Addressing a Legacy of Reproductive & Gender-Based Violence Against Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color in North America

“One who injures another person is liable on five counts: for the injury itself, for pain, for healing, for loss of time, and for embarrassment” (Bava Kamma 8:1)

 

Background:

The Mishnah teaches, “One who injures another person is liable on five counts: for the injury itself, for pain, for healing, for loss of time, and for embarrassment” (Bava Kamma 8:1). This sacred teaching alludes to the ways that individual acts of violence have repercussions far greater than the act itself. Throughout North American history, untold violence and discrimination have been perpetuated against Black women, Indigenous women[1], Latina women, and Women of Color[2] broadly by the government, by public and private institutions, and by individuals. Women who identify as members of the aforementioned groups are not a monolith and the racism they have experienced manifests and compounds in different ways. At the same time, there are commonalities to the ways in which our society has marginalized and hurt these women over many generations and the ways in which these injustices must be addressed. In particular, inequities in access to reproductive health care and to the justice system must be remedied to ensure a more just and humane future for all Women of Color and society overall.

While racial disparities exist across the entire health care system, Women of Color face particular challenges related to equitable reproductive and maternal health care access. Furthermore, both the United States and Canada have a shameful history of undermining the reproductive autonomy of Women of Color through the practice of forced and coercive sterilization.

WRJ has proudly advocated for reproductive rights, including abortion access, contraception, and comprehensive sexuality education, since 1935. More recently, we have sought to incorporate a reproductive justice framework into our existing reproductive health and rights advocacy through the WRJ-RAC Reproductive Health & Rights Campaign, launched in May 2019. The Reproductive Justice Movement was founded by Black women and continues to be led by Women of Color. SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, a national organization and leader in the Reproductive Justice Movement, defines reproductive justice as the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.[3] By rooting our reproductive health and rights work in a reproductive justice framework and committing ourselves to work in solidarity with Communities of Color to build a society in which one’s reproductive life is not dictated by their race, class, geography, or other identity factors, we are acting on our Jewish values of kavod ha’briyot, or respect for individual dignity.

Maternal Health & Mortality

At 26.4 deaths per 100,000 live births, the U.S. has the worst rate of maternal death in the developed world and is the only developed country with a maternal mortality rate that has been steadily rising for the last three decades.[4] Black and Indigenous women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, regardless of education, income, or other socioeconomic factors.[5] Black women are more likely to be uninsured,[6] face greater financial barriers to care when they need it [7], and are less likely to obtain prenatal care.[8] Though data is limited in measuring maternal mortality in Indigenous communities, available data indicates that the maternal mortality crisis for Indigenous women is compounded by the fact that approximately 40 percent of all Indigenous people live in rural communities.[9]  These geographic barriers often limit Indigenous women’s access to local and culturally centered services and resources to support them during their pregnancies. Data reflecting the extent of the maternal mortality crisis amongst Latina, Asian, and Pacific Islander women indicates that in some communities, birth outcomes are similar to those of white women, but those structural inequities such as poverty, food insecurity, lack of health care, and racism and discrimination within the health care system, contribute to higher mortality rates in sub-communities.[10] While overall maternal health outcomes in Canada are far better than in the U.S., Black women in Canada still have substantially higher rates of premature births than white women.[11]

Forced and Coercive Sterilization

Forced and coerced sterilization (sometimes referred to as compulsory or involuntary sterilization) is a grave violation of human rights and medical ethics and a shameful part of United States and Canadian history. The term refers to sterilization procedures that are conducted without the patient’s knowledge and/or consent or through coerced consent. Spurred by the eugenics movement popular at the turn of the 20th century, both public and private actors in Canada and the U.S have historically targeted Indigenous women, immigrants, People of Color, people with disabilities, low-income communities, incarcerated individuals, unmarried mothers, and those with mental illness. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell set a legal precedent that allowed for compulsory sterilization of individuals with intellectual disabilities, mental illness, and epilepsy "for the protection and health of the state."[12] In the decades following Buck v. Bell, dozens of states passed eugenics laws that led to the sterilization of more than 60,000 individuals between 1927-1964 alone.[13] In total, more than half of the states in the U.S. have had some form of eugenics law on their books.[14] In 1970, the Nixon administration dramatically increased Medicaid-funded sterilization of low-income Americans through the passage of the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act. This funding, combined with a federal commitment to family planning and community health, led to widespread sterilization abuse in the United States until the mid-1970s, targeting poor Black women, Indigenous women, Latinas, and people living with HIV/AIDS.[15] In the 1970s, it was estimated that approximately one-third of all Puerto Rican women aged 20-49[16] and as many as 25-50 percent of Indigenous women[17] were involuntarily sterilized, oftentimes under the guise of being seen by a doctor for other procedures like tonsillectomies or appendectomies. Reports of forced sterilization in U.S. prisons[18] and immigrant detention facilities[19] in 2020 remind us that the legacy of reproductive violence against Women of Color has continued into modern-day.

Canada’s disturbing history of forced sterilization mirrors U.S. history. In particular, women with intellectual disabilities and Indigenous women have been forcefully sterilized by the Canadian government for decades.[20]

Violence Against Indigenous Women

Another area of concern is the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and girls in the United States and Canada. More than 4 in 5 Indigenous women in the U.S. experience physical violence and/or sexual assault during their lifetime, the highest rate of any racial group.[21] In some regions in the U.S., Indigenous women are murdered at more than ten times the national average.[22] The vast majority of survivors of physical or sexual violence may never see their abusers brought to justice, particularly if the violence is perpetuated by a non-Indigenous offender. While the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act expanded tribal jurisdiction over non-Indigenous perpetrators of domestic violence, Indigenous communities lack authority over crimes of sexual assault, stalking, child abuse, and trafficking perpetrated by non-Indigenous offenders.[23] While the federal government has jurisdiction over these cases, far too often these cases are dismissed or not fully investigated.[24]  The complex web of jurisdictions governing tribal areas, in addition to implicit racism in local police departments, which lack adequate knowledge of Indigenous communities, often means the cases of missing Indigenous women are not investigated, or the victims are not properly identified as Indigenous. Of the 5,712 reports of missing Indigenous women in the United States in 2016, a figure that already vastly underrepresents the scope of this issue, only 116 were recorded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing persons' database.[25]

In Canada, the national homicide rate for Indigenous women is at least seven times higher than for non-Indigenous women[26] and the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women has been described as a national crisis and a Canadian genocide. A 2014 Amnesty International report on Saskatchewan found that while Indigenous women only make up 6 percent of the population of the province, 60 percent of its missing women are Indigenous.[27]

Therefore, Women of Reform Judaism commits to and calls upon its sisterhoods, women’s groups, and individual members to:

  1. Urge elected officials at all levels of government to pursue solutions to improve racial disparities associated with maternal health outcomes including:
    1. Funding community-based organizations, including Indian Health Service facilities and Urban Indian Health Organizations, focused on improving health outcomes for Black, Indigenous, Latina, and other Women of Color;
    2. Funding research to learn about the underlying, root causes of disparate maternal and neonatal mortality and morbidity among Black, Indigenous, and Latina women;
    3. Increasing racial diversity among providers in maternity care and other health care professions;
    4. Pursuing policies that eradicate cultural biases and discrimination in medical education and practice; and
    5. Holding individual providers and hospital systems accountable if they fail to provide unbiased, high-quality, evidence-based care;
  2. Urge elected officials and political appointees on all levels of government to:
    1. Adopt legislative changes that clarify and strengthen legal frameworks that ensure and clearly define full, free, and informed consent relating to sterilization procedures;
    2. Pursue policy proposals that call for increased transparency and accountability from government officials and medical professionals surrounding sterilization procedures; and
    3. Pursue policy proposals that would provide reparations to victims of coercive sterilization;
  3. Urge elected officials and political appointees on all levels of government to support policies to:
    1. Address violence against Indigenous women and girls;
    2. Improve statistics and protocols on missing and murdered Indigenous women;
    3. Eliminate jurisdictional gaps that result in the cultural marginalization and denial of services to Indigenous women and girls and their families; and
    4. Provide Indigenous and tribal governments with assistance to build capacity to investigate, prosecute, and punish those who commit violence against Indigenous women and girls;
  4. Advance the policy recommendations listed above by:
    1. Implementing sisterhood and/or congregational programs on these issues and other topics relating to the intersection of racism, reproductive, and gender-based violence; and
    2. Support and partner with organizations working to ameliorate the impacts of reproductive and gender-based violence against Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color.
 

[1] For the purposes of this resolution, any reference to Indigenous women or nations may include First Nations, Metis, Inuit, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, Alaska Natives, and/or Native Americans.

[2] The political term “Women of Color” surfaced in the violence against women movement in the late seventies to unify all women experiencing multiple layers of marginalization with race and ethnicity as a common issue. For the purposes of this resolution, the term Women of Color refers to any women who are not considered “white.” The phrase may refer to Black women, Indigenous women, Latina women, Asian women, or multiracial women who experience oppression based on racial identity.  (Source: The Women of Color Network)

[3] https://www.sistersong.net/reproductive-justice

[4] https://www.npr.org/2017/05/12/528098789/u-s-has-the-worst-rate-of-maternal-deaths-in-the-developed-world

[5] https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2019/p0905-racial-ethnic-disparities-pregnancy-deaths.html

[6] National Partnership for Women & Families. Women’s Health Coverage: Sources and Rates of Insurance. From http://www.nationalpartnership.org/research-library/health-care/womens-health-coverage-sources-and-rates-of-insurance.pdf

[7] The Commonwealth Fund. Biennial Health Insurance Survey, 2003-2016. From http://www.commonwealthfund. org/interactives-and-data/surveys/biennial-health-insurance-surveys/2017/biennial-explorer

[8] Disparities in Health Care Quality Among Minority Women Selected Findings From the 2011. From National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Reports. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://archive.ahrq.gov/research/findings/nhqrdr/nhqrdr11/minority-women.html#maternalc

[9] https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2766339

[10] https://www.nationalpartnership.org/our-work/resources/health-care/maternity/tackling-maternal-health-disparities-a-look-at-four-local-organizations-with-innovative-approaches.pdf

[11] https://www.cmaj.ca/content/188/1/E19

[12] https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/274/200

[13] https://www.frc.org/op-eds/coercive-sterilization-an-on-going-crime-against-humanity

[14] Open Society Foundation, Against Her Will: Forced and Coerced Sterilization of Women Worldwide (October 4, 2011)

[15] https://www.law.berkeley.edu/php-programs/centers/crrj/zotero/loadfile.php?entity_key=QFDB5MW3

[16] https://www.library.wisc.edu/gwslibrarian/bibliographies/sterilization/

[17] https://daily.jstor.org/the-little-known-history-of-the-forced-sterilization-of-native-american-women/

[18] https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/07/26/our-long-troubling-history-of-sterilizing-the-incarcerated

[19] https://theintercept.com/2020/09/17/forced-sterilization-ice-us-history/

[20]https://www.saskatoonhealthregion.ca/DocumentsInternal/Tubal_Ligation_intheSaskatoonHealthRegion_the_Lived_Experience_of_Aboriginal_Women_BoyerandBartlett_July_22_2017.pdf

[21] https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/249736.pdf

[22] https://indianlaw.org/issue/ending-violence-against-native-women

[23] https://scholarship.law.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2459&context=mlr

[24] https://www.uihi.org/resources/missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women-girls/

[25] http://www.uihi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Missing-and-Murdered-Indigenous-Women-and-Girls-Report.pdf

[26] www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-503- x/2010001/article/11442-eng.pdf.

[27] https://www.amnesty.ca/sites/amnesty/files/iwfa_submission_amnesty_international_february_2014_-_final.pdf