Mainstream feminists of the 1960s and 1970s regarded the issue of reproductive rights as exclusively the winning of legal abortion, without acknowledging the racist policies that have historically prevented women of color from bearing and raising as many children as they wanted.
[Angela] Davis argues that the history of the birth control movement and its racist sterilization programs necessarily make the issue of reproductive rights far more complicated for Black women and other women of color, who have historically been the targets of this abuse. Davis traces the path of twentieth-century birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger from her early days as a socialist to her conversion to the eugenics movement, an openly racist approach to population control based on the slogan, “[More] children from the fit, less from the unfit.”
Those “unfit” to bear children, according to the eugenicists, included the mentally and physically disabled, prisoners, and the non-white poor. As Davis noted, “By 1932, the Eugenics Society could boast that at least twenty-six states had passed compulsory sterilization laws, and that thousands of ‘unfit’ persons had been surgically prevented from reproducing.”
In launching the “Negro Project” in 1939, Sanger’s American Birth Control League argued, “[T]he mass of Negroes, particularly in the South, still breed carelessly and disastrously.” In a personal letter, Sanger confided, “We do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to their more rebellious members.”
Racist population-control policies left large numbers of Black women, Latinas, and Native American women sterilized against their will or without their knowledge. In 1974, an Alabama court found that between 100,000 and 150,000 poor Black teenagers were sterilized each year in Alabama.”