It’s Women’s History Month! Each Wednesday this March, we are honoring remarkable women throughout history who made their mark in the healthcare field and beyond by highlighting their accomplishments and their stories.
Dorothy Roberts was born in Chicago, Illinois. In 1977, she graduated with her B.A. at Yale and in 1980 with her J.D. from Harvard. Roberts served as a law clerk for Hon. Constance Baker Motley in the US District Court for the South District of NY, the first black woman to serve as a federal judge. After passing the NY Bar in 1981, she worked as an associate in a law firm until 1988. From there, she held various positions as law professor at Rutgers, University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern, Stanford, and Fordham.
She began writing about the intersection of race and health after two instances. First, the1987 national case of Angela Carder, a working class white woman from Maryland who, at 26 weeks pregnant, was intubated and sedated in the hospital. The hospital took Carder to court to have emergency permission to perform a c-section against Carder’s wishes to save the life of the fetus. The hospital won – the baby lived less than two hours and Carder died two days later. In this case, Carder had lost the right to her bodily autonomy because she was pregnant.
Second, Roberts wrote about the way that pregnant women, particularly pregnant black women, were being criminalized for drug use. During this time, the ACLU had been tracking all the cases of pregnant women being prosecuted for drug use, but not their race. When Roberts called all the defense lawyers in this list of cases, she learned that 80% of these women were Black.
In 1997, she published her first book, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, which details the history of reproductive oppression on black women, from the time of slavery to that of forced sterilization during the 19th and 20th centuries. This book electrified organizers and legal scholars who now had a historical, social, and economic context for what they were living and seeing.
Throughout Roberts’ career, she has written and lectured extensively on the interplay of race, gender, and class inequities in US institutions and has been a leader in transforming thinking on reproductive justice, child welfare, and bioethics. The throughline is that, to overcome injustice, we must ask ourselves what needs to change and what we need to rebuild to have true freedom, not just for some, but for all.