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Those Billboards in Atlanta: On Black Women and Abortion

February 14, 2010

Renee wrote a post asking why the feminist blogosphere reacted so strongly to the Tebow ad, but has not been so vocal about an anti-abortion campaign in Atlanta that is “targeting Black women by putting up billboards stating that Black children are an endangered species.” I linked to it in a weekly round-up post, and started drafting something on the topic, wanting to take the time to get it right. A reader also emailed me about why I specifically haven’t written about it, so here goes.

This is not a new argument; I’ve seen plenty of “Black genocide” pieces attached to an anti-abortion agenda. It’s usually proffered by white/conservative/anti-abortion folks who aren’t really making an argument that Black women and babies need help so much as they are looking for new and catchy ways to convince people that Abortion is a Very Bad Thing We Must Restrict.

But isn’t something wrong if black women are having, proportionally, more abortions than white women? I tend to think that however many abortions Black women, or any women, have is exactly the right number of abortions for them at the time (given that I’m pro-choice and don’t think a “zero abortions” goal is at all realistic). I don’t doubt that there are systemic reasons why Black women might be more likely to choose abortion than other women – but those systemic inequalities are the problem in my mind, not the individual choices Black women make in their own individual situations. And those inequalities are a problem in their own right, not because of whatever influence they might have on the abortion debate.

In the meantime, though, it’s not my job or anybody else’s job to tell individual or all Black women whether they can have a safe, legal abortion. Saying otherwise would be no different, I think, from other tactics I oppose – forced ultrasound or incorrect forced “informed consent” scripts that just assume women haven’t thought through what they’re doing or aren’t smart enough to understand. It would get into saying that abortions need to be restricted for some women because they’re having “too many,” and suggest that Black women themselves are not the best judge of whether they’re actually contributing to some form of “genocide” of their own babies. Because, really? – Black children are an “endangered species” (assuming you buy that premise, and ignore the highly problematic “species” language) and Black women choosing abortion don’t know or care? How obnoxious and insulting.

There is also the argument out there that Planned Parenthood is located in “Black” neighborhoods, so they must be deliberately targeting Black babies for abortion. I have never been in on the meetings in which Planned Parenthood decides where to put a new clinic, but I’m guessing that they target lower income neighborhoods, which anti-abortion folks are translating to “Black neighborhoods.” Again, we return to the problem of systemic issues rather than individual issues, but I suppose it’s easier to accuse a provider of low cost health services of attempting genocide and to accuse Black women of individually having too many abortions than it is to look at reasons why Black and low income might overlap in this country and work to resolve those inequalities.

The same people will throw out the “but Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist” argument, which I think a commenter on Renee’s post responded to aptly: “Thomas Jefferson and many of the other signers of the U.S. Constitution owned slaves and didn’t believe that Black people were intelligent beings — should we Americans scrap the current Constitution and jot up another one, then?”

And that is not to ignore the long history of reproductive and other bodily abuse visited upon Black women in America. One reason it took me so long to write this post was just the thinking over of “wait, is there something abortion providers are doing to specifically target Black women and limit their reproductive freedom that I might be missing somehow?” I think, though, that Maame-Mensima Horne got this bit just right in her recent essay:

Black anti-abortionists are not concerned about women having autonomy over their bodies or mobilizing against reproductive oppressions. Instead, they continue paternalistic beliefs that place woman’s role as “mother” higher than anything else. “Mother” is one of many roles that women may choose, but it is not our defining role. We, the women, should decide how, when, and if we mother.

And you know what? I have to admit to being part of the “lack of response” problem. If some anti-abortion group put up billboards in Nashville, TN saying “1/4 Korean White women are destroying their people,” would it have taken me more than week to write a post about it? Hell no. I was hesitant to wade in because I wanted to make sure to “get it right,” to say why I think those “Black genocide” arguments are illogical garbage while making sure I wouldn’t mess it up in some unexpected way that would make me seem racist. But standing up for all women’s reproductive rights without worrying about how *I* might look in the process is the right thing to do, and something I should be quicker about.

Added: Pam Merritt at RHRC on Women of Color and the Anti-Choice Focus on Eugenics

13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 14, 2010 12:08 pm

    First, let me say thank you for taking the time to write about this. It was largely ignored and many of those that did cover it gave it the quick hit treatment. The comments on this were extremely sparse leading me to once again affirm my belief that women’s activism continues to be something run by White women for the benefit of White women. The one point that I tried to make clear in my post, is that these pro birth people do not just seek the end of choice for Black women, ultimately they want all women to lose the right to chose.

    This is probably not the best time for me to comment because truthfully, I am still very angry at the response to this and other such attacks on Black women’s reproduction. Abortion is a WOMANS ISSUE and until we realize this, the right will continue to make gains in eroding a woman’s right to chose.

    Honestly most social justice Black women that I know expect White women to make mistakes when they enter into a subject as touchy as this but the effort counts for something and most would be more than willing to grant some leeway for any mistakes made but the silence is unbearable. As much as I appreciate this effort, I would encourage you next time to please throw caution to the wind and make this sort of attack a priority. We can never have a womans movement until we defend each other without reservation.

    • February 14, 2010 12:21 pm

      Thank you, Renee – I really appreciate your taking the time to read this and comment. Your post had a big effect on me, so I want to thank you again for writing it.

  2. MomTFH permalink
    February 14, 2010 12:17 pm

    Thanks for this post, and thanks Renee for bringing attention to the issue originally.

    I hate to see what I consider manipulation of the black community over the abortion issue. I am speaking as an ally, not as a member of the community. But, unplanned pregnancy, lack of contraception access and information, the stigma of contraception use, misinformation about emergency contraception, the stigma of single pregnancy, the stigma of getting on public aid, the lack of affordable and available health care, the lack of affordable and available day care, the recession, etc. etc. etc. affects all women, and yes, disproportionally affects women of color. This would all put pressure on to drive the abortion rate up.

    So, combine this with the already higher birth rate among many groups of women of color, they get the added burden of being extra scrutinized in reproductive conversations.

  3. eugeniadealtura permalink
    February 14, 2010 3:09 pm

    Thank you for this interesting post… I want to second some of your other commentators by saying that, if black women in the U.S. are having more abortions than white women, it is undoubtedly because these women tend to be lower-income than white women, and thus have less access to birth control info & services, etc.

    But in addition to this, there is historical precedent for some individuals and governments to want to control the reproduction of black women–and, of a variety of ethnicities of low-income women of color (my own work, for example, focuses in part on indigenous Bolivian women’s efforts to control their own reproduction, and the challenges they face in doing so). I would encourage anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the eugenicist sterilization of young black women in the U.S. to read Johanna Schoen’s fascinating and disturbing book, Choice and Coercion. It may surprise and horrify you. And what is going on in Atlanta is just more of the same.

  4. February 15, 2010 11:58 am

    At this moment in Portland, Oregon, the lead story (online) in the city’s newspaper is the opening of a new Planned Parenthood clinic in a predominantly black and low-income neighborhood.

    New here, I was startled to hear the “black genocide” accusation, in this whitest of American cities. Memories of Baltimore in the 1960s came to mind. At the historically black college, Morgan State, black male students encouraged by black clergy and the Catholic church initiated an effort to close the Planned Parenthood clinic on campus. To my knowledge black women have never been in the vanguard of these movements.

    In the 21st century, many of us await comparable organized efforts by the black church–in particular–about the rising rate of HIV/AIDS among both women and men of color. Yes, the motives of white women like myself in raising these issues can always be questioned. Old feminists are accustomed to that!

    I applaud Rachel’s effort here and hope for a revitalized, inclusive women’s movement with a focus on violence by men against women by individuals and institutions.

  5. June 12, 2010 12:13 am

    Rachel, I have seen you ask for proof of some of the claims that pro-lifers make, yet you offer no proof that children don’t feel when they are being aborted.

    You refer to a “woman’s choice”, but don’t even pause to acknowledge that there is an additional life involved in that decision. “it’s not my job or anybody else’s job to tell individual or all Black women whether they can have a safe, legal abortion” Who is speaking for the child being killed?

    Oh yes, until the child is out of the womb, or is it “kicking in the womb”, or is it “has human features” or perhaps “has a beating heart”, some would say that child isn’t a life…

    If that’s the view, I can see how easy it is to just consider it a “woman’s choice”. Perhaps the real choice that should be considered is the intercourse in the first place…

    • June 13, 2010 2:14 pm

      “yet you offer no proof that children don’t feel when they are being aborted.” – I don’t have to, because I didn’t make a claim about this. Fetal pain is an issue that has been brought up to try to restrict abortion prior to viability, such as in Nebraska where the attempt was to restrict abortion after 20 weeks on an assumption that fetuses feel pain at that point. Medical reviews of the issue have suggested that the point of pain perception is likely more around 29-30 weeks, into the third trimester when access to abortion is already more limited. There’s plenty to read on the topic, but again, I didn’t make a claim to defend.

      “You refer to a ‘woman’s choice’, but don’t even pause to acknowledge that there is an additional life involved in that decision.”- Of course I do. If there weren’t “another life” involved, nobody would need an abortion – that’s the whole point. Do you really think that statement is likely to make people decide, “Oh, I never realized there was another life involved, now I’m anti-abortion.” Because people do realize, they’ve just come to a different conclusion about the relative weight of the rights of that life compared to the rights of the woman.

    • Jeppedy permalink
      June 13, 2010 11:23 pm

      Rachel, I can’t believe you are correct that women consider the “other life” involved. If I didn’t assume they considered it a life and yet “made other decisions”, it would mean women were freely having sex, creating life without concern, then killing the “other life” in the name of “choice”. And thinking people are killing babies as a form of “family planning” is too depressing and appaling to take in.
      You can cite all the studies you want; your last post clearly expressed your views on this.

      How sad…

  6. Jeppedy permalink
    June 13, 2010 11:27 pm

    Interesting point of view…

    I guess when gangs shoot people or spouses kill or abuse their mates, they too have just reached different opinions on the value of that life compared to their own…

    How do you manage to draw such a clear-cut line between the different situations?

    • June 14, 2010 9:39 am

      I have plenty of archives here that address both comments above if you’d like to poke around – I’d look for posts tagged or categorized as abortion and especially those on Blog for Choice day if you’re really interested in my views and how I justify them. In short, I think the ethical conflict when one life resides inside another is a special kind of conflict to which analogies of abusers or toddlers or murderers don’t apply, and that women make choices to have abortions based on their own situations and ethics and values about that conflict. I believe that if course women recognize the “other life.” How could they not? The whole point of an abortion is to stop being pregnant and avoid carrying around and producing another life. To think that women don’t know the deal, that they think they’re just getting their fingernails clipped or hair cut, is pretty insulting to women’s intelligence overall. Seriously, though, I appreciate that your posts aren’t mean rants, so do feel free to poke around the archives – any question you could ask me has probably been answered multiple times.


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