Reproductive Responsibility and the Racial Biopolitics of Choice


Author: Sara Alavi


The following paper seeks to situate the pivotal shifts in reproductive politics in the 1960s and 70s within Foucault’s concept of biopower. An introductory discussion of early 20th century eugenic politics sets an ideological precedent for the following neo-eugenic analysis of Black motherhood and reproduction. The 1960s and 70s present a particularly telling manifestation of neo-eugenic conceptions of race and reproduction. At first glance, the historical period seems to present a double bind: as the expansion of welfare and civil rights coincided with a surge of forced sterilizations of Black women and resultant loss of right to have children, white feminists were fighting for abortion access and the right not to have children. These overlapping moments are not in fact contradictory, but instead serve as evidence of the persistence of both positive and negative eugenics as they are enforced and legitimized by the government in an expression of racial and gendered dominance. A deeper analysis of Supreme Court rulings and legislative moments such as 1927’s Buck v Bell, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and 1973’s Roe v Wade clarify the modes of biopower, in Foucault’s words, that allowed for this lasting manifestation of eugenic thought: the rhetoric of responsibility and self-government in legislative framings of reproduction constructs a rigid set of standards of fitness to reproduce. In effect, these standards simultaneously reflect and produce racial and gendered inequalities that pathologize Blackness and strip women of their bodily autonomy in an effort to uphold the patriarchal white supremacy that defines American governance and society. As government modalities hold significant relevance to the field of public health, this analysis holds the potential to clarify the legacies of biopower within the current epidemic of Black maternal mortality.



Throughout a series of lectures entitled Security, Territory, Population at the Collège de France in 1978, and in his 1976 volume The History of Sexuality, French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault introduced the concept of biopower. Biopower, he explains, is “the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power”.1 Under a system of biopower, the population is conceptualized as a system of living beings that may be controlled through laws, allowing power to be exercised “at the level of life itself”.2 Since biopower is concerned with the optimization of the body and its functions, as well as the regulation of the population, reproduction under Foucault’s biopolitical framework becomes a key site for government control. As such, reproductive bodies, which mainstream spheres have come to consider as women’s bodies, are subject to state intervention.3

Given pronounced racial and gendered dynamics at play in reproductive politics, Foucault’s conceptions of biopower shed light on the particular capacity for reproductive legislature to become a vehicle for institutionalizing racism and patriarchy.4 By regulating who may become pregnant and who may not, the state holds the power to define maternal legitimacy such that Blackness is devalued and womanhood itself is a function of reproductive capacity. In this process, Foucault asserts that “the law operates more and more as a norm,” allowing modern forms of power to operate through the law in a simultaneous reflection and production of racist ideals.5 With the understanding that the “general strategy of power” of American governance and society is one of white supremacist patriarchy, Foucault’s biopower positions government reproductive control as a purposeful means of upholding white dominance.


One particularly demonstrative historical example of biopower in the reproductive sphere is the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. Eugenics is a doctrine that promotes the elimination of “bad” genes in the interest of improving the nation’s “racial” health by breeding only the “better stock” of people.6 Based primarily on the notion of biological determinism, the eugenic narrative discouraged the reproduction of “unfit” citizens whose reproduction was deemed harmful. The cost-effective “solution” to such genetic contamination was sterilization, which was thought to temper the impact of unfit individuals over time.7 Through the first half of the 20th century, the eugenics movement mainly operated through the sterilization of disabled white women in mental institutions.

Most commonly, eugenic sterilizations were neither illegal nor informal. Perhaps the most formative legitimization of the eugenics movement took place in 1927, with the landmark Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell. This case was based on the experiences of Carrie Buck, a white woman who became pregnant out of wedlock and was committed to Virginia’s colony for the “feebleminded”. State officials utilized her subsequent sterilization, carried out due to her “sexual immorality” and family history of “feeblemindedness,” to test the constitutionality of Virginia’s sterilization laws. The US Supreme Court voted 8:1 to uphold the constitutionality of forcibly sterilizing women with disabilities.8 In his defense of the decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.9

In affirming the capacity of the state to enforce eugenic standards of those who are “fit” to reproduce, the decision legitimizes the assumption that Buck’s offspring would be a “degenerate” burden on society, and thereby justifies physical intrusion on her body. The ruling not only endorses the eugenic pursuit of racial purity, but also promotes mechanisms of biopower targeting women as the accountable figure in reproduction — and thus the objects of government regulation. In true Foucauldian fashion, this reflection of eugenic ideals was also productive: interest in eugenic sterilizations surged in response to the ruling, with 30 states practicing eugenic sterilization by 1932.10

Throughout the progression of the 20th century, during which traditional eugenics evolved into neo-eugenics following the second world war, the mechanisms of biopower affirmed by the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell shifted focus from institutionalized white women to poor Black women. While disdain for Nazism pushed “traditional” eugenics into the margins, the Civil Rights Movement ushered in neo-eugenic perceptions of threats to white power and privilege: the social conditions of Blackness. Prior to WWII, Black women had been largely insulated from the eugenics movement by institutionally sanctioned segregation, which curtailed their access to government programs and systems where sterilizations primarily took place. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed Black women to participate in government programs such as welfare for the first time.3

Though less formally upheld than the eugenics movement, neo-eugenic beliefs that poverty and criminality were reproduced through Black culture constructed Black women — particularly those on welfare — as the new “unfit” targets of sterilization. In 1965, 14% of Black women in the United States had undergone surgical sterilization. By 1971, that number rose to 20%.7 Especially given temporally concurrent expansions in federal funding for family planning and emergence of the Black Power movement, the hundreds of thousands of sterilizations that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s targeted Black women in an application of government biopower which sought to uphold white dominance under the guise of economic responsibility. Similarly to how Buck v Bell had legitimized sterilization in the name of the American Constitution, neo-eugenicists responded to the political shifts of the 1960s by popularizing the sterilization of “incompetence” to be “better for all the world.”


Institutions of law and medicine permitted neo-eugenic thought processes, propagated through these institutions’ power to affirm racist stereotypes and hierarchies of human worth in their pathologization of poor Black motherhood. Although poor women’s presumed immorality and promiscuity are rarely mentioned explicitly in policy development, such sentiments are implied in the “irresponsibility” code often used to frame welfare-reliance.10 Following analogous logic as the Supreme Court’s affirmation of Buck v Bell and traditional eugenic thought, sterilization proposed a solution to the supposed cycle of dependency passed through Black families. The “welfare queen” stereotype of single Black mothers criticized their supposed choice to engage in “deviant” sexual behavior while simultaneously casting their perceived promiscuity as inherent to their Blackness. Consequently, neo-eugenicists naturalized Black sexual deviancy through the following double bind: Black women were criticized for lack of reproductive fitness whilst standards of fitness were based upon race and class. So long as economic mobility was limited by lack of opportunity, poor Black women could not escape their “unfit” classification because they could also never cease to be Black.7

This theoretical framing construes irresponsibility as an inheritable Black trait: if not specifically by genetics, then by the nature of Black culture. The tendency for doctors and social workers to mandate coerced sterilizations for Black women — while white women seeking sterilization had to meet a very specific set of standards to qualify for sterilization — added institutional legitimacy to these neo-eugenic notions of inherent Black irresponsibility.7      Oftentimes, physicians gave Black women an ultimatum: submit to sterilization, or no welfare.6 The prevalence of such approaches to coercion affirms the deep-rooted associations between welfare-reliance, Blackness, and reproductive fitness.

The emergence of welfare-reliance as a justification for the coerced or forced sterilization of Black women is reflective of the overarching connection between reproductive biopower and the construction of responsibility. Within legal and social discourse, responsibility, self-governance, and reproductive fitness became inextricably linked. All three concepts are historically specific: they shape and reflect cultural values and tensions, especially those related to race and gender.7 As in the case of Buck, the sterilization of poor Black women was thought to holistically best serve the interest of society during a time of economic and population-growth anxiety. This idea was particularly pervasive because it was imposed on those whose reliance on welfare supposedly exemplified their inability to exercise proper self-governance.3 By placing responsibility for difficult circumstances on Black women experiencing oppression and poverty, dominant institutions maintained control over the population without acknowledging their own role in oppression.


Following the logic of biopower, in The History of Sexuality Foucault writes: “The primary concern was not repression of the sex of the classes to be exploited, but rather the body, vigor, longevity, progeniture, and descent of the classes that ‘ruled’”.11 The pursuit of ensuring longevity and dominance of the “ruling” white class rationalized the logic of both negative and positive eugenics: while negative eugenics relied on the limited reproduction of those deemed to be unfit burdens to society, positive eugenics mandated the prolific reproduction of those who were fitnamely, white middle and upper class women. In addition to being routinely denied contraceptive sterilization concurrently as Black women were being forcibly sterilized, white women struggled to access abortions.

In order to have an abortion in the late 1960s, women needed to be diagnosed as mentally unsound and thus unable to raise a child.10 The matter of whether she wanted to carry a child to term was irrelevant — as in the case of contraceptive sterilization, a physician’s judgment was consistently prioritized over the expressed wants and needs of the patient. Because male physicians were trusted to govern themselves, their autonomy was respected above that of women who were stripped of reproductive freedom within the exercise of maintaining white patriarchal dominance.3

Despite being commonly referred to as the greatest triumph of abortion rights, the rhetoric and productive outcomes of Roe v. Wade rely on harmful conceptions of responsibility and choice that preclude bodily autonomy. The prevalence of responsibility politics intertwined with legal conditions of reproductive justice emphasizes the severe extent to which biopower maintains white supremacy at the expense of women’s bodies. The ruling of Roe v. Wade in 1973 was meant to legalize abortion to women free of government intrusion in the first trimester of pregnancy. This opinion, passing 7-2 in court, was grounded in the constitutional right to privacy as encompassed by the word “liberty” in the 14th amendment.12 Despite representing a win for abortion activists, the centering of the question of the individual (privacy) versus the political (government) in the ruling prevented the potential for redefined understandings of womanhood and motherhood.5

The subsequent legislative and social discussion of choice had a similarly narrowing effect, from the standpoint of both those in favor and those against abortion rights. As Foucault explained with his concept of governmentality, choice creates conditions for governance. Without the option to abort, carrying a pregnancy to term was considered a consequence of fate.13 When legalized abortion introduced the element of choice, a woman’s decision regarding her pregnancy became subject to moral evaluation that assessed the extent to which she was choosing responsibly.5 Historical and contemporary exceptions to abortion bans for those pregnant as a result of rape or incest are particularly illustrative of the concept of reproductive responsibility, as these pregnancies can be said not to result from the failure to govern oneself adequately and abortion is therefore permissible. The emphasis on “choice” within legal discussions of abortion such as Roe v. Wade and subsequent limitations set forth by state legislatures were therefore reiterations of the harmful notion of reproductive choice being determined by the capacity for normative self-governance rather than true autonomy.


Together, the concurrent sterilization of poor Black women and restrictive legal framing of abortion throughout the late 1960s and 1970s emphasize the tendency to present reproductive choice as a question of responsibility and the capacity for self-governance. In both cases, law and policy regulate women’s individual bodies for the betterment of society according to white supremacist, patriarchal norms. Biopower’s reliance on processes of self-disciplining is clear here: women are encouraged to become “agents of their own subjection” by incorporating themselves in authority structures that undermine their bodily autonomy.14 In the case of coerced sterilization, Black women were given the quasi-choice of submitting to the physical control of their bodies through sterilization or participation in society through access to welfare. The fight for legal abortion, on the other hand, required submission to normative notions of choice and responsibility in order to secure any access to abortion at all. The notion of responsibility then introduced additional layers of moral underpinnings and legal restrictions of choice.

The resulting condition is one where self-governance only constitutes governance if it aligns with the racially charged ideals set forth by a government that capitalizes on white supremacist dominance. These ideals encompass both the unfitness of Black women by virtue of their Blackness, and the fitness of white, able-bodied women by virtue of their ability to advance whiteness. The consequences of inadequate self-governance by these standards are deeply physical, invasive, and rooted in mortality and life itself. The law and courts are responsible for setting these standards in response to shifting social understandings of race and gender, while also reinforcing the same hierarchies by legitimizing racist ideals and enforcing them in the medical system, among other institutions. In the 1960s and 70s, the double-edged sword of sterilization and abortion access maintained firm roots in eugenic thought that rendered the legal rhetoric of responsibility simply a vehicle for the advancement of white supremacist dominance. Through this legal mechanism, Black life was (and continues to be) devalued and bodily autonomy was (and continues to be) secondary to the maintenance of a prolific white ruling class.


Approximately 50 years later, as a growing number of states launch attacks on abortion rights and Black maternal mortality puts Black women of all backgrounds at risk, the conditions of white supremacist biopower remain salient. Black women of today are instructed to govern themselves in their “responsible” reproductive choices, but are not trusted to speak on their own pain and bodily conditions when in the presence of doctors. This contradiction, among many of the deeply violent conceptions of biological race that play a role in maternal mortality, follow similar patterns of credibility and autonomy. The conversation around maternal mortality, therefore, can be considered more widely within the context of how we conceive womanhood, Blackness, deviance, sexual morality, and the distinctly white supremacist methods through which government power determines the meaning of those concepts. As such, a movement toward reproductive autonomy must not only imagine reproductive justice beyond the narrow lens of “choice,” but must be committed to anti-racist restructuring of the very notion of motherhood and reproductive responsibility in the public health sphere.

While effective nationwide approaches remain to be developed, local organizations such as San Francisco’s Expecting Justice offer a glimpse of how public health entities can contribute to the anti-racist reframing of choice and identity in reproduction. Expecting Justice’s Abundant Birth Project is the nation’s first pregnancy income supplement aimed at Black and Pacific Islander birthing people. In choosing to create an income supplement free from the conditions and restrictions of most benefit programs, the program is combating the “mental model of Black mothers as lazy or irresponsible” that has been solidified by neo-eugenic practices.15 The Abundant Birth Project represents just one approach, but its commitment to directly subverting the destructive effects of racial biopolitics serves as a key example of the importance — and possibility — of using public health programs to combat these issues.


  1. Foucault, M., Senellart, M., Ewald, F., & Fontana, A. (2009). Security, territory, population: lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. New York, N.Y.: Picador/Palgrave Macmillan.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Denbow, Jennifer M. (2015) “Sterilization: Self-Governance and the Possibility of Transformation.” In Governed through Choice: Autonomy, Technology, and the Politics of Reproduction, 132-75. New York; London: NYU Press.
  4. Solinger, R. (2007). Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America. New York, NY: New York University Press.
  5. Denbow, J. M. (2015). “Abortion and the Juridical: Reproductive Autonomy and Protection from Injury.” In Governed through Choice: Autonomy, Technology, and the Politics of Reproduction, 61-96. New York; London: NYU Press.
  6. Hansen, R., & King, D.S. (2013). Sterilized by the State: Eugenics, Race, and the Population Scare in Twentieth-Century North America. Cambridge University Press.
  7. Kluchin, R.M. (2011). Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950 – 1980. New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press.
  8. Bruinius, H. (2007). Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.
  9. Buck v. Bell. (1927). 274 U.S. 200.
  10. Flavin, J. (2009). Our Bodies, Our Crimes: The Policing of Women’s Reproduction in America. Alternative Criminology Series. New York: New York University Press.
  11. Foucault, M. (1990). The History of Sexuality. Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.
  12. Roe v. Wade. (1973). 410 U.S. 413.
  13. Li, T.M. (2007) “Governmentality.” Anthropologica,49(2), 275-81.
  14. O’Grady, H. (2004). “An ethics of the self.” In Feminism and the Final Foucault, D. Taylor and K. Vintages, 91-117. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  15. Expecting Justice. (2020). The Abundant Birth Project: General Grant Report 2020.