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Black Abortion: Breaking the Silence
by Maame-Mensima Horne
For years reproductive justice activists have been calling for African American women to break the silence around abortion within our communities. Instead, a new wave of anti-abortionists -- the black religious right -- has been gaining strength, usng a “Black Genocide” argument. This theory was originally started by Marcus Garvey and members of The Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) that he founded in 1914. Now, it is used to further the agenda of the black religious right and push African American women into the background.
Many African American women hide, afraid of the stigma that can come with discussing sexuality and pregnancy. But we need not be ashamed. Our foremothers fought the anti-abortionists, and we also need to do the same or else we will be where they were -- burying many of our own when, in desperation, they turned to back alley abortions.
Organizing against reproductive oppression will create the platform we need to regain our strength and allow for a more inclusive movement.
Black anti-abortionists are not concerned about women having autonomy over their bodies or mobilizing against reproductive oppressions. Instead, they continue paternalistic beliefs that place woman’s role as “mother” higher than anything else. “Mother” is one of many roles that women may choose, but it is not our defining role. We, the women, should decide how, when, and if we mother.
After all, men cannot give birth. The black anti-abortionists insist on the primitive belief that we need male protectors to make the decisions for the whole community. I personally do not want someone who has never menstruated and will never know the pains of childbirth making decisions about my reproductive health.
The anti-abortionists argue that since blacks make up only 13 percent of the population but are responsible for 37 percent of all abortions, there must be a conspiracy.
That is one of many myths within their arguments. First of all, to say abortion is genocide is a misconception. Access to abortion actually saved lives in black communities, where illegal abortion was a leading cause of death before Roe v. Wade. Equating abortion to genocide ignores the real destruction occurring in our communities -- imprisonment, poverty, unemployment and health disparities. Instead, it equates the reproduction of a community to its value.
Our communities need to be concerned about the institutional racism, not about taking away women’s rights to self-determination. Institutional racism is the foundation of many problems that impact blacks at disproportionate rates. For example, 35.9 percent of blacks under the age of 18 live in poverty; the infant mortality rate for blacks is 13.63 out of 1,000 live births, compared to the national average of 6.86, and 40 percent of the incarcerated population is black. According to The Sentencing Project, “A black male born in 2001 has a 32 percent chance of spending time in prison at some point in his life.”
Since the anti-abortion movement attempts to mobilize the black community by claiming that abortion is genocidal, using, in part, the racist history of some abortion providers, we need to talk directly to the topic. We need our allies from Planned Parenthood Federation of America to speak about the story of their founder, Margaret Sanger, and how black women worked with her to bring birth control into our communities.
Loretta Ross’s African-American Women And Abortion explains in depth how black women were involved in reproductive activism from the late 1800s to current times. The truth is black women have a long history dating back to pre-slavery of using birth control. During slavery, black women used their knowledge of herbal abortives as a means to resist the inhumane conditions. Black women organized to get birth control into the black communities; they organized against sterilization abuse and continue to organize against reproductive oppression.
We need to look at the how reproductive oppressions have damaged many women – although possibly in differing ways. The history of sterilization is but one example. White women were refused access to sterilization because of a desire of those in power to increase the white population. At the same time, attempts to limit births in low-income populations and communities of color resulted in women being coerced to have sterilization procedures. All of the women experienced reproductive oppression, but organized separately instead of collectively.
Women of color and our allies need to reach out on campuses and in communities to younger women who may take for granted the rights that they have.
We need to challenge the black anti-abortionists and other oppressive forces. We cannot allow their “Black Genocide” arguments to dictate how women make decisions about reproduction. We need to stand up to the sexism within the black anti-abortion movement, end the shaming and reclaim control over our bodies.
November 5, 2009
Maame-Mensima Horne is a Program Assistant with SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective and an activist focusing on issues pertaining to younger women and women of color.
Also see "Re-enslaving African American Women" by Loretta Ross in the Fall 2008 edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See "The Poet's Eye" featuring Marian Cannon Dornell and Cheryl Clarke, from Poetry Co-Editor Clare Coss in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.