The Forgotten Reproductive Justice Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King

“Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victims.”

—Coretta Scott King delivering a speech on behalf of her husband on May 5, 1966, called “Family Planning – A Special and Urgent Concern by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.”

The Forgotten Reproductive Justice Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King
“There is scarcely anything more tragic in human life than a child who is not wanted. That which should be a blessing becomes a curse for parent and child,” Coretta Scott King read in 1966. (Population Media / Creative Commons)

Three years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and I reviewed Khiara Bridges’s compelling book, The Poverty of Privacy Rights in the Yale Law Journal.  In rereading Dr. King’s pivotal speeches, sermons and commentary, one is easily struck by his profound wisdom on matters related to race, class, reproductive autonomy, health and women’s equality.  What is old is new again.   

In 1966, King wrote a landmark speech on reproductive health and rights for his acceptance of Planned Parenthood’s inaugural Margaret Sanger award.  

Of Margaret Sanger, Dr. King noted that there is a “striking kinship” between the fight for reproductive rights and civil rights, particularly because Margaret Sanger,  “like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life.” He explained, “[l]ike we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums.”  Dr. King noted that Sanger sought, like he, to expose truth “to the millions.” 

To him unwanted, unplanned pregnancies were “a cruel evil” that “urgently need[ed]…control.” 

Recent scholarship provides a nuanced and complicated view of Margaret Sanger, who founded what is now the Planned Parenthood Federation of America as does my recent book, Policing The Womb

In accepting the award—Mrs. Coretta Scott King appeared on his behalf—Dr. King wrote that Black Americans “have no mere academic nor ordinary interest in family planning.”

He saw the cruelty and evils of poverty exacerbated by racial discrimination up close.  In fact, as he explained that while “[t]here is scarcely anything more tragic in human life than a child who is not wanted,” poverty is often at the root of this condition.  

Despite the many “mountainous obstacles” facing the Black community, King insisted that a key element of stabilizing Black life,  “would be an understanding of and easy access to the means to develop a family related in size to his community environment and to the income potential he can command.”  

Perhaps for this reason, Dr. King recognized the Civil Rights Movement and advocacy for family planning as “natural allies” seeking to “guarantee[] the right to exist in freedom and dignity.”  

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Dr. King’s Planned Parenthood acceptance speech came at a time when some researchers and doctors estimated that as many as one million illegal or “back-alley” abortions took place each year in the United States. Hospitals were overwhelmed by the deaths and infections caused by so-called “coat-hanger abortions.”  Deaths were most striking among poor women of color.   

According to Leslie Reagan, author of When Abortion Was a Crime, “[m]aternal mortality rates of [B]lack women were three to four times higher than those of white women,” and abortion-related deaths accounted for nearly half of the total maternal mortality in New York City.  

Entire wards and hospital floors at hospitals in nearly every major city were beyond capacity with the survivors: Teenagers and women who nearly bled to death or were severely burned while trying to end unwanted pregnancies. Far less fortunate pregnant women died in bathtubs, on dining tables, in motels, and in unsanitary makeshift abortion facilities: closets, bedrooms and living rooms.  

During this period, it remained illegal in a number of states for physicians or anyone else to provide birth control to unmarried women.  Dr. King, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, two years before the Planned Parenthood award, for being committed to the principles of peace, direct action, and nonviolence viewed the ability to family plan as a moral concern.   

Dr. King described family planning as “a special and urgent concern.”  His speech—his words—show a recognition that reproductive autonomy is directly linked to women’s freedom, liberty, dignity and health. The contrasts between the conversations taking place in the public sphere now versus then are striking.  

Decades ago, Prescott Bush, father of former President George H.W. Bush, served as an early treasurer and fundraiser for Planned Parenthood. Later, as a member of Congress, George H.W. Bush would play a crucial role in the enactment of Title X, which provides family planning services, including contraceptives for the economically disenfranchised.   

In 1969, when access to family planning for poor women was being debated in Congress, Bush exclaimed, “We need to take sensationalism out of this topic so that it can no longer be used by militants who have no real knowledge of the voluntary nature of the program but, rather are using it as a political steppingstone.” According to the former president, “If family planning is anything, it is a public health matter.”  Bush prevailed and President Richard Nixon signed Title X legislation into law.    

By contrast, in 2017, a partisan, Republican-led effort in Congress gutted Title X provisions, leaving states free to ban abortion providers from reimbursement for basic family planning services, including cervical and breast cancer screenings, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, and provisions of contraception provided to the poor.

The Forgotten Reproductive Justice Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King
“Dr. King would likely be horrified by the state’s oversized role in determining how and when women can control their reproductive health,” writes Goodwin. (ALL / Creative Commons)

In stark contrast to the Republican leadership on family planning and reproductive rights in the 1960s and 70s, Republicans in Congress proclaimed it a victory to strip away family planning support and President Trump immediately signed their legislation into law.  

Dr. King would likely be horrified by the state’s oversized role in determining how and when women can control their reproductive health.  Dr. King explicated the urgency and necessity to pay close attention to the dignity of poor women, especially poor women of color.  He recognized the profound cruelty and indignity associated with the stigmatization of poor mothers.   

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Michele Goodwin holds the Chancellor’s Professorship at the University of California, Irvine. Goodwin is the host and executive producer of podcast "On the Issues with Michele Goodwin." She is also the founder and director the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy and its Reproductive Justice Initiative. She has published with Forbes, Salon, L.A. Times, Politico, Chicago Sun Times, Houston Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times, among others.