They May Ballyhoo, We’ll Stay Focused on Black Women

This February, billboards that read “Black children are an endangered species” were plastered across Atlanta. They were sponsored by anti-abortion groups Georgia Right to Life (GRTL) and the Radiance Foundation, and they were meant to imply that abortion-rights activists target pregnant black women for eugenics reasons.

I know firsthand that it’s easy for the unwary to be seduced–or at least shaken–by these arguments. I watched bits and pieces of the slickly produced 2009 documentary Maafa 21, the foundation for these kind of  billboards, which alleges a “Black genocide” perpetrated by the likes of Planned Parenthood, and I admit it threw me. I had no idea that Planned Parenthood, in its original incarnation as the American Birth Control League, was helmed by Margaret Sanger, who made many questionable assertions about race in her lifetime.

But in times of ballyhoo, it is always sage to revisit the facts.

Fact: Yes, a Black woman is almost four times as likely as a white woman to have an abortion, but that is due to a higher rate of unintended pregnancy among African American women.

Fact: In 2002, about 15 percent of Black women who were at risk for unintended pregnancy were not practicing contraception, compared to 12 percent of Latino and 9 percent of white women. But …

Fact: Black women are disproportionately low income and many contraceptives have exorbitant upfront costs; therefore, Black women are less able to afford prescription birth control methods or have access to highly effective contraception over extended periods of time.

Fact: When we are told to view issues of reproductive rights as separate from the larger narrative of public health, we must be skeptical.

Following the display of these billboards, legislation was introduced in the Georgia Legislature–House Bill 1155, the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act–that would criminalize providers who solicit abortion “with racial intent.” While this sounds reasonable in theory, Loretta Ross, national coordinator of the Sister Song Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, explains that this bill could require health-care providers to ask patients why they are seeking abortions. Getting an abortion is already a stigmatized experience in our society without seekers having to undergo an inquisition. Ross also notes that the bill does not define what constitutes “solicitation,” meaning that its actual effect could be to create an abortion ban in Georgia by using incensed African Americans who may not have otherwise supported the cause.

Even though the bill has moved through the subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, Ross remains hopeful that it won’t pass:

It is very hard to persuade African American women in the city of Atlanta that this legislation headlined by rural white Republicans is truly about saving black children. These are the same legislators…that have fought against improving our schools, getting guns off the street and getting children into the SCHIP [State Children’s Health Insurance Program]…these are not people whose votes indicate that they care about children of color once they are here.

In the “endangered species” promotional video–almost insultingly backed with a hip-hop beat–there are truths. However, they are incomplete narratives that create divisions rather than solutions. The full story is that since Margaret Sanger’s death in 1966, the reproductive rights movement has seen dramatic changes in its leadership and relationships with women of color. Although we must always remain critical, it would do us all a great disservice to discount the importance of reproductive health care services in their contemporary context, especially for women of color. This includes access to prenatal care, which constitutes 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services.

Cecilia Marquez, a Swarthmore College student and reproductive justice advocate, reasonably argues:

If we’re really worried about genocide of the Black community, we need to think about prison abolition. If we are really worried about this supposed genocide, let us talk about real solutions for HIV/AIDS. If we really care about genocide in the Black community then we need to talk about gross inequities in our healthcare system–we don’t need to limit Black women’s reproductive freedom.

It appears that the same white conservative leaders who consistently reject reform are the very people now trying to court the Black community. As noted by journalist Michelle Goldberg:

For several years now, the religious right has been trying to appropriate the moral authority of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s an audacious strategy, given that Christian conservative politics were forged in the white Southern backlash to school integration. But it’s had some successes, particularly in rousing black churches against the gay rights movement. Now, the anti-abortion movement is making a push to enlist African Americans in their cause by framing abortion as a tool of eugenics and genocide.

The fact that abortion rates are disproportionately higher in communities of color is neither the fault of Black women nor of a conspiring group of women’s health-care providers. It is because of racist and classist public-health policy that has long rendered Black women invisible.

Learn more about the anti-abortion movement via Ms. coverage.


Eva McKend is a graduate student at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University where she is pursuing her degree in Broadcast and Digital Journalism. A multimedia storyteller, she enjoys using her skills of writing, videography and film editing to tell stories that would otherwise go untold. In 2011, she graduated from Swarthmore College, where she founded A Campaign for Me to address black female representation in the media. Eva is a former Ms. intern.