The most recent anti-Planned Parenthood video took aim at Black women, communities and history. Just days after what would have been Emmett Till’s 74th birthday, Students for Life unveiled a video in which clinic staff allegedly scrutinized an aborted fetus. “Call him Emmett,” suggested the video, and make him this century’s civil rights symbol — just like the 14-year-old Emmett Till’s murder by White Mississippi racists galvanized the modern civil rights movement.
Let’s call the video what it is — the latest in the anti-abortion movement’s appropriation of civil rights and its crass manipulations of history. And it won’t be the last because abortion opponents have long capitalized on the very real history of how exploiting Black bodies has been foundational to the United States, whether we talk about slavery, medical experimentation or mass incarceration. But while “pro-lifers” seek to sway Black people by acknowledging the past, they spin history and foster myths and misconceptions about not just Planned Parenthood, but also Black people’s responses to various reproductive and sexual-health issues.
Here’s a guide to help you sift through the distortions behind such videos and the fury of anti-abortion Tweets targeting Black women (i.e. the #unbornlivesmatter hashtag.)
1. This isn’t the first time that anti-abortion groups have effectively called Black women murderers. The Emmett Till video compares Black women who choose abortion to a group of White men who killed a Black youth for allegedly whistling at a White woman in 1955. Black women making a legal and personal choice about whether to become parents is not comparable to White men committing kidnapping and homicide to maintain White supremacy. But anti-abortion groups frequently erect billboards that show pictures of Black babies with slogans like “The most dangerous place for a Black child is in the womb,” despite reams of statistics and real-life examples of how the world outside the womb means that Black children have higher chances of going to inadequate schools, lacking health care, and being under police surveillance.
2. Abortion foes say: Abortion clinics target Black communities by situating clinics in Black neighborhoods. Research from the New York-based Guttmacher Insitute, researches sexual and reproductive health, found that 60 percent of abortion-providing clinics are in predominately White neighborhoods. But, even so, abortions are part of the continuum of women’s health care, along with Pap smears, contraceptive, maternal health care. And doesn’t everyone want to have health care nearby?
3. Myth: Black communities are inherently anti-abortion and anti-birth control. Not so. Black women make up about a third of those who get abortions in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than their share of the population because Black Americans comprise about 13 percent of the total U.S. population. The disparity can be explained, say public-health scholars, by how often Black women have unintended pregnancies, a measure that’s related with access to contraception. But while Black women are much more likely to have abortions than White and Hispanic women, it’s worth remembering that one in three U.S. women will have an abortion in her lifetime.
4. If you read “Hotep” propaganda — the outraged thoughts of latter-day male Black cultural nationalists who frequently confuse Black liberation with Black female submission — you would think that early Black nationalists were uniformly against birth control. It’s true that many Black nationalists of the early and mid-20th century felt that birth control (along with police violence, hunger and poor urban schools) was part of a genocidal plan to wipe out Black people. But there was debate about contraception and abortion within the Black Panther Party, specifically, and Black nationalist communities at larger. Not surprisingly, many Black nationalist, feminist and radical women questioned the idea that it was the job of the sisters to birth as many foot soldiers for the revolution as possible. First, they understood that, as Frances Beal wrote in her seminal 1969 “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female” essay, “rich White women somehow manage to obtain these operations with little or no difficulty [before abortion was legal]. It is the poor Black or Puerto Rican woman who is at the mercy of the local butcher. Statistics show us that the non-White death rate at the hands of the unqualified abortionist is substantially higher than for White women.” Mary Treadwell of Washington, D.C., said it was possible to believe in Black freedom and to reject the idea of the reproductive numbers game where Black people had to out-procreate Whites to build power: “There’s no magic in a home where someone has reproduced five or more Black babies and cannot manage economically, educationally, spiritually nor socially to see that these five Black babies grow up to highly trained Black minds.”
5.The reproductive numbers game hasn’t gone away — it shows up in claims that there are more black children aborted than born in the United States. Let’s look at national numbers for a bigger picture: In 2007, there were 676,000 black live births in the country, according to Census data. Compare that to the CDC abortion numbers from the same year, which show about 213,000 abortions performed on black women of a total 583,000 procedures on women whose race is known (there were about 828,000 abortions in that year, but some women’s racial background was not reported).
6. It is often said that Margaret Sanger, the woman who founded Planned Parenthood, was a racist and a eugenicist. This is complicated. Sanger went through phases in her career as a nurse and advocate of voluntary motherhood — the term that then morphed into “planned parenthood” and the organization’s name. Sanger was deeply influenced by seeing European immigrant women struggle with large families in New York tenements and saw that women’s status, poverty and poor health was tied to the fact that they couldn’t control their fertility. She advocated for women’s sexual pleasure, birth control and spent decades supporting the development of the Pill.
But her support of reproductive freedom for women was coupled with reproductive coercion for some women. The Pill was tested on poor women in Puerto Rico who had few other options than sterilization. And Sanger’s vision that women should not be caught in a cycle of perpetual childbearing took a turn toward eugenics. Eugenics posited that those deemed weak, ill or “defective,” the “less civilized,” or irresponsible should not be allowed to procreate — or there would be disastrous consequences for the nation. She declared birth control to be the very “pivot of civilization” and began championing birth control as the socially responsible way to stop the “unfit” (including poor Whites) from reproducing.
Black leaders urged Sanger to open those clinics, and some of those Black leaders, including W.E.B. DuBois, themselves accused poor Blacks with “breeding carelessly” – in quotes wrongly attributed to Sanger. And, to be sure, the earliest birth control clinics in the South were segregated and did not provide services to the very Black women that DuBois and others disparaged. When the first family planning clinics or projects for Blacks were opened in Harlem; Nashville, Tennessee; and rural Berkeley County, South Carolina, these programs were supported by a laundry list of Black luminaries including Walter White, the national secretary of the NAACP; educator Mary McLeod Bethune; and representatives from the Urban League. But the programs were short-lived; letters between Sanger and Clarence Gamble, a wealthy philanthropist and leading eugenicist, showed their concerns that Black Southerners, in particular, were too ignorant and “superstitious” to easily adopt family planning without guidance and that the guidance would be best received from Black clinicians and Black pastors. White doctors, Sanger and Gamble found, were not able to penetrate the institutionalized mistrust of White power that was a hallmark of segregation. However, there is no proof that these clinics, nor today’s clinics, were designed to eliminate the Black population.
While this project failed, Sanger embarked on perhaps her most significant contribution: the push for a birth control pill. Without Sanger’s tireless efforts, sometimes her own money, and an eclectic mix of researchers almost obsessed with developing an oral contraceptive that women could take with their morning orange juice, there would likely would have been no Pill. But there also would have been no Pill, without the people on whom it was tested: mental patients, student nurses in Puerto Rico (who were forced to take part as a condition of their enrollment); and poor women in Puerto Rico’s slums. One of the major innovations of the twentieth century — and one that may have ignited the sexual revolution — the Pill is a metaphor of Sanger’s own conflicted legacy. It may have freed some women to have sex without fear of pregnancy, but it was available because of experiments done on people who couldn’t say no or had few other choices.
Planned Parenthood must grapple with this history, soon and publicly. However, one thing is true: Margaret Sanger is dead. The rate at which those who seek to limit Black women’s right to choose and access to birth control invoke her name would suggest otherwise.
7. Another myth: Planned Parenthood is an organization for and by White people. Many black and Latinos use Planned Parenthood for primary health care services, including physical examinations. Of the women who receive publicly funded contraceptive services nationwide — many of them low-income women of color — 36 percent got this care from Planned Parenthood health centers. And it’s not just about the patients. Planned Parenthood has had an African-American president, Faye Wattleton; a black medical director; African-American physicians; and countless diverse staff who work on the front lines in clinics and in advocacy work.
8. You may have heard that Martin Luther King was against abortion. These allegations are largely speculations fueled by statements by a King relative, Alveda King, who is a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion group Priests for Life. But what we do know: King was awarded Planned Parenthood’s highest honor (named after Sanger) in 1966. His wife, Coretta Scott King, delivered remarks on his behalf, which compared Sanger’s quest for family planning (even when birth control was illegal) to the Civil Rights Movement’s resistance to segregation laws.
Ms. King said in her remarks: “There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist — a nonviolent resister. She was willing to accept scorn and abuse until the truth she saw was revealed to the millions. At the turn of the century she went into the slums and set up a birth control clinic, and for this deed she went to jail because she was violating an unjust law….Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her. Negroes have no mere academic nor ordinary interest in family planning. They have a special and urgent concern.”
In this most recent scandal, there’s an unfounded conspiracy theory — that Planned Parenthood is cashing in on fetal body parts — and there’s a real conspiracy: anti-abortion forces setting up shell organizations, using fake names, and illegally wire-tapping their “sources” over years.
We can’t fault those who ask questions — for there are many things we don’t know — and because the exploitation of Black bodies has been a foundation of this country. During slavery, the enslaved were living, breathing capital whose flesh, families, skills and “breeding” capacities could be commodified. The institution of slavery was propped up by medicine, with physicians providing just enough care to keep slaves producing (both crops and children) and their owners’ bottom lines healthy. And we don’t have to go far into the past to find Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer brought her to a hospital where her multiplying cells were indeed taken and have since become standard “equipment” in medical research — furthering science without enriching her family.
But here is what we do know: many women — many of them Black and Latina — rely on Planned Parenthood for their primary and reproductive health care. For that physical, that Pap smear, low-cost contraception, pregnancy tests, breast exams. I have been one of them, and I will continue to be. I am also gratified when I walk into my local health center and see a nurse practitioner who looks like me or a Spanish-speaking attendant. While Planned Parenthood’s advocacy has not always been there for me, these staff have. Should Planned Parenthood health centers face closure, many women will be out of health care, and many workers will be out of jobs.
But at the end of the day, who do I stand with? I stand with Black women and women who use Planned Parenthood’s services. I don’t want a return to a world where women die from unsafe abortions and have even fewer health-care options than they already do. Nor do I want to live in a world where we expect Black women to build health-care organizations in the blink of the eye to save themselves when they have an average wealth of $100.
Because Margaret Sanger is dead, and I want Black women to live.