FEATUREMarch 7, 2016
Last fall, a non-profit with the mission to serve and empower women of color in urban neighborhoods held a large picnic in my mid-sized Michigan community. The event, geared mostly toward low-income families, is offered each year just prior to the start of the school year. It offers a family-reunion-style atmosphere with food, activities, and entertainment, with the purpose of connecting people to needed resources—like providers of health care, education, and various social services. It was a day-long event that brought in thousands of attendees.
Traveling through this throng of attendees was a white woman in a red shirt. She was passing out the anti-abortion movie Black Genocide, produced by Life Dynamics, an anti-choice organization that touts itself as the best-known source for undercover stings on abortion providers. Black Genocide claims to expose “the real motivation behind the reproductive movement” and Planned Parenthood: the systemic elimination of the black population.
Welcome to the co-opting of the black justice movement by anti-choicers—whose goal, ironically, is to control the bodies of black women, themselves.
I mention that the woman peddling this film was wearing a red shirt for a reason: It identified her as belonging to a collection of evangelical churches in my area known for collective “street ministry” proselytizing efforts. This group of churches targets the neighborhoods that are most under-resourced in an effort to bring Jesus to the “darkest places” with the “darkest strongholds” in the community.
It is probably no surprise that these targeted neighborhoods consist of predominantly black and brown people—and that the folks in the red shirts are predominantly not.
White, evangelical anti-choice activists have, of course, long fought against reproductive freedom under the guise of being compassionate life-savers. At a recent Planned Parenthood event, a number of pro-lifers approached me to tell me in a scary-delusional tone that they loved me and were praying for me. In their eyes, if a woman wishes to control her own reproductive destiny, she must need someone to save her.
This same savior complex has also driven anti-choicers’ efforts to frame reproductive justice as a form of black genocide—the (unfounded) idea being that pro-choice white people want to “kill” unborn black babies.
When Bree Newsome climbed the South Carolina state capital flag pole to remove the Confederate flag following the Charleston massacre, she sparked Internet controversy over the “legitimacy” of people taking offense to a racist symbol (or as some Southerners would call it, “a symbol of southern pride”). The aftermath of this controversy, which correlated with the onset of the Planned Parenthood anti-abortion sting and controversy, resulted in memes, like this one, comparing the symbols of the Confederate Flag with the Planned Parenthood logo. The meme, posted on Sarah Palin’s Facebook wall and shared nearly 90,000 times, reads, “Which symbol killed 90,000 black babies last year?” And then, #DefundPlannedParenthood.
At Mother Jones, Titania Kumeh has reported on at least two instances of billboards also linking abortion with the murder of black lives. In 2010, the state of Georgia’s anti-choice network sponsored billboards that read, “Black children are an endangered species.” And in 2011, a highly controversial billboard erected in Manhattan read, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” (The mother of the featured child on the billboard ended up filing a lawsuit against the billboard’s creators.)
Anti-choicers have staked much of their claim about abortion’s link to black genocide on the legacy of birth control activist Margaret Sanger. And indeed, Sanger was involved in eugenics at the time of her activism. Alexandra Minna Stern, a historian of science and medicine and professor in the Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology, American Culture, and History at the University of Michigan, has researched the history of eugenics and the uses and misuses of genetics in the United States and Latin America. On Sanger’s involvement with eugenics in the early 20th century, Stern says:
“Margaret Sanger was allied with the eugenics movements, as were many stripes of people. She was allied as a white feminist who believed that access to birth control was a core aspect of women’s freedom and reproductive liberty. However, in her writings she did state that some people were having too many children, specifically immigrants and poor people, [and that] these people were ‘unfit’ etc. There is debate about whether she really believed these things or just made a strategic alliance with eugenicists because they were a powerful constituency with some scientific legitimacy in the early 20th century. In that way, she was a product of her time, and attached some baggage to feminism and the reproductive health movement. We could call her a supporter of stratified reproductive freedom, with empowering and stigmatizing aspects of her message.”
Stern acknowledges that while it’s not pleasant to accept that one of the grandmothers/foremothers of reproductive choice expressed anti-immigrant and racist views, dealing with this openly and honestly is the best course of action. “She should not be completely maligned and the contestatory things she did should be acknowledged and celebrated, but her underlying discriminatory attitudes should be aired, and put in historical context,” she says.
Instead of an “open and honest” discussion, though, anti-choicers have used outright misrepresentations of Sanger to support their contention that pro-choicers are all out to destroy black lives. A large portion of a five-page Planned Parenthood fact sheet is even devoted to correcting the misrepresentation and blatant lies they’ve crafted about Sanger. “There is no evidence that Sanger . . . intended to coerce black women into using birth control,” the fact sheet notes.
Anti-choicers’ “Save the Black Race from Abortion” tactic is all the more troubling when you consider that their ultimate aim is to do exactly what they claim to be against: control and harm black bodies.
Pro-Birth, Not Pro-Life
Curiously, empathy on the part of anti-choicers doesn’t extend beyond the confines of fetal life. As Sister Joan Chittister aptly and famously summarized:
“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth.”
The messages and belief systems espoused by anti-choicers not only use black women and their children as inanimate, bendable props to position to their liking; they also trivialize the gruesome and historical terrorization of black lives. And much of this subjugation has, but of course, come in the form of restricted access to reproductive care.
Anti-abortion activists have long pointed to the higher rates of abortion in black women as evidence of aggressive and racist marketing by abortion providers. But Guttmacher Institute has documented for years that higher abortion rates among people of color are directly linked to their higher rates of unintended pregnancy, which, in turn reflects pervasive health disparities and access to care more generally.
Poor women of color are disproportionately affected by things like the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits Medicaid coverage of abortion, and TRAP laws, which attempt to shut down clinics by targeting abortion provider and structural requirements. Just this week, SCOTUS heard opening arguments in the Whole Woman’s Health vs. Hellerstedt, a case brought by a group of 12 black women’s reproductive justice groups to fight Texas’ anti-abortion law that is responsible for closing all but a handful of clinics in the state. Their amicus brief argues that the regulations are unconstitutional because they place an undue burden on women trying to access abortion—a burden, the brief contends, that will have a “devastating impact” on African American women in Texas.
Culturally incompetent care and racist systems are deeply influencing the ability of women of color and their children to even survive. And once born, the disparity in the removal of black children from their families by social services is a social and moral crisis. As Dorothy Roberts, author of the award-winning book Killing the Black Body, has suggested, “If you came with no preconceptions about the purpose of the child welfare system, you would have to conclude that it is an institution designed to monitor, regulate, and punish poor families of color.”
The purpose of dispersing anti-abortion propaganda laced with black genocide concepts isn’t to save black lives; it’s to shut down access to abortion. In short, it is to further social control of black women.
Black lives matter. And, as white people, if we want to demonstrate that we really believe that, we’d better be sure that our behaviors do not further an oppressive dynamic, whereby the enlightened white people of the world continue to march into mostly black spaces in order to “educate,” in order to “save”—in order to maintain the hierarchy of White talking down to and giving down to Black.
Lead image credit: Pixabay