Beyond the Same Old Abortion Debate

As members of Congress roll out a host of anti-abortion legislation, African Americans on both sides of the debate say it's time to look beyond the old concepts of pro-choice and pro-life.

Getty Images

Citing the disproportionate number of abortions among black women — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women have 36.4 percent of all abortions, even though blacks make up 13 percent of the population — as well as her own experience in Planned Parenthood observing family-planning units established in black communities, Tolbert says that African Americans are targeted for abortion. “Black people, ideologically, are very conservative,” she says. “But it’s not a conservative political agenda to want to protect innocent life. It’s a human agenda.”

La’Tasha Mayes, executive director of the activist group New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice, says that frequent descriptions of African Americans as conservative and pro-life are an overgeneralization. She argues that it’s time the country moved beyond the pro-life versus pro-choice binary of the abortion debate.

“It’s a limiting concept that says the choices that black women make are black and white. It’s not that simple,” Mayes told The Root, adding that the broader reproductive-justice movement — for access to health insurance, family-planning services and abortion — includes women with nuanced positions who identify as both pro-life and pro-choice.

“I’ve learned that it’s about people’s individual experiences,” she says. “Regardless of her politics and religion, if a woman does not want to have a child, she will not have a child. But the message from opponents of abortion is that we can’t be trusted to make these decisions for ourselves and our families. They want to shame black women for the choices we have to make, mostly out of survival.”

Mayes rejects the idea that black women are being targeted for abortion, arguing that the conversation lacks a full sense of perspective. “The leap from abortion to black genocide is missing many steps in between,” she says. “We can’t look at abortion in isolation, as if it’s a choice made independently from the context in which black women live.

“After years of doing this work, I’ve realized that abortion becomes a choice for women when they have been socially, economically and politically marginalized in complex systems of oppression,” she continues. “If you’re not talking about race, class, sex and gender issues before you start talking about abortion, then you’re missing the larger context.”

The notion of abortion access as a social-justice issue bewilders Ryan Bomberger, chief creative officer of the Radiance Foundation and director of the nonprofit’s national Too Many Aborted campaign, which invokes eugenics and the sterilization of black women when addressing the history of abortion. From his perspective, stopping abortion is the real social-justice issue.