Abort Racism: The Racial Implications of Reproductive Justice

life always

In 2001, during Black History month, a Texas-based nonprofit corporation called Life Always placed an anti-abortion billboard in SoHo, New York City. Then, in March of the same year, Life Always placed another billboard in the Eaglewood Neighborhood of Chicago, planning on funding 30 more billboards in the Chicago area. [1] One of the billboards was an image of a young African American girl alongside text that read, “the most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” Another one had a picture of President Obama and said, “Every 21 minutes our next possible leader is aborted.” [2] The billboards, which advertise “thatsabortion.com,” have resulted in extreme controversy. Those opposed to the billboards have argued that they invoke a racist rhetoric to demonizes the Black woman’s body [3] while using a coercive strategy to limit Black women’s reproductive choices.

In an attempt to understand Life Always’ strategic choice to target the African American community, one can turn to the eugenics movement of the mid-twentieth century in which the United States government defined African Americans as “unfit” to reproduce and practiced forced sterilization on African American women. [4] These actions contributed to a well-founded fear in African American communities about losing the right to reproduce. The billboards, playing on the vulnerability of the Black community, use a vocabulary that reinforces the idea that the Black woman is incapable of making her own decisions. Despite this, Black women and reproductive justice organizations have challenged the use of race in the pro-life campaign. This resistance is in line with a long historical resistance from African American women seeking to maintain agency over their bodies and lives.

Life Always, the corporation that placed billboards in New York and Chicago, tries to define abortion as evil and dangerous through their extensive advertising campaigns. [5] On the homepage of the corporation’s website, it states, “there is a battle being waged in the United States that has taken more lives than any foreign war or act of terrorism. The enemy is abortion.” [6] Visitors on the website will find minimal information on the corporation and how it is funded; those who donate are given the opportunity to join Life Always in “exposing the truth.”[8] Donations are doubled by an unnamed “friend of Life Always.” [9] The only people listed on the website are the board of directors including Abby Johnson, a former director of Planned Parenthood who has joined the pro-life movement,[10] and Reverend Stephen Broden, an African American FOX news commentator and pro-life activist.

While Life Always opposes abortion in general, its billboard campaigns seek to highlight their belief that abortion is especially pernicious to the African American community. The Chicago Tribune reported that when a Life Always minister came to Chicago in 2011 to launch the anti-abortion billboards, he stated that “black women account for about 36 percent of the country’s reported abortions, even though blacks are less than 13 percent of the population.”[11] A clip titled “PP aborts AA”—Planned Parenthood abortions African Americans—on the Life Always website says, “abortions among African American women are 3 times that of the rest of the population which means over 25 percent of the next generation is being wiped out as we speak,”[12] creating a campaign founded on the ‘loss’ of the African American population. The website links to “post-abortive healing ministries” and “pregnancy resource centers.”[13] It is important to note that Life Always’s billboard campaign erupted alongside The Radiance Foundation’s[14] billboard campaign) that placed 65 similar billboards in Atlanta with statements such as, “Black children are an endangered species” and “Black and Unwanted.”  It also placed sixty billboards in predominantly African American communities in Oakland California in June 201. [15] Life Always is not an outlier; it is part of a national trend.

The rising number of anti-abortion billboards has resulted in great controversy and protests by pro-choice activists. The SoHo billboard was taken down after just one day due to protests,[18] while in Chicago some citizens who wished to remain anonymous covered billboards with banners.[19] One protest banner said “In 21 minutes this sign should be gone” while another read “Abort Racism.”[20]. Those in opposition to the billboards argue that Life Always uses statistics that show higher rates of abortion in African American communities without accounting for the structural socio-economic conditions of these communities: they ignore the “greater incidence of unwanted pregnancies, resulting from economic inequality and poor access to contraception and education.”[22] Indeed, on their website, Life Always only discusses racism against unborn fetuses and never mentions existing racism against black children and their families. Jasmine Burnett, lead organizer for Sister Song, the Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, and Trust Black Women, a national coalition of black women’s rights organizations, said, “those other pro-life groups ought to change their name because as soon as a black child is born, they stop caring about the life of the child.”[23] Burnett believes that organizations like Life Always do not care about black children once they are born, using race as a tactic only to dissuade women from having abortions. Courtland Milloy, editorial writer at The Washington Post  articulated how abortion rights are complicated by race. He wrote

“…race still matters. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized abortion. But, as the billboard campaign reminds us, the conservative effort now underway to overturn the court’s decision is not just being waged on women’s reproductive rights, but on the black woman as a person.”[24]

Milloy went on to link the description of the black woman in the ads to that of the “black welfare queen,” an image proliferated during the Ronald Reagan administration to target this same community.[25]

Others opposed to the billboard campaigns critiqued the rhetoric for its degradation of black women’s sense of self, silencing discussions on black reproduction. In the Chicago Tribune, lawyer Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body, reminded readers that the billboard “was reminiscent of the eugenics movement, which deemed black women as sexually irresponsible and incapable of making good reproductive decisions. […] The thinking was they shouldn’t be allowed to control their own bodies.” [26] She noted that the billboards make it difficult to discuss methods of prevention for unintended pregnancies. According to Roberts, the images that the billboards evoke are pervasive, limiting the discussion through rhetoric that casts black women as “inherently promiscuous.” In the same article, she asserts that the “ads stigmatize African-American women and restrict their ability to make personal medical decisions.”[27]

While newspapers responded to this controversy, the most extensive conversation has existed within reproductive justice organizations founded by coalitions of women of color and not within mainstream pro-choice organizations such as Planned Parenthood. Courtland Milloy’s 2011 Washington Post editorial states, “because the attack on the black woman’s body is so pervasive and, historically, so persistent, black women are expanding the womb-centered debate over abortion and birth control to one of ‘reproductive justice.”[28] The reproductive justice stance recognizes a pro-choice and pro-life outlook “but with a twist that distinguishes them from […] the anti-abortion group that’s putting up those billboards.”[29] Milloy explains the way race is central to the abortion debate, making a distinction between mainstream pro-choice organizations and reproductive justice organizations. Unlike other organizations, reproductive justice organizations work to create a movement that specifically recognizes the attack on black women’s bodies. An article produced by SisterSong stated that “inadequate outreach by pro-choice groups to women of color, and insufficiently direct attempts to address the complicated history of Sanger and eugenics, has left a door open for prolife organizations to come in and say, ‘they don’t care about you, but we do.’”[30] The mainstream movements have over-simplified the complicated nature of abortion in African American communities by refusing to acknowledge and challenge a complex history of government supported eugenics programs. This allows pro-life organizations, such as Life Always, to gain support in mainstream debates.

The mainstream debates skim over a history in which the United States government manipulated and exploited black women’s reproductive choices. In order to understand the pro-life rhetoric strategy, it is necessary to examine the way the formal eugenics movement was popularized and supported by the United States government from 1920 until the end of the baby boom.[31] It was during the eugenics movement that underprivileged women were targeted and viewed as less fit to be mothers, a stigma that later became attached to black women. Many black women, as a result, were forcibly sterilized in several states including Oregon, Montana, Delaware and Michigan in 1927.[32] In a 1927 case, Supreme Court Justice Holmes said, “It is better for all of 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.” [36] This sentiment was transferred to African Americans: as more African Americans were forcibly sterilized, the term “manifestly unfit” became increasingly racialized and inherently sexist.

Rebecca Kluchin refers to eugenics after the baby boom as “neo-eugenics,” describing a new eugenics movement evolving from a fear about the demands made by black people for racial equality. [37] As neo-eugenics became more popular after World War II, more black women were sterilized. In fact, “in 1965, 14 percent of Black women had undergone sterilization as opposed to only 6 percent of white women.”[38] As evidenced by this statistic, sterilization was disproportionately tied to the control of women of color. In Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement, Jennifer Nelson discusses the punitive sterilization laws proposed in many states in order to reduce the number of poor and illegitimate children. She detailed the 1971 proposal from a Republican legislator in South Carolina “for a bill that would force a woman on welfare with more than two children to give up her entitlement or submit to sterilization.”[39] Sterilization campaigns were specifically designed to take decision-making away from black women and place the power over these women’s bodies in the hands of government officials.

While the billboards respond to a history of forced sterilization, they also respond to Planned Parenthood’s frequently overlooked connections to racist policies around reproduction and birth control. In Killing the Black Body, Roberts examines the way birth control became more nationally accepted because it was introduced as a tool of eugenics and population control. [41] The American Birth Control League—which became Planned Parenthood in 1942—championed the eugenics policy to promote birth control among the “socially unfit.” [43] Planned Parenthood began to use the Federal Organization of Economic Opportunity (OEO) funds for domestic welfare programs concerning fertility in 1964. In 1967, The Social Security Act stipulated that no less than six percent of funds for maternal and child-health services would be spent on family planning: enforced population control was on the national agenda. The current rhetoric of Life Always recalls when Margaret Sanger (founder of ABCL) argued for female liberty and choice and for a eugenics platform to reproduce only “fit” races. [45] Thus, when Life Always discusses Planned Parenthood as contributing to genocide, it draws on a history in which Planned Parenthood had a deep involvement with the eugenics movement and family planning policies.

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Margaret Sanger

While family planning existed first within the top-down structure of government-enforced sterilization programs, it also became a contentious issue within African American communities. In the late 1960s the Black Panther Party opposed the use of birth control and abortion because they saw it as “a genocidal plot to reduce the black population.”[46] The billboards, in discussing the loss of the black race, articulate a rhetoric that existed both outside of the black community but also within the Black Nationalist Movement. It must be noted that these politics were challenged as early as 1970 when black feminists sought to reshape the dialogue among Black nationalists and Black freedom fighters.[47] As black female activist Toni Cade Bambara argued,

“It is a noble thing, the rearing of warriors for the revolution. I find no fault with that idea. I do, however, find fault with the notion that dumping the pill is the way to do it. …You prepare yourself by being in control of yourself. The pill gives the woman, as well as the man, some control. Simple as that.”[48]

The anti-abortion billboards only respond to one part of the conversation about abortion. They do not acknowledge the way that black women have shifted and expanded the dialogue around reproductive choices. In this way, the billboards exploit and flatten a history by refusing to recognize how black women have worked to both respond to an exploitative history and build a reproductive justice movement for the future. Of course it must be noted that the anti-abortion campaigns are not intending to represent a complex and nuanced history: instead they are seeking to draw on the most alarming trends in history in order to gain supporters

While the billboards respond to a history of the exploitation of Black women’s bodies, they also use a similar rhetoric to that of eugenicists who blame the vulnerable woman for being unable to care for herself or her children. The billboards, in claiming to protect the black body and the future of the black race, use a rhetoric which views black women as incapable of making choices about their bodies and lives. It is this vocabulary that once again places Black women at the margin of decision-making.

Moreover, this vocabulary ignores the fact that black women have always organized to maintain control over their bodies and their lives. This dates back to slavery when black women resisted rape and childbearing that would produce more slaves and developed underground methods of birth control and pregnancy termination.[50] In response to the billboards, reproductive justice organizations like Sister Song have critiqued “anti-abortion groups who are selectively co-opting civil rights rhetoric to present abortion and even contraception as eugenicist plots.”[51] In calling for a movement that recognizes a history of subjugation of black women and their bodies, black women’s organizations have challenged a manipulative argument to demand reproductive justice.

– Jesse McGleughlin, Contributor

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