction was controlled through subjective gender roles and the reduction of women to their reproductive bodies. Additionally, women of color suffered under the intersection of racialization and gender oppression. Colonial governments used this intersection to justify their exploitation and by extension their repressed reproduction. It is evident that the repression of female reproduction was to maintain a white European hegemony, however “To perpetuate this control of reproduction, the imperial powers had to reproduce the concept of white supremacy”.[9] Furthermore, eugenics and “regimes of truth” were essential to produce ‘knowledge’ about Non-Europeans, justifying their subordination and lack of agency over their reproductive rights. These tactics and strategies used by European colonial governments to justify their hegemonic rule resulted in the construction of race prejudice, objectification, and regimes of truths about women. Today, it is evident many of these colonial attitudes towards women’s reproductive rights remain. It is essential that we acknowledge their origin if we are to move towards a more just and equitable society.

Reproduction in the Global North

Racial disparities in women's healthcare have persisted over decades, despite initiatives aimed at enhancing access to and utilization of reproductive health services for women[11]. Achieving health equity necessitates a comprehensive comprehension of existing racial and ethnic disparities in reproductive health, along with a dedicated endeavour to formulate and execute strategies to bridge these divides. Despite significant progress in women's reproductive health, disparities in access and outcomes persist, disproportionately impacting racial minorities in the developed world.

Madeline Sutton. (2021). Conceptual model of expanded health care access, including reduced health care professional bias, and potential effect on racial and ethnic reproductive health disparities. STD, sexually transmitted disease; HIV, human immunodeficiency virus. In Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Reproductive Health. Obstet Gynecol 2021.

The recent actions of the American government to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling are emblematic of a contentious “culture war” surrounding reproductive rights[12]. Those in opposition to abortion within the American legislature have consistently enacted legislation that impedes or eliminates access to abortion services. This strategy, compounded by the deficiencies within the healthcare and economic frameworks, has disproportionately affected Black, Indigenous, and Latino communities, as well as individuals with limited economic means, by restricting their access to affordable healthcare and safe living conditions[11]. Consequently, while laws prohibiting abortion and contraceptive methods negatively impact all individuals capable of pregnancy, they disproportionately harm those already marginalized by economic disparities and systemic racism[12]. Abortion access presents a complex and challenging path for individuals who encounter various forms of inequity, including discrimination, limited resources, and lack of transparency based on factors such as sexual orientation, gender identity, age, ethnicity, and disabilities. Consider the disparities faced by women identifying as Black, Latina, or Indigenous, who, on average, earn significantly less than their White male counterparts, perpetuating economic inequality. These systemic injustices extend to the healthcare sector, where racial biases create additional barriers for these marginalized groups seeking abortion services[13]. The far-reaching impact of these unjust structures, which allocate privileges and opportunities unequally along racial and gender lines, further impedes their access to essential reproductive healthcare services. The Southern and Midwestern regions exhibit notably high concentrations of Black residents and encompass a significant number of states that have either prohibited or are contemplating the prohibition of abortion[11]. As a result, the reversal of Roe v. Wade has deepend existing inequalities in abortion access, particularly at the intersection of race and geographic location[11]. The imposition of new restrictions and bans on abortion will undoubtedly exacerbate the longstanding disparities in abortion access, significantly impacting the reproductive health and overall well-being of pregnant individuals and their families. Moreover, marginalized populations, including Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities, are disproportionately affected by multiple barriers hindering their access to essential abortion services. Roe v. Wade addressed states that prohibited abortions, deeming such prohibitions unconstitutional and affirming women’s right to control their reproductive healthcare[13]. Since the case’s conclusion, diverse perspectives on the advantages and disadvantages of abortion have emerged. The crux of the debate revolves around whether women should have the autonomy to determine the fate of their pregnancies. With the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, the future of abortion access hinges on our response to this significant regression in abortion rights—a departure from global norms and a historic event in U.S. history. It is imperative to navigate this shift cautiously to prevent the creation or exacerbation of inequalities, particularly among communities disproportionately affected by restrictive abortion measures.

Indigenous women have traditionally held esteemed roles within their communities as the nurtures of life, often described as the individuals who birth the whole world[14]. However, historical disrespect towards women and Indigenous populations has been exacerbated by sexism, colonialism, and racism, perpetuating acts of violence such as forced sterilization of Indigenous women and girls[15]. This form of sexual and reproductive violence is deeply entrenched in issues of gender and sexuality, yet its prevelance remained largely unnoticed by the broader populace. Persistent inequalities in Indigenous sexual and reproductive health and rights within Canada stem from systemic racism entrenched in the healthcare system. This systemic bias, rooted in historical racial oppression and colonial legacies, manifests through federal, provincial, and territorial policies shaping healthcare and educational systems[15]. These structures inadvertently perpetuate racism experienced by Indigenous individuals within the healthcare environment, reinforcing racial privilege within meso-level institutions and organizations aligned with the macro-level structures favouring the dominant group[15]. In various Canadian provinces, a disturbing historical backdrop emerges where legislation once condoned the involuntary sterilization of vulnerable populations, notably targeting Indigenous women under the prejudiced lens of eugenics doctrines that deemed them inferior. Recent revelations regarding the prior forced sterilization of Indigenous women, predating the eugenics era, underscore the enduring repercussions of past practices. A comprehensive evaluation conducted on services within the Saskatoon Health Region identified that, during the period from 2005 to 2010, 16 Indigenous women faced undue pressure to consent to sterilization immediately following childbirth[16]. By early 2019, approximately 100 Indigenous women had come forward with allegations of coerced sterilization, spanning from the 1970s to as recent as 2018[16]. Despite the absence of such laws today, accounts of coercive and involuntary sterilizations in Canadian medical facilities persist, with documented cases as recent as 2019[16]. Activists claim not enough has been done to challenge deeply held stereotypes about the Indigenous people, which has allowed forced sterilizations to continue on. Access to contraception and safe abortions is undeniably vital for safeguarding sexual and reproductive health. Nevertheless, the scope extends beyond mere essentials. Regrettably, a prevalent issue in Canada is the coerced sterilization of Indigenous women, underscoring the inherent healthcare disparities faced by Indigenous communities. To ensure equitable access to safe and healthy sexual and reproductive practices, significant systemic barriers must be addressed.

In Australia, akin to many liberal settler colonial states, marriage stands as a fundamental social institution that secures access to rights and resources. The regulation of marriage has historically served as a pivotal mechanism for settler colonial states to facilitate the transfer of property, inheritance rights, and wealth within the settler community[17]. Forced marriage prevention serves as a poignant illustration of how the institution of marriage resurfaces as a discourse on accepted and prohibited forms of social interaction. This not only serves to regulate those perceived as deviating from societal norms but also perpetuates the narratives that liberal settler colonial societies construct about their commitment to individual choice, independence, and personal authority[17]. Despite the foundational stories of settler colonial societies emphasizing the pursuit of autonomy, be it religious, economic, or otherwise, this self-governance has historically entailed the subjugation, devaluation, and displacement of other cultures and their ways of existence. In the context of Australia, the liberation of penal convicts facilitated the establishment of settlements that resulted in the subjugation of Indigenous communities, their customs, and their future prospects. The settler colonial government imposed regulations on Indigenous marital customs and compelled Indigenous individuals into unions with White Anglo-Saxon individuals under the guise of genetic assimilation, employing various strategies of racial manipulation and dominance characteristic of settler colonial practices[17]. For young girls, forced marriages frequently entail non-consensual and unprotected sexual encounters, potentially leading to unintended pregnancies that pose significant risks to their health[18]. Forced marriage transcends mere acceptance of a partner; it encompasses a continuum of violent acts targeting women[19]. This practice infringes upon a spectrum of fundamental rights, such as physical integrity, sexual and reproductive health, as well as freedom and autonomy. The act of influencing a woman's autonomy in making decisions regarding her reproductive health is referred to as reproductive coercion. This can take various forms, such as coercing pregnancy, interfering with contraception methods, or manipulating the progression of a pregnancy. Perpetuating gender stereotypes, norms, and societal barriers places married young women and girls in situations that constrain their ability to openly express their sexualities, take control of their reproductive choices, make informed decisions regarding childbirth, access essential resources and information, and decide when and with whom to engage in relationships[18]. The patriarchy, which reinforces gender-based norms and stereotypes, perpetuates traditional perceptions of women's roles and responsibilities in society. It also exerts social authority over women's bodies and decisions regarding their sexuality, contributing significantly to the prevalence of early and forced marriages. Within both public (community, national, and legal spheres) and private (family) contexts, the regulation of women's sexuality serves as a tool of oppression, limiting their opportunities for participation in social, economic, and political spheres[18]. Early and forced marriage stands as a stark example of society's inclination to exert control over women's bodies and reproductive autonomy.

Evidently, it is imperative to uphold principles and beliefs that advocate for increased accessibility to reproductive healthcare, particularly for individuals affected by racial disparities. There is a duty to denounce injustices and acts of violence. It is essential to consider revitalizing existing institutions and frameworks, emphasizing the necessity of decisive action.

Reproduction in the Global South

As previously indicated, reproduction control was already present during the colonial period. Control of population and stratified reproduction were directly related to the available workforce, as well as to racial anxieties and maintaining power. However, the control of reproduction did not stop with the end of colonialism. This section focuses on the events that occurred in the Global South during the second half of the 20th century. Western countries were alarmed by what they referred to as the 'population bomb' [20] and resorted to authoritarian measures to address this issue.

In the early 19th century, the English economist Thomas Malthus postulated in his renowned work the concept of malthusianism, namely that although population growth is exponential, the growth of food supply and resources will remain linear.[21] This implies that the population will inevitably experience a shortage of resources, leading to various catastrophes that ultimately result in poverty and depopulation. To prevent a potential 'Malthusian catastrophe', it is necessary for populations to control their reproduction. If left unchecked, exponential increase in birth rate could result in a significant mortality crisis. The concept of malthusianism relies on the belief that reproduction needs to be controlled, in one way or another, and this control was applied in a colonial context. Even after decolonization, reproduction control was continued, albeit in different forms.

Most European anthropologists agreed on a model of demographic transition conceptualized by Thompson in 1929.[22] In addition to Malthusianism, this model was also widely accepted by Western scholars. Specifically, the transition from the preindustrial level to the post-industrial level was seen as divided into five stages. Thompson's analysis was based on the Malthusian belief that when mortality rate is lower, people will have fewer children. The model assumes that countries aim at a lower birth rate as a sign of progress and wealth. Western countries have demonstrated the effectiveness of this model and are attempting to implement it in the Global South. It is not only about reproduction and promoting having less children, but also about land and progress. Here, Westerners propose a unique definition of developement, in which industrialization is the key.[23]

Max Roser. (2016). Demographic Transition overview. Link:

The concepts of Malthusianism and demographic transition were used within the context of high racial anxieties. After World War II, the Allies recognized the strategic importance of resources and food for long term’s stability. They assessed the demographic state worldwide and quickly realized that the Global South had not yet undergone the stages outlined in the demographic transition model. In the 1950s, as the South was still primarily made up of colonies, colonial empires tightened their control over colonized populations. An old racist narrative suggested that certain populations were uneducated, leading governments to paternalistically dictate measures aimed at reducing reproduction.[24] These anti-natalist policies specifically targeted non-White communities. Westerners feared not only a Malthusian trap but also the domination of non-white races due to their higher fertility rates. Even after Southern countries became independent, the premise persisted that the West should control the South, especially Africa, as it was supposedly unable to regulate itself.[24] Different methods were used, but most of them were coercive. In some instances, women were forced to use birth control if they wanted to keep or find a job. Governments were found to use forced sterilizations on women without their consent, using family planning agencies as a colonial control tool. This type of violence is similar to what intersex infants undergo.[25] Doctors are often conditioned to believe that surgery, either to remove or rearrange genital parts, is the best course of action.

In the 1990s, Western countries started to realize that the coercive approach to population control was ineffective. For example, Africa continued to have high fertility rates despite a declining mortality rate. To introduce another means of control, the issue was reframed from an anti-natalist policy to reproductive health in order to curb birth rate due to the still ongoing fear of the 'bomb population.' This shift to the more benign sounding term of “reproductive health” came out of the Cairo summit in 1994 and was significant because contraception was now presented as a means of promoting individual health and empowerment of women rather than just collective well-being.[26]

Racism still existed, but it was important to Western countries to use appropriate language to present a positive image on the international stage. The concept of strategic ambiguity, a method used in the context of hooking up, relates to this shifting vocabulary. People deliberately use ambiguous language to over- or underestimate the nature and number of intimate relationships.[27] However, in this case, it is used to maintain a racist hierarchy where the West assumes it knows what is best for the South. Western countries continue to exert control over policies through less obvious but still coercive measures. For example, aid loans are often tied to conditions, including the mandatory establishment of family planning programs.[24]

Westerners often compare the rest of the world to their own demographic transition. They see the Global South as a problem because the fertility rates do not match their own. However, there is evidence to the contrary. For example, Africa is actually in the process of a demographic transition, with a slowly declining fertility rate.[28] Just as the North experienced the demographic transition in different,  non homogenous ways, the Global South is also experiencing such differences. It became clear that it is never the right solution to impose a model.

Simply put, Western countries were afraid of the population growth in the Global South and attempted to control it through coercive or culturally inappropriate methods. Accordingly, it is necessary to redefine the global framework of reproduction, as Kim TallBear suggests in her podcast 'Love in the Promiscuous Style: Unsettling Settler Love'.[29] She proposes a new definition of “promiscuous”, which is often viewed negatively due to the definition of 'respectable' relationships established under colonialism. Today, marriage is viewed through a capitalist lens, where individuals first invest in their partner and then love them. Reproduction faces the same problem.

In conclusion, the current capitalist framework of reproduction and reproductive rights needs to be decolonized. Western countries should acknowledge that reproduction in the Global South is not their concern. If these countries request assistance, it should be provided without imposing a Western approach.

Reproduction in Canada

The control of reproduction has been a key tool for the colonial powers of history in creating racial division and asserting the superiority of whites throughout the world. Importantly, this tactic has not been abandoned in the past; nations of the contemporary Global North have controlled the reproductive capabilities of women to perpetuate racial inequality, both within that nation’s borders and beyond. As such, it is essential to examine the actions of Canada as a post-colonial, Western nation-state in which the University of British Columbia resides. This section will broadly trace Canada’s history of stratified reproduction, focusing primarily on policies during the nation-building era before touching on the post-1969 period of supposed reproductive freedoms and concluding with contemporary examples of reproductive oppression.  

From its inception, Canada has been intent on solidifying white supremacy as a core aspect of its national identity. This is highlighted through the rhetoric of John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, who "articulated the hegemonic vision of the nation-building project when, in a speech to Parliament, he proclaimed that Canada was ‘a white man’s country’”.[4] Of course, white people were not the only people in Canada. So, in order to not only solidify the racial divide between whites and non-whites but stratify it, the Canadian government began to regulate the reproductive abilities of non-white women.

Chinese workers at the Marble Bay Mine, Texada Island, British Columbia, April 1912

An important historical example of stratified reproduction can be found in Canada’s methods for regulating Asian immigration. In Canada’s earliest decades, the government sought to balance its capitalist goals that required cheap, foreign labor with the country’s racial agenda.[4] In order to find a compromise, Canada created racial policies that were highly gendered; “the inclusion of Asian women into the Canadian national formation came to be defined as dangerous to the racialized nation”.[4] If married Asian women did not accompany their husbands, there would have be no opportunity for an established Asian community to thrive in Canada, as there would have been no Asian children. Through exclusion, Canada sought to control the reproductive power of Asian women to maintain white purity within its borders. Ironically, though, fears of interracial mingling shifted the government’s policies toward inclusion soon after.

A fear began to grow that “mixed race sexual relations between Asian men and white women posed a danger for the body politic”.[4] As such, the implied sexuality and reproductive capability of the Asian woman became a solution. Politicians in Canada stressed “that including Asian women would protect the racialized nation in an important way; Asian women would form a barrier between lonely Asian men and untrustworthy white women”.[4] Despite this seemingly contradictory shift from excluding Asian women to including them, the underlying method remains the same. Preventing the reproduction of offspring, whether they be Asian children or mixed-race children, was of the utmost concern.

These policies of reproductive oppression extended to Indigenous women as well, a non-white group who have lived in what became ‘Canada’ for thousands of years. In the racist and colonial expanse of the Canadian nation-state, the disintegration of Indigenous culture became a necessity. Indigenous and Aboriginal women across Canada became targets for this disintegration as they were highly important to the functioning of their respective societies[30]. One method of undermining Indigenous women was attacking their reproductive systems, as “controlling their reproductive rights also meant controlling land and resources”. [30] As such, Canada has performed “thousands of tubal ligation and hysterectomy procedures”[30] on Indigenous women to prevent them from having offspring.

Another attack on Indigenous reproduction is institutionalized, settler-state marriage that places a particular emphasis on monogamy.[29] Canada used this institutional marriage to oppress Indigenous and other non-white forms of love,[29] which is clearly another form of reproductive control; by limiting sexual partners, offspring can be limited as well. In an effort to preserve white purity, Canada’s earliest decades became stained by the reproductive oppression of non-white women.

Despite the first four decades of the 20th century bringing an end to explicit colonialism, policies of racial oppression - which can be categorized as 'neocolonial' - continued to be prevalent throughout the world. In Canada, the year 1969 was characterized by a significant liberalization of women’s reproductive rights; however, these privileges did not extend to Canada’s Indigenous women.[31] Indigenous women suffered “bureaucratic surveillance”[31] of their reproductive activities. Furthermore, Indigenous women faced forced sterilizations that sought to “limit the growth of northern Indigenous populations”.[31] So, despite an apparently liberal era for the reproductive rights of Canadian women, it becomes clear that these liberties favored Canada’s white women; stratified reproduction remained the norm.

Through sterilizing Indigenous women, Canada attempted to limit the growth of a non-white group within its borders. The sentiment of the government - which has been observed in the colonial past - is rooted within the white body politic of the Canadian nation on which it was founded. Almost a century after the country’s inception, the reproductive system of the Indigenous woman continued to find itself at the center of racist, colonial attacks that sought to undermine the non-hegemonic threat that was Canada’s Indigenous population. Simply put, reproductive oppression was not a colonial niche. Rather, it was - and remains - an integral part of the Canadian racial project that has been prevalent throughout the entirety of the country’s history.

The rise of neoliberalism in the West brought a surge in inequality across a world still suffering under the lasting remnants colonial oppression. Nations of the white, male hegemony that characterized the Global North - like Canada - grew in strength and wealth at the expense of nations belonging to the Global South, leading to a surge of immigration brought upon by poverty, war, and new economic opportunities. As such, a predominantly non-white body of immigrants joined the non-white groups of the Global North who were also facing economic, political, and social struggles as neoliberalism’s capitalist policies allowed the mainly white upper-class to thrive. Put simply, the neoliberal era shook up the globe’s racial makeup; at the same time, it exacerbated the inequalities between the hegemonic white male and everyone else, thereby opening up new avenues for racial oppression.

Given Canada’s history of using reproductive systems to achieve racial stratification, it should come as no surprise that non-white women faced new forms of reproductive oppression as general inequalities strengthened under neoliberal policy. An example of this is the dilemma of the female immigrant in Canada; to use the words of George et al, “they face problems that all new immigrants face, they have unique challenges because of their gender, and they also suffer from marginalization because they belong to a racial minority”.[32] One such challenge that female immigrants in Canada must face is navigating Canada’s reproductive healthcare system. Evidently, “Canadian immigrant women are not adequately using the services that are available to them”.[32] This is the result of a plethora of factors, all of which are rooted in racial marginalization; lower economic status, language barriers, conflicting traditional beliefs, and shame at not being able to conform with Canada’s Western culture.[32] Simply put, Canada’s reproductive healthcare system excludes non-white women from accessing adequate care.

Just as in prior examples, this marginalization is rooted in the white supremacy that has dominated Canadian culture since its inception. Furthermore, reproduction again finds itself at the center of racial projects, highlighting how it remains a core part of gender-based racism in the effort to preserve the white male hegemony.

Despite a global trend toward more covert forms of racism as time has progressed, reproductive oppression has played - and still does play - a central role in how racial divides are created and maintained in the Canadian nation-state. As the examples mentioned in this section show, the Canadian government has directly targeted the reproductive systems of non-white women to enforce white supremacy. In fact, reproductive capabilities are threatened indirectly as well, primarily through systemic racism; for impoverished women in the Downtown Eastside, there is an idealized form of motherhood that marginalizes mothers in poverty, mothers who use drugs, and mother battling mental illness.[33] Motherhood, which is intrinsically linked to reproduction, becomes intertwined with broader social injustices that are critically linked with racism. As such, it is clear that whether it be directly or indirectly, the reproductive capabilities of non-white women remain a key tool for the maintenance of white supremacy in Canada.

Reproductive Rights Recently

Different nations around the globe are moving at different trajectories in regards to women’s liberty and reproductive rights, from abortion bans being passed across various states in the US following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, to democracies in Europe such as France adding abortion rights to their constitution. However, the weaponization of women’s reproduction within a colonial context has long been a violation of female or female-presenting bodies and the agency of their own sexuality. This breach of reproductive rights is heavily layered with different racial anxieties and racist perceptions, transgressions against abortion rights, and the deprivation or non-consensual imposition of contraceptives and medical equipment. This section examines the development, or perhaps regression of reproductive rights internationally and particularly over the span of the past two decades. It focuses on the colonial state of Israel and the Gaza strip, seeking to highlight the intersectionality between the exploitation of female reproduction during the emergence of colonial empires to different perceptions of reproductive freedom in an allegedly “post-colonial” contemporary world.

Throughout the Western Imperialist colonial project, European colonizer men created a patriarchal concubinage system in which they had full access and control of the bodies of Indigenous women, benefiting from their labor and regulating their sexuality.[3] The Native women were stripped from any autonomy in their own reproduction and used as a tool for European colonizers to expand their claim on the stolen land. The process of White settlers utilizing racialized female bodies and governing their reproduction to promote their colonial ideologies can be observed across a multitude of historical instances.

Comparably, when the colonial state of Israel accepted waves of Jewish Ethiopian immigrants starting from the late 1970’s, another minority group of women experienced the invasion of their rights and the racialization of their bodies. In the early 2010’s, a breakthrough of articles erupted exposing the Israeli government for confidentially sterilizing Jewish women from Ethiopia.[34] The reports published that Israel had been administering these immigrants with tri-monthly doses of Depo Provera, a birth control medication that suppresses ovulation. They also alleged that these Ethiopian women had not provided proper consent, were not appropriately informed of the medication's purpose, or presented with alternative contraceptive options. Without showcasing any remorse or sense of wrongdoing, Israel has since acknowledged these claims.[35] Regardless, Jewish Ethiopians residing in Israel still experience a declining birth rate, poor living standards, and increased rates of poverty and unemployment. Multiple cultural and social factors, such as economic hardship, demoralize the reproduction of Jewish Ethiopian women and deter their use of contraceptives.[36] The Israeli government further discourages impoverished Black women from reproducing through several techniques and racialize their bodies, forcibly sterilizing them. The foundation of this reoccurring human rights violation stems from an attempt at population control, rather than simply birth control, due to the fear that the predominantly White society would be overcome by the growing population of Black Ethiopians and other people of color.

This practice of “othering” and racializing an immigrant minority group within a predominantly white and colonial society reverberates the racist foundation of Canada’s colonial project and emergence of strict laws in the 1900’s that administered the immigration of Asian women and the reproduction of Asian or mixed-race babies.[4] The Canadian government followed a series of phases aimed to limit or entirely suppress the reproductive rights of Asian immigrants in an attempt to terminate different racial anxieties and racist perceptions of individuals from China, Japan, and India. The relevance of Canada's exclusion of and prejudicial approach to Asian immigrants persists today in other colonial entities such as the State of Israel.

Moreover, the violation of Jewish Ethiopian women's reproductive rights shares much commonality with the ongoing siege on the Gaza Strip, a feminist crisis and a reproductive rights concern only a few miles away. Since the events of October 7th, Palestinian women are being denied basic human rights, suffering from the lack of standard menstrual hygiene products, and being forced to give birth at checkpoints due to strict mobility laws in the absolute worst conditions imaginable.[13] The drastic rise in gender-based violence has polluted Palestinian women's menstrual health and immensely deteriorated their mental wellbeing.[13] Israel’s current bombardment of Gaza and their blockade of aid has violated the reproductive freedom of women and extremified the pre-existing fears and trepidations associated with childbirth.

Alisdare Hickson. (11.11.2023). Palestinian human rights need protecting too [photo]. Pro-Palestine protestors in London marching to call for a ceasefire and express their solidarity with Palestinians on November 11th, 2023.

Gaza was home to approximately 52,000 pregnant women in October of 2023 when the hostilities were starting to develop. Six months later in March of 2024, more than half of Gaza’s hospitals have been demolished to the ground and the few remaining are functioning at a limited capacity or under severe siege of the Israeli Defense Forces.[13] Doctors and health professionals, medical equipment, food, water, and other basic resources are all scarce and difficult to obtain. Women are obliged to deliver babies in unsanitary, unsafe, and overcrowded spaces or shelters without adequate medical support or expert supervision. Emergency C-sections are being performed without any anesthesia. Considering the lack of ample sterile medical equipment and resources, the risk of infection or maltreatment is continuously rising. Reports also indicate that women are having to be discharged as early as three hours after childbirth in a desperate attempt to accommodate as many patients as possible, despite the drastic breach of capacity within the very few remaining hospitals.

Every ten minutes in Gaza, an infant is born under dire circumstances.[37] A horrifying percentage of these newborns are premature, dehydrated, or malnourished, further exacerbating the already alarmingly high rates of maternal and newborn mortality rates in the region. Additionally, Israel’s onslaught on Gaza has led the rates of miscarriages to skyrocket up to 300%.[13]

This deprivation of reproduction rights, however, is not a recent concern. Approximately 94,000 women and girls were already deprived from access to sexual and reproductive resources, including contraceptives and menstrual hygiene products.[38] Countless reports recount cases of pregnant women in labor being denied entry into different regions with hospitals and being forced by the apartheid regime to give birth checkpoints. Organizations and groups stress the Palestinian cause as a critical feminist issue, accentuating the pervasive gender violence and assault on reproductive rights and sexual agency Palestinian women are subjected to by the Zionist regime rather than plainly the Arab patriarchy.[39]

While Israel's bombardment on Gaza resumes, France’s parliament held a special congress on the 24th of March, 2024, to discuss various implementations to further secure national reproductive justice in response to political trends attacking abortion rights across seas. With an overwhelming majority, the motion to add abortion rights to the country’s parliament passed.[40] In his jubilant speech, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal expressed: “We are sending the message to all women: Your body belongs to you and no one has the right to control it in your stead.”.[15] Many were quick to criticize Attal’s remarks and call the initiation out for its hypocrisy as many women in France do not have full agency of their bodies when they are prohibited from expressing their religious identity and banned from wearing hijabs in public settings. France's hijab ban targets the racialized bodies of Muslim women, entirely othering them in the process and depriving them of possessing full autonomy over their own bodies.[15] These evident double standards further emphasize the Western world’s failure to achieve the reproductive justice framework by expanding beyond the “my body, my choice” narrative through their lack of inclusion of racialized bodies.

Western states preserve their colonial lens by othering and strictly regulating Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. They continue to employ stratified reproduction methods to dispossess women of color from their agency and self-government rights, perpetuating a violation to their reproductive rights. As witnessed decades ago with the racist treatment of Native women and Asian immigrants by imperialist colonial entities invading North America, the colonial and Zionist Israeli regime promotes the same framework by corrupting the reproduction of Jewish Ethiopian immigrants and Palestinian women in Gaza.


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