Anti-abortion advocates don’t care about Black people. They never have. And frankly, I don’t believe they ever will.
I’m not saying this as a sensationalist statement. The evidence is long. We’ve been useful to them as pawns in this political chess game with the sole goal of ending abortion in the United States. They pick us up each and every time they need to score points in the media to somehow prove they aren’t racist because they care about “Black life”, yet do nothing to improve the economic or health care outcomes of our community. There are plenty of Black lives that they could rally around and get justice for – Sandra Bland, India Clarke, Raynette Turner, Rekia Boyd, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner (I could go on) are just a few in a way too long list of lives lost to epidemic of state sanctioned violence. But, no. They choose to spend millions of dollars attacking Planned Parenthood, an abortion provider who also provides 1 in 5 women with basic healthcare throughout in the United States, and more all around the globe. A healthcare provider who has stood by the low-income, uninsured, and underinsured for almost 100 years.
For over a decade, anti-abortion advocates have been targeting Planned Parenthood through sting operations, most recently releasing highly edited videos of Planned Parenthood staffers discussing the donation of and reimbursement costs associated with fetal tissue based on patient request. In reality, fetal tissue, stemming from abortion and birth, is used for research purposes to create the very life saving cancer drugs and treatments for Alzheimer’s that our families depend on. If anti-abortion advocates truly cared about the Black community, they would know that we’re twice as likely to develop late-onset Alzheimer’s and they would support our efforts in finding a cure.
To Republican lawmakers, it doesn’t matter that the unedited videos have shown the healthcare provider to be doing nothing illegal. To them, and the anti-abortion activists, it’s a way to score political points with their base while they’re vying for our nation’s highest office. To them, it doesn’t matter that over 80 percent of the Black community believes that abortion should remain legal, regardless of how they personally feel. This belief remains steady with 84 percent of weekly churchgoers and 74 percent of self-identified conservatives agreeing. It seems to escape Republican lawmakers that 86 percent of voters believe politicians should not deny a woman access to abortion care because she is poor, and over half believe that Medicaid should cover pregnancy related care, including abortion. With 30 percent of women having an abortion by age 45 and over 95 percent of women stating that they don’t regret their abortions several years later, it’s high time we listen to the voices of people who have abortions, not the few extremist and politicians.
Yet, they’re ignoring the will of the people, and the Black community, to launch investigations and hold up crucial federal funds to veterans and breast cancer organizations, like Susan G. Komen, because some of the money would go to Planned Parenthood, where low-income women of color are more likely to get screened for cancer. For Black women, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths, and the death rate is 60 percent higher than our White counterparts. Anti-abortion advocates are encouraging lawmakers to put party and politics before our healthcare, and it is killing us.
If anti-abortion advocates truly cared about Black women, they would know that our maternal mortality rate is three times that of White women. In Chicksaw County, a rural part of Mississippi, the maternal mortality rate is 595 women for every 100,000 live births; in comparison, Kenya has a rate of 400 live births per 100,000 and Rwanda at 320. Given that our country spends more money on healthcare than any other nation, Amnesty International called this a crisis.
Yes, Black women are five times more likely to have an abortion than White women, and the reason for that is simple: we lack access to contraception, sexual health education, and health insurance, thus creating higher rates of unintended pregnancy.
Outside of clinics, protesters scream that patients are ‘going to Hell’, yell racial epithets at Black doctors, and say we should choose adoption vastly ignoring the particular challenges for birth parents. And what most people don’t know is that two-thirds of people having abortions are already parenting. Three quarters of people having abortions cite financial hardship as a reason for not continuing the pregnancy, and over 40 percent are living at the federal poverty level. Rather than posting racist billboards in New York and throughout the South proclaiming a ‘mother’s womb to be the most dangerous place for a Black child’, anti-abortion advocates could support our efforts to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, and end the wage gap that takes Black women 19 months to earn what White men earn in twelve. They could help us increase access to prenatal care and well-baby check up visits to decrease the maternal and infant mortality rate. They could even support us in our efforts to pass the Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act to make slight work accommodations, like lighter loads or additional bathroom breaks during shifts, policies that would help female low wage workers, nearly half of whom are women of color. They could support any number of the parental leave policies to ensure Black women are able to take time off of work for their doctor’s appointments and bond with their newborns. Sadly, with all the so called “pro-life” politicians in Congress, you’d be hard pressed to find a large overlap in those supporting the defunding of Planned Parenthood and co-sponsors for these bills.
If anti-abortion advocates truly cared about the Black community, they would know how crucial federal and state funding is to our health outcomes. Currently, Medicaid covers one-third of non-elderly Black people and over half of Black children; another 21 percent are uninsured all together. The Black community is 55 percent more likely to be uninsured than the White community. We could use anti-abortion advocates’ help in the fight for Medicaid expansion, but they’re nowhere to be found. They’d rather scream about the mythical federal funds paying for abortions, yet the Hyde Amendment clearly bars this. It’s a discriminatory policy on its face, but for them to ignore its existence is dishonest. We depend on community health centers, like Planned Parenthood, to keep our families healthy. For basic healthcare, Black families trust Planned Parenthood.
To be sure, I am not looking at Planned Parenthood with rose-colored glasses. Planned Parenthood, like many organizations, has a complex history. Its founder, Margaret Sanger, was a pioneer in the fight for birth control, mainly for White women around the turn of the century. According to Dorothy Roberts’ book, Killing the Black Body, Sanger partnered with many Black leaders who had already set up their own independent birth control clinics for Black women who were eager to space their children’s births and participate in the workforce. And yet, to receive funding for her work she aligned herself with faux scientists who felt birth control and sterilization were a way to rid society of less desirable communities and upward mobility for others. True, her actions are hypocrisy at best and dangerous at worst, but to believe that abortion and birth control in the Black community began with Sanger would be a gross misrepresentation of the facts and adds to the erasure of our autonomy. And to ignore the fact that Planned Parenthood has time and time again acknowledged Sanger’s dangerous statements, and it no way informs their work today, is disingenuous.
In Birthing a Slave, Marie Jenkins Schwartz illustrates how Black women used makeshift birth control made out of everything from chewing cotton plants to rubbing Vaseline and quinine on their uterus. Black women knew that their bodies were being used for profit and actively resisted against it. Time and time again, scholars including Angela Davis and Patricia Hill Collins have written about enslaved women self inducing their abortions through teas made from dogwood, pencils, and hatpins, yet the anti-abortion activists continue to compare abortion to slavery, and insist it all began with Planned Parenthood. But all that proves is that their lack of understanding of the atrocities of slavery (when White ancestors owned, brutally beat, repeatedly raped, hung from trees until the air seeped out of their lungs, and bred our ancestors for profit) and their insistence in disappearing our resourceful ancestors from history books. Like us, our ancestors knew what was best for them, and like now, access to abortion and birth control is crucial.
Even in the 1940s and 50s, Black abortion providers set up clinics to ensure Black women had access to quality abortion care when they were refused care from Whites-only hospitals. It’s true we are still feeling the effects of the great atrocities our families historically experienced at the hands of hospitals, government programs, and researchers. Throughout the Civil Rights movement, Black leaders have fought for access to family planning methods as a key to ending the cycle of poverty and firmly grasping a hand on the economic middle class. When Dr. Martin Luther King was awarded the Margaret Sanger Award in 1966, his wife Coretta Scott King accepted the award on his behalf reading his statement, “For the Negro, intelligent guides of family planning are a profoundly important ingredient in his quest for security and a decent life.” Dr. King knew that access to reproductive healthcare, through organizations like Planned Parenthood, were central to the economic success of Black Americans.
Even today, we know how closely linked the fights for reproductive freedom and economic justice truly are. When families aren’t earning enough to feed their families they need support, yet the policies designed to offer a hand up are being slashed left and right and families are stuck living in a cycle of poverty. SNAP and WIC assistance for poor families are being cut year after year, and don’t cover fundamental things like diapers. State policies like the maximum family grants punish families living in poverty for bringing a newborn into the world. We are the only industrialized nation that does not offer paid parental leave for working parents. Many states still shackle incarcerated pregnant women during labor. Our nation has anything but “pro-life” policies, and anti-abortion advocates are not at the table advocating for the pregnant women they say they care about.
For anti-abortion activists to care about Black women it must extend beyond shouting at us outside of a clinic. It would include them actually talking to our community about what support systems we need to live our healthiest and best lives. They’d actually have to listen to us, rather than appropriate our messaging and silence us for their political gain. They’d have to show up for us to fight racism, poverty, and healthcare disparities. But they don’t. One cannot be a pro-life advocate from conception to birth. The reality is Black women choose abortion for many different reasons, and we should listen to and support all of them. We should make sure all decisions are affordable and accessible, from a variety of health centers, not focus on shutting them down. Listening to a community is the first step in understanding and caring about them, which is why anti-abortion advocates will never actually care about Black people.
Renee Bracey Sherman is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and a member of Echoing Ida, a project of Forward Together that amplifies the voices of Black women around critical social justice issues. Her work has appeared on the BBC, TIME, Salon, The Guardian, and Fusion. Bracey Sherman earned her Master's degree in Public Administration from Cornell University and sits on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RBraceySherman.