Blacks and Roe v. Wade

African-American women get a disproportionate number of abortions. Yet when it comes to the debate on abortion rights, we keep our lips zipped. Here’s why, on the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, we can’t afford to keep quiet any longer.

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Today marks the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal. For the last 37 years, the case has remained in a constant state of controversy, with anti-choice activists using any vehicle available to chip away at the right to choose. The most recent manifestation was seen in the health care reform debate, when Rep. Bart Stupak and Sen. Ben Nelson took the already-contentious issue and add another, obstructive layer to the controversy. The debate raged in the feminist blogosphere and the mainstream press, but one group remained silent: the African-American community.

To the untrained eye, it would appear that African Americans are not concerned with abortion rights, one way or another. But that perception could not be further from reality.

According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control, black women accounted for 36.4 percent of all abortion services performed in 2006. Black women are roughly 8.5 percent of the national population, yet we seek more pregnancy termination services than other minority groups. Yet, when the right to choose is under siege, many in our community choose to remain silent.

Google "African Americans and abortion," and you’ll find many links to sites decrying "genocide" and how "Planned Parenthood has killed more blacks than the Ku Klux Klan;" few provide straightforward information about abortion statistics in the African-American community. Discussions about race and reproductive rights are hard to navigate. Statistically, African Americans are more religious than the general population in the United States; most major religions frown upon the practice of abortion. Then there’s the fact that African Americans have had a unique history in America: We’ve often been the targets of sterilization programs. (Along with American Indian, mentally handicapped and Puerto Rican women living on the island.) The original founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, was also a staunch believer in eugenics, and made specific references to "racial regeneration" through the promotion of abortion.

Against this backdrop, it can be difficult to look at reproductive rights through the lens of racial history and not be wary of contemporary initiatives that are in support of abortion. However, the sheer number of women of color opting for abortion services speaks broadly to our continued need to ensure that all women have the right to choose.

In the summer of 1989, a coalition of black women realized that the silence around the right to choose was stifling efforts toward advancing reproductive justice. Covering far more than just the right to abort, reproductive justice is a holistic way of looking at all the issues impacting women and their families, not just one choice. In a passionate letter, published in Ms. Magazine and distributed in leaflets all around the country, Donna Brazile, Byllye Avery, Shirley Chisholm, Julianne Malveaux, Jewell Jackson McCabe, Eleanor Holmes Norton, C. Delores Tucker all pleaded for understanding and conversation around the subject of abortion. They wrote:

We understand why African-American women risked their lives then and why they seek safe, legal abortion now. It's been a matter of survival. Hunger and homelessness. Inadequate housing and income to properly provide for themselves and their children. Family instability. Rape. Incest. Abuse. Too young, too old, too sick, too tired. Emotional, physical, mental, economic, social--the reasons for not carrying a pregnancy to term are endless and varied, personal, urgent and private. And for all these pressing reasons, African-American women once again will be among the first forced to risk their lives if abortion is made illegal.

 

Even now, through the silence, more and more women choose to terminate their pregnancies, for many of the same reasons outlined in 1989. To a young girl from a low-income background, choosing to keep or abort a child may be the choice between years of poverty and the ability to get back on her feet. To an older woman, with her resources already stretched to the limit, another child may throw a household on the edge into ruin. And for many women, lack of consistent child care, the skyrocketing cost of housing and stagnant wages all contribute to why women quietly seek abortion services.

Those against the struggle for reproductive rights point to the erosion of the black family and black population growth as reasons to curtail abortion rights. However, women around the world have fought for the right to choose how to raise their families and how best to provide for their children while scraping by on subpar resources. This is why, for many young black women, there is a necessary shift that must occur in our conversations. We must stop focusing solely on abortion and critically engage with the issues that contribute to abortion.

Kimala Price is an activist who contributed to the hip-hop feminist anthology Home Girls Make Some Noise. In her essay, "Hip-Hop Feminism at the Political Crossroads: Organizing for Reproductive Justice and Beyond," Price argues why an enhanced conversation around reproductive justice is necessary.

Drawing from human rights and social justice principles, women of color activists have re-defined “reproductive rights” into what they now call “reproductive justice.” Reproductive justice is not just about the individualistic right to have an abortion (i.e., the right not to have children) but to include the right to have children and to raise them in healthy and stable families. Accordingly, these activists have broadened reproductive rights and freedom beyond abortion rights, the rights to privacy and “choice” which are normally associated with the movement. In sum, reproductive justice encompasses many other issues such as economic justice, immigration rights, housing rights, and access to health care.

On this day, let us break this wall of silence. Let's talk about abortion, choice and access. Let's talk about what our community can do to better support mothers and children. Because we cannot continue to ignore this issue.

Latoya Peterson is editor of Racialicious.