It used to be that the pro-life movement was associated with the white religious right, the most extreme elements of which were bent on saving women from hell and damnation for killing their fetuses.
Now as more black women seek abortions, the banner has been taken up by some black pro-lifers. The Root spoke with several pro-life black clergy to find out what's behind the shift, including Catherine Davis, an ordained minister and director of minority outreach for Georgia Right to Life, one of the state's largest anti-abortion groups; Rev. Johnny M. Hunter, national director of the Life, Education and Resource Network, in Fayetteville, N.C.; and Alveda King, a niece of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who serves as director of African-American outreach for Priests for Life, and is a board member of Georgia Right to Life.
Riding the Shifting Tide
Members of the black clergy say their pro-life message is nothing new, and they have been sounding the drumbeat for over two decades. What is new is that people are finally paying attention to them. That may have something to do with shifting attitudes. Fifty-one percent of all Americans consider themselves pro-life and 42 percent pro-choice, according to a Gallup poll released in May 2009. The results marked the first time a majority of Americans identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began taking the poll in 1995. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of African Americans polled believe that abortion should never be legal or legal only in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother's life is endangered, according to polling group Zogby International.
The appeal that pro-lifers are using to reach African Americans: Black babies are on the verge of extinction because African-American women obtain 36.4 percent of all pregnancy terminations in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (That rate is far greater than that of white and Hispanic women, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the population.) Proponents of this message accuse white abortionists of pushing black women to terminate their pregnancies in an effort to extinguish the African-American race. As incredible as that might sound, their complaint has had enough impact that Georgia lawmakers are actually considering legislation to outlaw abortion prompted by a baby's race or gender.
One of the loudest voices behind that message is that of Davis, whose nonprofit organization is based in Lawrenceville, Ga., a suburb just outside of Atlanta. Like an evangelist, she spreads her anti-abortion message on college campuses and from the pulpits of black churches.
"We're talking about the fact that if people were put on the endangered species list, black children would certainly make the list," she said during a recent telephone interview. "I am not trying to victimize black women. I'm not trying to cast aspersions on my people. I am simply trying to point to the fact that the black community is being targeted by the abortion industry.''
Taking the Message to the Streets (and Highways)
To that end, about two months ago Georgia Right to Life launched a sensational ad campaign featuring a striking image of a black baby alongside the words, "Black Children Are An Endangered Species.'' The image and words were sprawled across 80 billboards throughout Georgia, rattling the nation and drawing attention to the anti-abortion message to a degree seldom seen since the fight against the passage of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion 37 years ago. Members also started a Web site, Too Many Aborted.
Many say they've gone too far. "The billboards are preying on the black community's historical knowledge of womb lynching,'' complained Toni M. Bond Leonard, co-founder, president and chief executive officer of Black Women for Reproductive Justice, a pro-choice organization in Chicago. "I think that is a very evil and dirty game they are playing.''
"I guess I was one of those who believed the African-American community was pro-life,'' Davis said. "I don't understand how anyone can say I am trying to scare people. I am talking about the factual, statistical results of the impact of abortion on the black community. The information I am sharing has been documented, not just by me, but by organization after organization for years.''
Equating Abortion With Genocide
The information Davis is referring to links abortion to genocide or Nazi-style eugenics, a message that is gaining momentum in the black community. A new documentary, "Maafa 21,'' written and directed by Mark Crutcher, a white pro-lifer in Denton, Texas, portrays Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, as a racist whose goal was to extinguish the African-American community through abortion.
Pro-choice advocate, Loretta J. Ross, national coordinator of SisterSong, Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, an Atlanta-based organization, dismissed the claims against Sanger.
"She was no genocidal maniac like they are trying to describe her,'' Ross said. "She was committed to women's rights and family planning. She didn't really approve of abortion because she thought they were so dangerous during her time. Yes, she flirted with eugenics, but then denounced it. But she was in the mainstream at the time because 22 states had eugenics laws.''
Still, Rev. Hunter said Planned Parenthood has a long history of genocide in the black community. He suggested that health care reform would not be a major issue if abortion were not part of the effort.
"There are some politicians who think the right people are being aborted,'' Hunter said. "There is no way to keep hounding for abortion when you put the majority of the clinics in minority communities. Then you have Planned Parenthood calling themselves health care providers. I don't think of abortion as health care.''
He described the billboard campaign as an ingenious way to transcend the media to get an unfiltered message to black America about the perils of abortion. And it got people's attention. Now he is in the midst of trying to install a billboard on a major thoroughfare in Fayetteville, but he's meeting resistance from the owner, who is reluctant, he says, to place the ad near Fort Bragg, the military base, and a new abortion clinic.
"The message is important, so we are not going to stop trying,'' he said. "We are losing 1,452 children a day to abortions. That means within four days, more blacks have been put to death than the Ku Klux Klan has lynched in the history of this nation.''
A Fight Rooted in Personal Regret
King said the black clergy's pro-life stance is nothing new, and that in fact they have been involved in the fight since the 1950s. Her own personal history turned King into an ardent supporter. She received two abortions in the 1970s and said she is still is filled with deep regret. She believes the abortions later caused a miscarriage. Not only are abortions destroying the black race, King said, but they also have a profound psychological impact on women.
"I went away from my pro-life roots and was beguiled by the women's rights movement until I had a deeper understanding of pro-choice,'' she said. "Then I came back to my roots. I'm glad to see today that the procreative reproductive health movement is finally being understood.''
Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.