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Response to boston bean (Original post)

Wed May 15, 2019, 07:47 AM

3. Republican indifference to the humanity of female homo sapiens: past and present

Reproductive Rights and the Long Hand of Slave Breeding

. . .

Yes, we have come to acknowledge, women were sexually exploited. Yes, many of the founders of this great nation prowled the slave quarters and fathered a nation in the literal as well as figurative sense. Yes, maybe rape was even rampant. That the slave system in the US depended on human beings not just as labor but as reproducible raw material is not part of the story America typically tells itself. That women had a particular currency in this system, prized for their sex or their wombs and often both, and that this uniquely female experience of slavery resonates through history to the present is not generally acknowledged. Even the left, in uncritically reiterating Malcolm X’s distinction between “the house Negro” and “the field Negro,” erases the female experience, the harrowing reality of the “favorite” that Harriet Jacobs describes in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

We don’t commonly recognize that American slaveholders supported closing the trans-Atlantic slave trade; that they did so to protect the domestic market, boosting their own nascent breeding operation. Women were the primary focus: their bodies, their “stock,” their reproductive capacity, their issue. Planters advertised for them in the same way as they did for breeding cows or mares, in farm magazines and catalogs. They shared tips with one another on how to get maximum value out of their breeders. They sold or lent enslaved men as studs and were known to lock teenage boys and girls together to mate in a kind of bullpen.They propagated new slaves themselves, and allowed their sons to, and had their physicians exploit female anatomy while working to suppress African midwives’ practice in areas of fertility, contraception and abortion.Reproduction and its control became the planters’ prerogative and profit source. Women could try to escape, ingest toxins or jump out a window—abortion by suicide, except it was hardly a sure thing.

This business was not hidden at the time, as Pamela details expansively. And, indeed, there it was, this open secret, embedded in a line from Uncle Tom’s Cabin that my eyes fell upon while we were preparing to arrange books on her new shelves: “’If we could get a breed of gals that didn’t care, now, for their young uns…would be ’bout the greatest mod’rn improvement I knows on,” says one slave hunter to another after Eliza makes her dramatic escape, carrying her child over the ice flows.

The foregoing is the merest scaffolding of one of the building blocks of Bridgewater’s argument, which continues thus. “If we integrate the lost chapter of slave breeding into those two traditional but separate stories, if we reconcile female slave resistance to coerced breeding as, in part, a struggle for emancipation and, in part, a struggle for reproductive freedom, the two tales become one: a comprehensive narrative that fuses the pursuit of reproductive freedom into the pursuit of civil freedom.”

Constitutionally, the fundamental civil freedom is enshrined in the Thirteenth Amendment. The amendment’s language is unadorned, so it was left to the political system to sort out what the abolition of slavery meant in all particulars. In a series of successive legal cases, the courts ruled that in prohibiting slavery the amendment also prohibits what the judiciary called its “badges and incidents,” and recognized Congress’s power “to pass all laws necessary and proper for abolishing all [of those] in the United States.”

Bridgewater argues that because slavery depended on the slaveholder’s right to control the bodies and reproductive capacities of enslaved women, coerced reproduction was as basic to the institution as forced labor. At the very least it qualifies among those badges and incidents, certainly as much as the inability to make contracts. Therefore, sexual and reproductive freedom is not simply a matter of privacy; it is fundamental to our and the law’s understanding of human autonomy and liberty. And so constraints on that freedom are not simply unconstitutional; they effectively reinstitute slavery.


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boston bean May 15 OP
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