Several years ago, I was caught completely off-guard by a huge billboard in my native New York City emblazoned with the words: “The most dangerous place for an African-American woman is in the womb,” and the image of a precious little African-American girl.
The billboard was for a clearly extremist “pro-life” website, but to be so bold as to spend that much money on advertising in such an expensive city, well, that was a lot to digest. As an African-American mother and someone who has experienced abortion, I continue to be completely disgusted by the racist, classist propaganda that is so readily spread about our reproductive decisions.
Vilifying African-American mothers is nothing new: from the earliest days of European colonialism when enslaved African women were robbed of every human right and choice over their reproduction, we have been subjected to demonising rhetoric that blames us for everything negative that happens to our children. The lives and bodies of African-American women have been ‘regulated’ since they were first brought to this new world as owned labourers; their bodies and production (and that of their children) belonged primarily to white men.
Over time, ideas about African-American womanhood became shaped by their ability to work for and serve white men and white women. African-American women have even been denied access to same notions of womanhood and femininity; we are seen first as workers, not as mothers and partners as white women are. This likely contributes to the lack of equitable consideration afforded African-American women when it comes to reproductive justice work.
Whereas African-American women should be visible at the forefront of the movement, we are often relegated to footnotes when statistics about reproductive health are concerned. An example of this is in the invisibility of our maternal death rates, which are three times higher than white women’s. This alarming fact should sound off more alarms and calls to action, but we don’t see a lot of advocacy on this from white American reproductive activists.
In her book Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, Dorothy Roberts points out that certain issues such as reproductive rights have been considered “white women’s issues”. And while white women have historically been encouraged to be mothers, African-American women were regularly denied opportunities to engage in any activity that didn’t prove to be valuable to whites, including the development of their own families.
Stereotypes about African-American women’s ability to be good mothers formed and have beeen perpetuated until present day, with even African-American men subscribing to them. This established hierarchy of womanhood, where white women were elevated above African-American women, continues to manifest itself in various institutions, including the judicial system. Now, we hear disturbing language that denounces African-American women for exercising their legal right to have abortions.
Extremist organisations like the Radiance Foundation, an anti-abortion group that claims to be “pro-life”, use targeted ads on Facebook with images of African-American women in their campaigns against Planned Parenthood. They even use tragedies like this month’s Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas shooting to push their anti-abortion agenda, likening abortion to the mass shooting that took the lives of more than 50 people.
Histrionic, anti-choice “activists” are also pushing a ridiculous narrative that Planned Parenthood is a white supremacist organisation that targets African-Americans by terminating our lives before they begin.
This includes the self-loathing Ryan Bomberger, who says: “If you want to tear down present vestiges of “white supremacy”, let’s start with Planned Parenthood. Yes, the nation’s leading abortion chain birthed in eugenic racism and elitism… Planned Parenthood kills over 260 unarmed black lives every day in America.”
Bomberger twists the language of the #BlackLivesMatter movement to fit his irrational narrative, self-consciously using the terminology of the justice movement and applying it, cynically, to his anti-abortion extremist ramblings.
Prominent reproductive justice advocate, Imani Gandy, has already debunked the myth of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s ‘evil plot’ to convince African-American women to have abortions. Anti-abortion extremists use revisions of history to shame African-American women; they also ignore the fact that Sanger was herself against abortion, so she did not create the organisation to force us to terminate pregnancies.
Many African-American women have been reluctant to align themselves with contemporary feminist movements because they often do not feel as though their unique needs and concerns are addressed by mainstream white feminism.
We were virtually ignored during the Suffrage Movement, and the Women’s Lib Movement of the 1960s. Today, we remain excluded from tables in which we could “lean in” and have our say, so we have taken to carving out our own digital spaces instead. We have found ways to be heard in spaces that have traditionally excluded us, including major publications, feminist conferences, empowerment marches, academic panels, radio and television.
When racist anti-abortion ads came out and began spreading, even within our own communities and spaces, we received little support from mainstream white feminists who cannot empathetically connect to the abhorrence of the suggestion that abortion equals racism. While white women have been called murderers for having abortions, they have not experienced the increased pain of being accused of race-based murder for terminating their pregnancies.
When enslaved African-American women self-induced abortions rather than birth babies into a life of slavery, white women joined in with their husbands, fathers, and brothers to vehemently deny them their “choice”.
There have been opportunities for white feminists to be more introspective about the history of this movement, including the ways in which African-American women’s unique experiences have been dismissed and ignored. But, as Angela Davis has explained, ignoring our historical experiences with forced sterilisation and forced labour misses the mark and leaves room for racist rhetoric to continue to be used against us.
Increasing discussion of these issues is amplifying our unique experiences with reproductive choice and more activists are realising that fighting against anti-abortion rhetoric requires more than a gendered approach — that reproductive justice will only be achieved with direct anti-racist work.
Now, we face an administration that is absolutely terrifying — a complete affront to any marginalised individual seeking equality and freedom from oppression. The House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would implement a nationwide ban on abortions after 20 weeks (another attempt at pushing an agenda that may be more symbolic than anything — the bill has fallen flat the last two times it was brought to the Senate).
This administration has tried, unsuccessfully, to remove all Medicaid funding from Planned Parenthood. Trump’s housing and urban development secretary, African-American doctor Ben Carson, once likened abortion to slavery. Rick Perry, his choice for Secretary of Energy, pushed abortion restrictions as governor of Texas that were eventually ruled unconstitutional.
I have experienced the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. There was nothing remotely easy about making the choice or going through with the procedure. Do I still think about it? Sometimes. Do I wonder how my life might be different had I not gone through with it? Occasionally. Do I regret my decision? Absolutely not. I did what was best for me and exercised my legal right to make private medical decisions about my own reproduction.
I did the same exact thing when I decided to carry my son to term and raise him for the last 11 years. I did the same thing when I decided to continue a pregnancy and suffered a miscarriage. None of my decisions had to do with my cultural allegiance and my pride in being black, nor did they reflect any desire to uphold and promote some misguided, internalised white supremacy.
We cannot accept this racist backlash against our reproductive rights, and we have to be vigilant in countering this disparaging propaganda. We are witnessing a concerted effort to end abortion rights in America unlike anything we have seen in over 40 years, and we have to remain committed and engaged in civic action to ensure abortion access for all who seek it.