"Womb Lynching:" On The Anti-Choice Targeting Of African-American Women


Anti-abortion groups are targeting black audiences with the message that abortion is a form of “ethnic cleansing.” But as many point out, this strategy ignores the real needs of all women.

Responses keep coming in to a New York Times article, originally published Friday, in which writer Shaila Dewan details a multi-pronged effort by anti-abortion advocates to convince black women that the “abortion industry” is racist, based on the fact that black women have a disproportionately high rate of abortion. Georgia Right to Life has partnered with the Radiance Foundation for a billboard campaign and accompanying website claiming that “Black children are an endangered species.” A documentary called Maafa 21, made by a white anti-choice activist, purports to draw parallels between abortion, eugenics, and slavery. (In 2008, the enfant terrible of the anti-choice movement, Lila Rose, released yet another embarrassing recording for Planned Parenthood: a caller -actually one of the young men charged with bugging Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office, and the fake pimp who got ACORN in trouble – says, “You know, we just think, the less black kids out there, the better,” and a Planned Parenthood employee answers, “Understandable, understandable.”

While Lila Rose and Maafa‘s creator are white, and Dewan calls Georgia Right to Life’s staff “largely white,” the movement to reframe abortion as genocide is gaining credence among black leaders as well. In a piece on the issue for the LA Times, Robin Abcarian quotes Martin Luther King Jr’s niece Alveda King, who says, “I know for sure that the black community is being targeted by abortionists for the purpose of ethnic cleansing.” And it’s black abortion foes, says Dewan, who have coined the term “womb lynchings” and mobilized against Planned Parenthood in the wake of Rose’s tape.

So what may seem like a cynical attempt to win over black audiences — which, Dewan notes, had previously been resistant to Georgia Right to Life’s advances — is actually far more complicated. Loretta Ross of SisterSong, a coalition for minority reproductive health, says black women have good reason to fear eugenics: “There was a eugenics movement, and it did target black people” (She adds, however, “But when Margaret Sanger first started, it was black women who came to her.”) And Dewan writes, “the idea that abortion is intended to wipe out blacks may be finding fertile ground in a population that has experienced so much sanctioned prejudice and violence.”

However, many in the black community — Ross among them — do support abortion rights, a fact Miriam at Feministing and others accuse the Times of downplaying. While Dewan does mention pre-Sanger support for birth control among black women, she doesn’t really go into the basic problems with the abortion-as-genocide message. Luckily, critics identify three big ones:

— It infantilizes black women.

At The American Prospect, Shani Hilton mentions a Georgia bill that “will force abortion providers to prove that they did not solicit women based on the race or sex of the child.” She writes,

Both the billboards and the legislation seek to “help” women of color but in a way that presupposes they are targets without autonomy. By treating these women, particularly black women, as reliant on the goodwill or ill will of others hearkens back to a time when black women truly had no control over childbearing or childrearing. This strips these women of their agency and circumscribes how they enter the conversation about their own reproductive rights.

By claiming that black women’s abortions are forced on them by an abortion conspiracy, anti-choicers are devaluing women’s ability to make their own choices.

— It assumes that women need fewer reproductive choices, when they really need more.

At Racialicious, Miriam Pérez notes that government, medical practitioners, and even environmentalists have sought to control the reproductive lives of women of color — by forcing them to have fewer children, rather than more. She chronicles the fight against unwanted sterilization in both Puerto Rico and Los Angeles, and points out that “Women of color within the reproductive rights and justice movement have brought light to the policies […] that serve the mission of population control within our communities.” But, she writes, the solution to “population control” isn’t a different form of outside control — it’s ceding power to women themselves. Pérez explains,

[W]hat we know is that reproductive justice isn’t just about freedom from coercive sterilization. It’s also about access to a full range of reproductive technologies, whether that’s birth control, sterilization, abortion or even childbirth. […]
Latinas and other women of color don’t need to be protected by paternalistic ideologues motivated by a political agenda that disregards the needs of women of color and their families. So thanks for your concern, anti-choicers, but I think the women of color advocates working within the reproductive justice movement have got it covered. We’re working in those clinics you attack, we’re helping to shape policies and provide services in our communities, services that allow us to decide what our needs are.

— It focuses on the abortion rate, when the real issue is the rate of unplanned pregnancy.

Jodi Jacobson of RH Reality Check writes that “Rates of unintended pregnancy among African-American women are three times higher than those of whites.” Why? Because “African-American women have less access than do whites to health care overall, and less access to high quality reproductive and sexual health care, including effective contraceptive supplies and information.” The Georgia Bill Hilton mentions might actually make this problem worse, not better. Hilton writes about an alternative: a teen pregnancy prevention program that reduced the number of births in a South Carolina high school from one in every seven girls to three in 200. She says,

Expanding programs like this one could even provide better reproductive health for all. By acknowledging and supporting the autonomy of young, poor women of color — the group most likely to have unplanned pregnancies and abortions — pro-choice activists can fight the structural reproductive injustice that affects all women.

Abcarian quotes Catherine Davis, minority outreach director for Georgia Right to Life, who says, “18,870,000 black babies have been aborted since Roe vs. Wade. If those babies hadn’t been aborted, we would be 59 million strong — over 19% of the population.” But perhaps more important than sheer number is whether people of color are truly empowered — and ultimately, a lack of reproductive rights is disempowering. Black women — indeed, all women — need better access to health care and education, not more people trying to make decisions for them.

To Court Blacks, Foes Of Abortion Make Racial Case [NYT]
Antiabortion Activists See A Racial Conspiracy [LA Times]
Biased NY Times Article Covers Racist Anti-Choice Campaign [Feministing]
Worried About Women Of Color? Thanks, But No Thanks, Anti-Choicers. We’ve Got It Covered. [Racialicious]
Black Women Don’t Need Billboards [American Prospect]
New York Times Article On Myth Of “Racial Bias And Abortion” Omits Critical Analyses [RH Reality Check]

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