Dána-Ain Davis’s Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth (NYU Press, 2019) is a vividly written ethnography highlighting how medical racism shapes birth outcomes for Black women in America. Under the sign of maternal health risk and prematurity, Davis argues, the American medical system forces Black women to participate in a limited array of interventions informed by theories of wellness that ignore racism as the primary factor in birthing premature and low birth weight infants. Aware of the medical system’s limitations, the women in Davis’s study describe the conditions under which they want to experience pregnancy, birth, and early post-natal life instead. Davis incorporates their stories with the perspectives of medical providers who refuse to discuss or theorize racism and race, and with the work of activists who adopt radical strategies for supporting birthing Black women and their babies beyond the medico-industrial complex. Grounded in histories of Black maternal health and infant wellness, Davis’s analysis describes how Black maternity is haunted by the afterlife of slavery. This haunting is not figurative or metaphoric; rather, it manifests in the refusal to name medical racism as a threat to Black life and a cause of Black death. Sensitive, rich, and detailed, Davis’s work is fertile ground from which to think about reproductive health and reproductive justice more broadly.
This forum includes pieces from Sameena Mulla, Rayna Rapp, James Doucet-Battle, and Annie Menzel, and ends with a response from Dána-Ain Davis. Mulla reflects on how Davis asks what Black maternal health might look like when Black lives are centered, highlighting how Davis details the violence of reproductive medicine through denial and withdrawal of care in Reproductive Injustice. In her consideration of Davis’s work, Rapp argues that Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) are a form of reproductive technology that reproduces social, moral and racial orders to devastating effect. Doucet-Battle’s contribution picks up on these devastating effects and demonstrates how reproductive medicine is embedded in a dialogic field of asymmetric power. This field, Doucet-Battle shows, is shaped by the afterlife of slavery, and even more specifically, by the practices of racial segregation and domination associated with Jim Crow. The fourth reflection, by Menzel, focuses on the role of reproductive mastery as a contemporary form of racial domination. She explores how notions of obstetric “hardiness” threaten the lives of Black infants and mothers in reproductive health practices. Finally, Davis herself responds to each author, and outlines the ways in which she wrote Reproductive Injustice as a form of disruption. We invite you to this forum engaging Davis’s important work rethinking reproductive health and reproductive justice.
Race, Gender, and the Biopolitics of Birth, Care, and Neglect
University of California, Santa Cruz