The Politics of Race and Abortion: Is the Pro-choice Movement Ready? 

©Loretta Ross, National Coordinator, SisterSong 

April 26, 2010 

In February 80 billboards suddenly appeared in Atlanta proclaiming that “Black Children are an Endangered Species.” 

This cynical attempt to manipulate the black community was the opening salvo in a targeted attack on abortion rights that surprised reproductive justice advocates in Georgia and launched a media firestorm. The architects of this campaign, who profess their concern for future of the black race, claim that abortion is genocide and that providers deliberately use coercive tactics in soliciting African American as well as Asian American women. Their outrageous charges have propelled legislation in Georgia that criminalizes abortion providers who terminate pregnancies because of the “race or sex” of the fetus. 

When SisterSong, along with other reproductive justice organizations in Atlanta, investigated who was behind these billboards and what their motives and goals might be. We discovered that this was part of a carefully orchestrated ongoing plan. A year before these billboards were launched, Georgia Right to Life members met with Republican leaders on St. Simon’s Island in South Georgia. The groups joined to strategize on how to present a state law that could be used to challenge Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court. 

It was the next phase of a legal strategy that Republicans initiated in 2008 with the introduction of the Pre-Natal Discrimination Act in Congress. Although that federal bill failed, it provided a model for states to replicate to challenge legal abortion in the United States. Georgia Right to Life has announced plans to spread this campaign to at least 10 other states. Billboards have already appeared in Chicago and Knoxville, and an Arizona legislator is considering introducing a similar bill. 

This cynical campaign is not about saving babies of color or the health and well-being of our communities. The goal is to undo Roe. Even if the law remains technically intact, such legislation provides an opportunity for states to question women’s motives for seeking abortions, intrude on patient confidentiality, and threaten doctors with criminal sanctions. The intent is to intimidate doctors who provide abortions for women of color, and stigmatize and limit access to abortion services in our communities. Thus, the criminal 

sanctions in the Georgia legislation targets doctors, even if the alleged coercion is by a third party, such as a parent of a minor child. 

But it would be a mistake for the women’s movement to believe that this attack is only about abortion. This is another page in the same playbook that was used to build the Moral Majority that swept Ronald Reagan into power in the 1970s. Abortion is again being used as a wedge issue to rebuild the base of the Republican Party after a national defeat by Democrats. What is unique about their strategy this time is that they are also looking to drive a gender-wedge into the African American community, and a racial wedge into the pro-choice community. 

This billboard campaign’s fear-mongering charge that abortion is genocide attacks black women’s autonomy in order to split the base of support for President Obama in the African American community. Using black fronts like Catherine Davis, a Republican, and Alveda King, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to spread the propaganda, they portray black women as the dupes of abortion providers and incapable of making independent decisions for themselves. And they intentionally target black male leaders – elected officials, civic officials and clergy – to muster support for Republican-sponsored legislation, support they would not otherwise obtain. 

In Georgia that strategy proved effective. Here as elsewhere blaming black women for the social ills of our society has been going on for way too long. Using black sexism to fuel their strategy about race and abortion politics, they did not have to work very hard to stir support from the black patriarchy. Although all of the black women legislators in Georgia united to oppose the bill along with some progressive black men, it was black male legislators and civic leaders who were most responsive to their tactics. The black vote was divided, and to date, only a few national male leaders have defended our human right to self-determination. 

Sadly this has all too often been the case. Black women have fought sexism within our community for hundreds of years. Time and again when we call attention to the domestic violence, rape, disrespect, child abuse, and the overall general sexism in our community we have encountered a “Blacklash” that contaminates our efforts to build a united struggle against white supremacy. As black feminists pointed out in the 1970s, it’s hard to build a revolution when the revolutionaries brutalize each other. 

It’s also hard to mount an effective campaign to counter this current assault when the pro-choice community seems stuck on perceiving abortion as the only issue of merit. Now more than ever we need to unite under the Reproductive Justice banner. 

This is why the leadership of African American feminists is vital. We created the Reproductive Justice framework to end the isolation of abortion from other human rights issues such as racism, homophobia, militarism, classism, etc. We challenged the population control motives of eugenicists on the right and the left who promote fertility control for women for motives other than the empowerment of women to make decisions for ourselves. We encouraged the anti-violence movement to incorporate other forms of violence against women beyond rape and battering, to understand the threats to our lives posed by state violence, racist violence, economic violence, and immigration violence. Most importantly we demanded that the pro-choice movement broaden beyond a narrow focus on keeping abortion legal to truly embrace a human rights agenda that connects the dots in the real lives of women. We pointed out that the failure to do so not only threatens Roe, but disaggregates our entire women’s movement into competing silos incapable of coming together to amass the power to really protect all women’s lives and autonomy. 

This current campaign linking race and reproduction makes these threats painfully clear. It highlights the risks we face if we do not confront the long over-due conversation about white supremacy, and the relationship between women of color and white women in the pro-choice movement. And it underscores the need for the pro-choice movement to fully embrace Reproductive Justice to counter this intersectional campaign. 

It would be ironic if our opponents better understand the advantages of an intersectional approach than our allies. Yet in the midst of confronting this massive challenge, we are dealing with some of the same tendencies within the pro-choice movement that makes working together difficult. Some, but not all, leaders continue to disrespect black women’s wisdom and experience. Some pro-choice leaders not only presume that they can work without the leadership of women of color organizations, they further assume that know best how to have conversations in our communities about abortion and genocide. And they believe that white women can successfully build an alliance with black men without the visionary bridging that black women provide. 

As Barbara Smith pointed out nearly 30 years ago in her book All the Women were White, All the Men were Black, but Some of Us Are Brave, neither the women’s movement, nor the Civil Rights movement can succeed without the leadership of women of color. That some people have not learned that lesson would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous. Not only will efforts to proceed without our leadership fail, but the consequences will poison the soil in which we must toil. 

To defend reproductive justice, African American women will still have to confront the charges of racism in the pro-choice community, while also having to combat increased gender tensions in our communities as a result of this the dangerous dismissal of women of color. How can we defend the pro-choice community if we must also defend ourselves against the arrogant assumptions by that community that they have the experience and wisdom to address emotional charges of genocide when they flinch every time that rhetorical bomb is lobbed? 

The pro-choice community is being severely tested on a number fronts because of its failure to understand intersectional politics. This current campaign is part and parcel of the anti-immigrant, pro-sovereignty, and gendered appeals of the anti-abortion movement. In all of our diverse communities of color, sexists claim that population growth of vulnerable groups is an answer to social injustices. Using the bodies of women as political currency, population control ideologues on the left conveniently ally with population control proponents on the right in these claims. 

Their campaign in African American community uses xenophobia to claim that black people are losing the “breeding race” with Latinos. Within the Latino community they trumpet that the struggle against the white supremacy of the anti-immigrant movement may be won by having more babies than whites. In Indigenous nations, they cite abortion as the latest stage in a long devastating campaign of genocidal acts. And they target the Asian American community by claiming that gender disparities in those communities are the result of sex-selective abortions limiting the birth of girl babies. 

Women of color leaders know that fears of eugenics or population control are legitimate concerns in our communities. We experience it every day through the criminal justice system, the racist allocation of public resources, 

anti-immigrant policing, the toxicity of our environments, mis-education of our children, the gun violence in our lives, racial profiling, and the health disparities in our lives. But these human rights issues are rarely prioritized by the pro-choice movement. As a result, the movement has failed to grasp the very rational fears of genocide among our peoples, much less counter them. And it has not proven itself capable of mounting an effective response in defense of women’s self-determination and against population control whether pro- or anti-natalist in intent. 

We know that the leadership of women of color on these issues is essential. In Georgia SisterSong organized a coalition of women’s organizations--including Spark Reproductive Justice NOW!, Planned Parenthood of Georgia, the Feminist Women’s Health Center, SisterLove, Inc. (a women’s HIV/AIDS organization), and Raksha (an Asian American domestic violence organization) to stop this bill in Georgia and pro-actively work with our communities. Nationally, we are working with an alliance created by Generations Ahead, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice on the sex-selection aspects of the legislation. SisterSong has also organized a coalition of 25 black women’s organizations to champion Reproductive Justice and counter these cynical campaigns that includes Black Women for Reproductive Justice, the Black Women’s Health Imperative, California Black Women’s Health Project, Black Women for Wellness, and other major and local organizations. 

Since this campaign began, SisterSong has had many conversations with the leaders of the pro-choice movement, including Planned Parenthood Federation, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Feminist Majority, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the National Women’s Law Center, the National Women’s Health Network, NOW, Breast Cancer Action, Reproductive Health Technologies Project, and many others who recognize the danger of this latest strategy by the anti-abortion movement. We have continually sought firm commitments for support to build a strategically unified response that respects and appreciates the leadership and builds the capacity of women of color at a critical time in our movement’s history. 

We are prepared to fight forward but is the pro-choice movement finally prepared to step up? Is the movement prepared to respect our leadership and work with instead of against us to defeat this latest campaign? Will it duck for cover every time we say that we are struggling against this manifestation 

of white supremacy that uses abortion as a Trojan Horse? Will the pro-choice movement help generate a surge of funding resources to build the capacity of women of color organizations to successfully overcome this latest challenge such as they have done for themselves for other anti-abortion legislation? 

Or will they seek to ignore or co-opt women of color and secure all the funding? Or attempt to tokenize our involvement by continuing to arrogantly make decisions in their backrooms that leave even women of color working with them out of the loop? Will the movement acknowledge that business as usual means failure as usual? 

The stakes are too high to get it wrong this time. 

join tbw
donate to tbw
facebook follow us
twitter follow us