Last week Mississippi voters rejected the "personhood" initiative, which would have given law enforcement the power to intervene in a woman's decision-making about how to manage her fertility and her pregnancy. On the same day, Arizona voters recalled state Senator Russell Pearce in response to his anti-immigrant crusade where he branded immigrant women as "illegal mothers" and bitterly attacked teachers with Spanish accents as "illiterate".
The overlay of the Mississippi and Arizona vote sheds light on the intersecting attacks on Latina's health and rights. On the one hand, leaders like Pearce demonize the pregnancies of 'perceived' immigrant women, and on the other hand anti-abortion leaders demonize common forms of contraception and even pregnancy termination to save the life of the mother.
In this ultra conservative worldview, the fertilized eggs of immigrants are a national threat but the fertilized eggs of other women are a precious national resource that deserve "protection" even from their own mothers. Latinas seem to be under attack when we have babies (even Penelope Cruz was accused of giving birth to an "anchor baby"), and we are under attack when we don't have babies.
We simply can't win in this formula: we are either using our pregnancies to threaten the nation, or we can't be trusted to make decisions about our pregnancies. And in either case, the road to reproductive health is riddled with hazards, from immigration agents that shackle detained women in childbirth to lack of health insurance desperately needed for prenatal care.
Mississippi was only the first of a handful of states where "Personhood" amendments that give legal rights to a fertilized egg are heading to the ballot box. "Personhood" in these political times means that the government can prosecute women and doctors if they don't make medical choices that elected officials support as part of their political agendas. These amendments may ban certain forms of birth control even though the federal government says they are safe and legal. They could ban using common forms of invitro fertilization, or having a miscarriage under circumstances that the government finds suspicious. The law would have banned all abortions, even if you are pregnant as the result of rape or incest, or even to save your own life if doctors think your pregnancy may a threat to your health or life.
While it may seem that we are at the height of political vitriol at this moment, Latinas share a long and persistent history of organized attacks on our childbearing decisions and our pregnancies, from medical personnel that manipulate women into sterilization to immigration officials that tear women apart from their young children.
One particularly riveting example of reproductive oppression surfaced three decades ago at the University of California Medical Center Women's Hospital, when hundreds of Mexican-origin women unlucky enough to need an emergency cesarean section delivery were either coerced or forced into sterilization. Many left the hospital post-labor unaware they had undergone sterilization. Some women in the last, most painful stages of labor, and often sedated, were approached and asked if they would undergo surgical sterilization. Some women were told that they had a life threatening medical condition and that they might die if they were not sterilized, or that their husband had consented for sterilization on their behalf. Some doctors or nurses refused to administer pain medication unless they agreed to undergo sterilization surgery. Some doctors threatened deportation for those who didn't consent.
One nurse from this hospital recalled the prevailing attitude of the staff:
[Mexican origin women] weren't really 'American' and [they] had come from Mexico pregnant on the bus just so that they could have their baby born a U.S. Citizen so they can't be deported themselves. It was frequently expressed that the poor bred like rabbits and ate up money on welfare, that the women were promiscuous and just having babies because they couldn't control their sexual desires or were too stupid to use birth control.... The prevailing attitude was that one or two children were enough for any mother and that any mother who had four or more was an undisciplined and ignorant burden upon the country.
This flagrant medical malpractice is not as common today, but reproductive coercion persists and is made worse when the political climate becomes dangerously stigmatizing and extremist. Even as Mississippians were voting on "Personhood", a young woman faces murder charges with a mandatory life sentence resulting from a miscarriage that state prosecutors believe she could have prevented.
Pregnancy coercion is not limited to ultra-conservative states like Mississippi. Whether pregnancy coercion is named "Personhood" or "Defund Planned Parenthood", the endgame is the same.
We continue to fight against a vicious attack on the humanity of Latinas and immigrant women who are choosing to be mothers. It's time for us to unite across movements under the simple idea that human freedom includes the right to control our fertility and provide for our children.
Just months ago I had my first baby, and during labor my partner and doula were at my side ensuring that I had the best medical care and that our son had every opportunity to enter this world healthy and in loving arms from his first breath. Our carefully constructed birth plan didn't unfold exactly as we had imagined, but the fact is that we made our own decisions, with advice from our midwife and support from our doula, about how to manage the birth of our son.
All women, without regard to race, class, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, immigration status and religious affiliation, should have access to the same choices and rights that I did when I planned my pregnancy and gave birth to my beautiful baby at a time that was right for me and my family.
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