Today reproductive bodies must navigate an increasingly hostile socio-political terrain. From the potential diminishment of reproductive rights as the Supreme Court can now “dramatically accelerate the push to restrict abortion access, no matter what happens to Roe v. Wade”1 to a recent ACLU report2 that found “forced sterilization procedures on immigrant women” at an ICE detention center, equitable access and protections for reproductive health no longer are guaranteed.
Racial biases further inflame the hostility towards reproductive care. The US has a long and sordid history of sterilization and eugenics practices used against BIPOC persons to maintain white supremacy and white reproductive power. In a recent interview on PBS3, Gloria Steinem reminds us that, fundamentally, trends like these reveal that the “major motive to maintain control of reproduction, which means women’s bodies, is to continue racism.” These socio-political trends in the United States around reproductive justice, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and racial unrest, underscore why this exhibit comes at a critical moment.
“Mapping Reproductive (In)Justice” is one part of a story that is focused on Milwaukee, a place with its own hostile terrains impacting reproductive justice. It’s a city where Black infants are three times more likely to die before their first birthday than white infants4. It’s a city where pregnant persons face a strong likelihood they will be screened for drug use and prosecuted for “unborn child abuse” under Wisconsin Act 292. It’s a city where children are raised in zip codes whereby their safety, health, and available resources are often racially determined, and where the intersections between community wealth, safety, and resources have a direct relationship with a person’s reproductive health.
This exhibit calls viewers to question the multiple, often unheard and unseen factors situating Milwaukee as a hostile terrain for reproductive justice. As feminist rhetoricians and curators of this exhibit, we present this narrative by drawing on the activist work of SisterSong, a national organization leader in reproductive justice, to visualize the “intersecting oppressions” and “power systems” perpetuating reproductive injustice in our city. To take such an approach requires that we acknowledge our embodied positionality in relationship to this topic. This meanswe want to make transparent that—as cis, white, women—our orientation to this thematic focus is one by which we occupy a space of privilege. We cannot represent nor adequately account for the lived, reproductive experiences of BIPOC persons in this city. Yet, as women native to Wisconsin and living in Milwaukee, we have witnessed how racial disparities in our city continue to impact the reproductive well-being of many Milwaukeeans. This exhibit aims to tell the story of the systemic intersections perpetuating reproductive injustice in our city and the many organizations actively, yet often invisibility, intervening in this narrative.
The use of maps allowed us to visually represent how these systemic issues are concentrated in specific areas, which are all intrinsically linked to reproductive justice. While the whole story cannot be told simply with statistics and zip codes and maps themselves can be incomplete or inaccurate due to a variety of reasons, noticing patterns can help viewers understand how these interrelated issues come together to produce these results. Other contributing factors that are not represented on the maps include stress levels, which are directly linked to infant deaths5, incorrect medical beliefs about people of color (for example, that they have thicker skin or fewer nerve endings than white patients6), and environmental factors, including political and medical infrastructures. Embroidered pieces frame the digital maps and anchor the exhibit around the three tenets of reproductive justice as defined by SisterSong: the right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, the right to have children or not have children, and the right to parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.
Historically, embroidery has been negatively associated as trivially feminine busywork. Today, embroidery has seen a resurgence tied to feminist action. As a crafting practice, embroidery is a conduit for meditation and can result in subversive pieces resisting white, heteronormative, patriarchal systems that harm us all. While the digital maps tell the larger story of Milwaukee’s hostile relationship on reproductive bodies, the embroidered pieces signify the action of many community leaders and organizations often doing invisible grassroots work to counter the city’s reproductive injustices.
The Hostile Terrains exhibition at UWM explores the ways in which space, policy, and power emerge in and around Milwaukee by drawing attention to the issues of social justice embedded in the material culture and physical environment of our own communities. As part of this larger exhibition, our project aims to shed light on Milwaukee’s multiple reproductive health crises, which disproportionately impact communities of color, and situate Milwaukee as a hostile terrain for those in need of reproductive healthcare services. Given these challenging realities, we hope to assemble a participatory and community-driven exhibition by creating a space for the otherwise invisible, and often silenced, voices in our community to be heard.
For more information, please download our exhibit brochure.
1. Ollstein, A. (2020, September 19). How the Supreme Court could now limit abortion rights. Politico. Retrieved from https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/19/How-the-supreme-court-could-now-limit-abortion-rights-418466
2. Manian, M. (2020, September 29). Immigration Detention and Coerced Sterilization: History Tragically Repeats Itself. ACLU. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/news/immigrants-rights/immigration-detention-and-coerced-sterilization-history-tragically-repeats-itself/
3. Amanpour, Christiane. (2020, October 1). Amanpour & Co. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wnet/amanpour-and-company/video/gloria-steinem-and-julie-taymor-glorias-4ezjzt-2/
4. IMR Data Brief. (2018). City of Milwaukee 2015-2017 Infant Mortality Rate (IMR): Data Brief https://city.milwaukee.gov/ImageLibrary/Groups/healthAuthors/ADMIN/PDFs/Reports/IMRDataBrief2015-2017.pdf
5. National Institute for Children’s Health Quality (n.d.). Managing life stressors helps to reduce infant mortality. Retrieved from https://www.nichq.org/insight/managing-life-stressors-helps-reduce-infant-mortality
6. Sabin, J.A. (2020) How we fail black patients in pain. Retrieved from https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/how-we-fail-black-patients-pain