Eugenics and Reproductive Violence

Tala Khanmalek’s article in the Feminist Wire, “Slavery: The Haunting Legacy of Sterilization Abuse in California State Prisons,” begins by reporting that between 2006 and 2010 around 150 women were sterilized in California prisons without their consent. Khanmalek cites this statistic from an article in the Huffington post by Alex Stem (“Sterilization Abuse in State Prisons: Time to Break with California’s Long Eugenic Patterns”) which focuses on the general context of such eugenic programs and makes the claim: “What current and past [eugenic] practices share is the assumption that some women by virtue of their class position, sexual behavior, or ethnic identity are socially unfit to reproduce and parent.” Khanmalek has a slightly different central argument and instead of framing the incident in California in the general context of eugenics she frames it within a history of, “state-sanctioned reproductive regulation targeting women of color.” I think this framework is particularly useful in developing our understanding of Butler as it allows us to link a few instances of violence that I at least found very troubling, which provides a new way to understand them.

Khanmalek draws on some other specific instances of the violence, particularly against Black women, in order to demonstrate the systematic way that the reproductive capacity of these women has been treated as fungible. She discusses the “Father of Gynecology,” J. Marion Sims (1813-1884), who, “conducted nonconsensual medical experiments on enslaved Black women,” purportedly for the sake of medical research—research which was, if anything, aimed to help White women. Khanmalek also explains, “slave owners contracted physicians like Sims to increase the birthrate of enslaved Black women using pseudoscientific methods that perpetuated sexual violence”—this increased birthrate would then provide them with more slaves since the children of enslaved women were also considered slaves.

Doro’s selective breeding program certainly seems to be a kind of eugenics. He chooses who to have ‘mate’ and is driven by the end goal of creating a new race. He even uses the same language of slavery as Sims when he talks about Nweke/Ruth in Wild Seed: “This daughter had been his from the moment of her conception—his property as surely as though his brand were burned into her flesh” (Wild Seed, 138). Butler complicates our reaction to Doro’s program though by making it clear that it isn’t a unique violation. In fact, very early on Ananywu admits that she is used to a certain kind of eugenics, she says: “Children with ‘forbidden’ things wrong with them—twins for instance, and children born feet first, children with almost any deformity, children born with teeth—these children were thrown away” and this action is linked with Doro in some ways saving these rejected children: “Doro had gotten some of his best stock from earlier cultures who, for one reason or another, put infants out to die” (Wild Seed, 27). So Butler demonstrates multiple systems engaging in really similar actions but merely valuing opposing traits—she thus shows the pervasiveness of violence done to anyone outside of societal ideals, even when the ideals themselves change.

We are reminded that even while we may be tempted to see Doro’s behavior as shocking and unique it is actually the case that over and over again in human history this kind of racism and ableism has persisted. Infanticide, specifically, is mentioned again in Clay’s Ark when Eli, “began wondering if it were not a cruelty to leave such a hopeless child alive” in reaction to Jacob being born with so many differences from a ‘normal’ child (including having teeth—one of the things mentioned by Anyanwu as reason to throw out a child so many years earlier in a completely different culture) (Clay’s Ark, 595). Patternmaster also mentions this kind of eugenics, in a disturbing passage: “There was a certain Patternist woman who had made an art form of controlling and changing the development of unborn mute children. Already she created several misshapen monstrosities that had to be destroyed. […] infants and even older children, Patternist or mute, were considered expendable. Those who were defective in some irreparable way were routinely destroyed” (Patternmaster, 673). Here bodies are being manipulated along with the treatment of children—and women’s reproductive capacity—as fungible to justify the violence done to them.

Many of the examples of eugenics in Butler’s work, and the reproductive violence inherent there, center on violence done to women who are forced into situations where they are incapable of giving consent. In Clay’s Ark Rane is disgusted by the Clayark children but is told, “Our kids look like that […] You may as well get used to it because yours are going to look like that too” (Clay’s Ark, 520). She is not in control of her reproduction, rather she has been infected and the organisms inside her will compel her to have children, even though she cannot fathom them. In the same vein Eli explains, “We had a woman who had had herself sterilized before we got her—had her tubes cauterized. Her organisms communicated with Meda’s and her tubes opened up. She’s pregnant now” (Clay’s Ark, 619). This women had clearly made the choice not to have children but control over her own body was taken away and she became pregnant. These moments remind me strongly of Sim’s work in increasing the birth rate among slaves and I think that using the lens of Khanmalek’s article we can see how such passages are related to the instances of infanticide and Doro’s selective breeding: they are all instances of systematic violence done to women’s reproductive capacity, and are far more pervasive than we might initially realize.

There is one scene of note in which a woman is able to control her reproduction, but I think it really serves to highlight the true impossibility of such a task for any of the other female characters. In Wild Seed we learn of Anyanwu’s control over her body and at one point, “Within her body, she killed his [Doro’s] seed. She disconnected the two small tubes through which her own seed traveled to her womb […] now she did it to avoid giving any children at all, to avoid being used” (Wild Seed, 114). If we look at this scene through the lens that we have been using, it really seems to demonstrate how little a woman without Anyanwu’s clearly super-human abilities (abilities far above most of Doro’s people as well) would be able to do in the type of such a coercive situation—which is by no means unique to Anyanwu’s experience. I cannot help but see this moment as directly in conversation with the kind of rhetoric underlying Representative Todd Akin’s quote about abortions of pregnancies stemming from rape (“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”). After all, he’s essentially suggesting the exact action that Anyanwu takes in this passage, which Butler shows us can only be done by a god-like immortal (who eventually does have children through Doro’s coercion as well). This connection further makes me realize how much Butler’s work can be brought to bear on discussions about rape, contraception, and abortions that are going on today—and in turn this makes me realize again the pervasiveness of the violence against women’s reproduction that Butler presents.

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