Beyond the Same Old Abortion Debate

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It started with H.R. 3, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. Introduced in late January by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the bill would prevent tax benefits for health care plans that cover abortion and also change language in the Hyde Amendment that allows government funding for abortion in cases of rape, incest or endangerment of the pregnant woman's life.

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Under this new legislation, as originally presented, the rape exemption would be limited to so-called forcible rape. Yet after concerted pushback by pro-choice advocates — outraged that it would exclude coverage for women who say no without physically fighting off the assailant, women who are drugged or minors who are victims of statutory rape — the phrase "forcible rape" was later stripped from the bill.

Not that the controversy has deterred the new House Republican majority. In the weeks since H.R. 3's debut, Congress has introduced a veritable roster of abortion legislation:

* There's Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Pitts' newly reintroduced Protect Life Act, which both forbids federal abortion funding in the 2010 health care reform law and lets hospitals refuse to perform any abortions, including emergency procedures needed to save the lives of pregnant women.

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* The Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act, sponsored by Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, would ban federal dollars from going to any organization that provides abortion services.

* Rep. Rand Paul of Kentucky co-sponsored the Life at Conception Act, a bill that he predicts would "reverse Roe v. Wade without the need for a constitutional amendment" by declaring fetuses to be legal persons protected under the 14th Amendment, and thus granted all the rights of a person.

House Democrats have pushed back, starting with a press conference last week to avow their rejection of H.R. 3. "The Republicans came to power in Congress saying they were going to focus on job creation and economic growth, but the introduction of this bill reveals their obsession with pushing an extreme social agenda that further restricts the right of women to access health services, including abortions, and have a say over their own bodies," California Rep. Maxine Waters said at the presser before concluding, "If it's a fight the Republicans want, then it's a fight we'll give them."

Looking Beyond Life and Choice

Pro-lifers are hoping that African Americans will take up their side of the battle. According to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey (pdf), 40 percent of African Americans believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. From former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum expressing amazement in January that a black man (President Barack Obama) could ever be pro-choice, to billboard campaigns that liken abortion to black genocide, African Americans are now positioned at the center of the rekindled debate.

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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.

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"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."

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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."

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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.

"What baffles me is how many political progressives will look at every institution in America and say there's racism in it, but somehow when it comes to the abortion industry, racism doesn't exist," Bomberger told The Root, "even though the entire history is predicated on the horrific pseudoscience that believes only certain people are fit to live."

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Bomberger is further frustrated by the pro-life movement being portrayed as consisting entirely of the white religious right. "The annual March for Life in D.C. is the most multiracial coalition that I have ever seen, with hundreds of thousands of Hispanic, black, white and Asian people. Of course, it's also the most ignored," he said. "The whole argument that white conservative people don't care about black people is so tired. What is worse: white conservative people who want to save black lives, or white liberal people who want to fund the killing of black lives?"

African Americans on the other side of the debate, meanwhile, remain unconvinced that, for example, conservative members of Congress pushing to restrict abortion have black interests in mind. "They say they're concerned about the black race but then don't support black children once they're here," says Loretta Ross, national coordinator of SisterSong, an Atlanta-based reproductive-justice group for women of color, who argues that the same conservative lawmakers ignore economic and educational inequalities.

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"In our own collective history, black women know what it feels like when someone else controls our bodies and makes decisions for us," Ross continued in an interview with The Root. "We're fighting fiercely for our rights to be seen as adult human beings capable of making decisions for ourselves about these things. We know what happens when you become breeders for somebody else's cause. Even as strong as our religious feelings are, we don't play that."

Gaining Steam on Capitol Hill

Regardless of the debate among African Americans, members of Congress — and not just Republicans — are forging ahead with efforts to restrict funding and access for abortion. Ten House Democrats are among the 173 co-sponsors of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, striking a blow to the claim that abortion bills have no chance of passing the Democratic-held Senate.

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"We have many Blue Dog Democrats sounding remarkably like Republicans," says Ross. "That makes it very difficult to depend on the Democratic Party to stand up for women's rights and other issues that should distinguish them from Republicans. I am deeply concerned about that, as should be President Obama and the rest of Congress."

Conversely, the increasing momentum is heartening for black pro-life proponents. "They will be successful because the dialogue fostered by such debate is educational for many," says Tolbert. "Americans are less likely to be swayed to believe that abortion is a solution to poverty when they see and learn the facts about how abortions are performed, that parents are denied notification or consent, and that abortion emotionally scars men and women for life."

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One thing everyone can agree on is that activists have been working around this issue tirelessly for decades — it's not exactly a "revived" conversation. "It's just sparking hotter now in this current political moment," says Mayes.

Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter

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