Black Silence and the Abortion Debate


During the 2008 presidential campaign, it seemed—for a whimsical, idealistic, brief moment in time—that abortion had become a non-issue. Among the most riveting exchanges on the topic came when Barack Obama responded coyly to mega-church pastor Rick Warren that it was above his “pay grade" to answer a question about when a fetus is entitled to human rights. The whole exchange was incredulously reasoned and cordial.


Over the past several weeks, however, we’ve been reminded that abortion remains a devastatingly controversial issue for Americans. And whether anyone is talking about it or not, it remains a pressing civil rights concern for African-American women. Where are our civil rights leaders when we need them?

Three recent events have brought abortion back to the center of our national conversation, the most recent and brutal: the murder of Dr. George Tiller, one of the few brave doctors in the country who performed late-term abortions. The physician, who has been targeted by dangerous anti-abortionists for years, was gunned down in his church on Sunday in Wichita, Kan. While Tiller’s murder shocked the nation, heat around the issue had been building for weeks, prompted first by President Obama’s unusually straightforward comments on abortion during his commencement address at Notre Dame, then by his nomination to the Supreme Court of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who has yet to formally indicate her position on the issue.

These three coincidences in timing might not a conspiracy make, but they should give pro-choice advocates great cause for alarm. On one hand, there seems little to fear from President Obama himself. On his second day in office, he signed a memorandum that rescinded the Mexico City Policy, also known as the "global gag rule," and lifted a ban on U.S. funding for international health groups that perform abortions, promote legalization of the procedures or provide abortion counseling.     

On the other hand, pro-life pundits and activists recently touted the Gallup poll result that 51 percent of Americans consider themselves "pro-life" and just 42 percent say they are "pro-choice." While many, such as Charles Franklin of Pollster, object to this poll as an outlier, conservatives are touting the data as a moral “tipping point” by claiming this is the first time a majority of the country has stated a personal objection to abortion since Gallup polls began tracking the data 15 years ago.

Regardless of the validity of the poll, the murder of Tiller, the obscurity of Sotomayor’s position and this allegedly new “majoritarian” view suggest that Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 abortion rights decision, remains at risk.

While abortion is rarely seen as a civil rights issue, the dismantling of Roe v. Wade would have dire consequences for African-American women. The roots of reproductive injustice for black women date back to the nation’s founding, for enslaved women had no control of their reproductive rights and often were forced to bear children in order to replenish their slave master’s labor force. Dorothy Roberts writes in her book, Killing the Black Body, that slave masters considered black women “objects whose decisions about reproduction should be subject to social regulation rather than to their own will.”


Today, reproductive injustice continues to adversely affect African-American women. Federal underfunding of adequate family-planning programs and lack of access to inexpensive, readily available contraceptives certainly play a role. And legislation, such as the Hyde Amendment, that denies women full access to safe and affordable abortions makes it more likely that African-American women and low-income women (who are disproportionately African-American) are adversely impacted. The reversal of Roe v. Wade would quite simply prevent African-American women from realizing full reproductive freedom.

While organizations such as Black Women's Health Imperative (BWHI), Black Women for Reproductive Justice (BWRJ) and the Third Wave Foundation are in the foreground of the fight for reproductive justice as a social justice, racially progressive mainstream organizations, such as the NAACP, have yet to incorporate black women’s “right to choose” as a fundamental part of their civil rights agendas.


Given the racial history of reproductive rights, it is not just Planned Parenthood and the Feminist Majority that needs to push Obama on whether or not Sotomayor will uphold Roe v. Wade. Former Planned Parenthood president and African-American feminist Faye Wattleton once said, “Reproductive freedom should not be seen as a privilege or as a benefit, but a fundamental human right.”

The abortion debate is so heated—and increasingly, again, so dangerous—that many of us choose to opt out of it. What the events of the past few weeks should remind us is that we cannot afford to sit silent. We must push ourselves and our black organizations to be present and vocal in an interracial, intergenerational, cross-interest movement, that memorializes Tiller’s untimely death and assures all women, especially black women, unprecedented reproductive liberty.


Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the non-profit organization, A Long Walk Home, Inc., which uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to document and to end violence against underserved women and children.

Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.