by Jill Nelson
Feigning concern for Black women and children, the infinitely cynical anti-abortion movement has plastered the Atlanta area with posters depicting abortion as genocide. “But who they really want to have more babies is young white girls,” says Black reproductive rights activist Loretta Ross. “Abortion, immigration, and gay marriage are the wedge issues, and somehow some black people keep going for it.”
Are Anti-Abortion Groups Targeting Black Women?
by Jill Nelson
This article previously appeared in TheDefendersOnline, a publication of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“Posters and billboards around Atlanta equate abortion with genocide.”
If it weren’t for the cordless telephone that keeps cutting off mid-sentence because for weeks she’s been too busy fielding calls to effectively recharge it, you’d never know that Loretta J. Ross, 56, spends most of her time battling the many-headed Hydra of an anti-abortion movement determined to control women’s bodies and curtail their freedoms.
Ross is a co-founder and National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, a network of 80 women of color and allied organizations. Founded in 1997 and based in Atlanta, Georgia, SisterSong works on issues of reproductive justice and serves as an organizing center for feminists of color. Ross, a lifelong activist, is currently battling the Georgia Right to Life organization and The Radiance Foundation, which several months ago initiated an aggressive anti-abortion campaign aimed at black women, putting posters on somewhere between 65 and 80 billboards around Atlanta equating abortion with genocide.
The public response and massive free publicity generated by posters of a fat cheeked but sad faced black child with a tear in its eye next to the words “Endangered Species” in bright yellow block letters, has had an effect.
“A mother who tells her daughter, ‘Don’t get pregnant and bring a baby home,’ could precipitate criminal charges against the doctor who provided an abortion.”
On March 10 the judiciary committee of the Georgia House passed the Georgia Pre-Natal Non-Discrimination Act, HB 1155, which seeks to ban the solicitation of women of color by abortion providers, even though there is no evidence that abortion providers do so. The law would put the onus on providers to prove they don’t. The Rules Committee chairman sent the bill back to committee the next week. On March 26, the judiciary committee of the Georgia Senate passed its own bill, SB 529, the Coercion and Pre-Natal Non-Discrimination Ban, which makes it a felony to encourage a woman to have an abortion. The bill also outlaws abortion for reasons of gender selection, racial discrimination, and allows women who are “coerced” to file charges against the abortion provider. Under the bill that penalizes doctors for third party actions, a mother who tells her daughter, “Don’t get pregnant and bring a baby home,” could precipitate criminal charges against the doctor who provided an abortion.
Given ongoing attacks on women’s right to abortion, which, Ross warns, if they already haven’t, “Will soon come to a state near you,” Ross’s voice for women of color’s right to choice is especially timely.
Q: Why are anti-abortion forces now going after Black women?
Ross: I’m not so sure if the anti-abortion forces are going after black women. I think they are after the black community, using a strategy of re-beefing up the black patriarchy to revive that wedge between black women and men. When we were doing our organizing on the Georgia Hill against SB 529, we could not find a black woman who wasn’t with us. It was some of the black men who weren’t. The lie that abortion equals genocide re-emboldens this whole black patriarchy thing; that it is okay to discriminate against black women to save black children.
“This old shaming and blaming of black women just recycles itself.”
You’d think we’d have grown past this type of simplistic thinking, that black women should have black babies to fight white supremacy. Marcus Garvey was saying this in the 1930s. It’s designed to drive a wedge between the civil rights movement and the feminist movement, between black men and women. I mean, isn’t it obvious that the same people that want to ban abortion are against gun control? Since when did black women become the enemy of the black community? This old shaming and blaming of black women just recycles itself, and while I am not surprised, I am disappointed that some people are falling for it. Abortion, immigration, and gay marriage are the wedge issues, and somehow some black people keep going for it, as if white Republicans care about the black community and have our interests at heart. I would invite any of these people to come down when we’re trying to pass gun control. Or get more money for education. Or funds for health care. They are not there.
Q: What’s their agenda?
Ross: I don’t think white Republicans care about black women or black children, I think we’re the tool they’re using to outlaw abortion for white women. When you couple no access to birth control with no access to abortion, you end up with more babies. We are the wedge, the tool, but who they really want to have more babies is young white girls. How do you make that happen? You create conditions where it’s impossible for young white girls to decide not to have a baby. I’ve always said if they could figure out a way to make abortions accessible only to black women, they’d send Cadillacs to take us to the clinics.
Q: What is SisterSong doing to respond to these attacks?
Ross: Our first step is going to be to enjoin the legislation here in Georgia, because it is not constitutional. It fails to define coercion, and provides criminal penalties for things that aren’t crimes, seeking an abortion or providing an abortion. The state can’t just up and make something illegal that’s not illegal on the federal level. I think the legislation will have the most impact on black and Asian American women, because their argument is that the mere placement of the clinics in an African-American or Asian community is a sign of coercion. Let me point out that of the 15 clinics in the state of Georgia, only 4 are in black neighborhoods.
“These kinds of bills are going to be coming to a town near you.”
Second, we are working to raise awareness, because this campaign and these kinds of bills are going to be coming to a town near you. They’ve already said they’re going to do it in New York, Tennessee, and California, it is going to be a national campaign. For the $20,000 the anti-abortion forces have spent on billboards just here in Georgia, look what it’s gotten them; national and international press coverage and attention.
Q: What kind of support are you getting from white women’s organizations?
Ross: Unfortunately, Planned Parenthood is reluctant, for reasons I don’t understand, to enter the debate about race and abortion, and thus the burden falls to small organizations like SisterSong, an organization that has far fewer resources. If we do not speak out and organize, providers will become wary of providing abortion services in our communities.
I think white organizations are uncomfortable – in the mildest sense – and incapable – in the harshest sense – of integrating race and abortion. That’s why we formed SisterSong 13 years ago, we got tired of trying to fix the white women’s movement and decided to start our own.
Q: Are younger women involved in the fight to preserve abortion rights?
Ross: What I’m finding is that for the most part the young women are standing solidly with us. We have gone to college campuses and the support is overwhelming. Black women are not as gullible as the media likes to portray us as being. I know they have that Sheneneh stereotype out there, but even Sheneneh wouldn’t go for the abortion is genocide argument when it came to her body, her pregnancy, and her ability to provide for her family. What is seldom mentioned is that most women who have abortions already got kids. They’re not making this decision outside the knowledge of what it takes to raise a child. They are very clear, and not at all regretting the decision. The whole issue of white Republican men presuming we’re stupid and expecting us to believe they care about black children is ridiculous. These are the same people who opted out of health care reform and who want to extend the right to carry concealed weapons into colleges and churches.
Q: Is there a religious divide around the issue?
Ross: There is a right, left and center in the Christian community as there is everywhere. The more conservative Christian members of the African-American community are more susceptible to the blandishments of white conservatives. The black church of my youth was about liberation and racial uplift, and now you have a more conservative wing of the church that is obsessed with sex and sexuality. What’s it about? I think they’re getting paid off. What we need is a real topnotch journalist to follow the money of the right to life movement in the black community.
“Planned Parenthood is reluctant to enter the debate about race and abortion.”
There is also tremendous pressure on those who provide abortion services. Black doctors, who are quietly providing abortion services, are very afraid to be identified as providers. They don’t make the money to hire the extensive security they need to protect themselves, and they don’t even want to call on the community for help because it would make them more vulnerable. They are deathly afraid of being identified, for good reason.
Q: Given the composition of the US Supreme Court, do you think threats to overturn Roe v. Wade have taken on more urgency?
Ross: I think the people who sponsor these bills hope they can go to the United States Supreme Court, but I don’t think that will pass muster. It simply is not constitutional. I think it will go the same way as these states rights challenges to health care reform. It’s going to be really hard for even a conservatively-led court to overturn Roe. I really don’t think that’s gonna happen. They can limit it, but limiting it and overturning it are two different things. But even if they do, it’s not going to prevent people from having abortions, particularly African-American women. Black people have always understood that limiting your family size means you have more access to jobs and educational opportunities.
Q: What should people who support abortion rights be doing?
Ross: Get on our website and join SisterSong. Donate if you are able. I have 5 staff people and 3 of us are on this story fulltime, both dealing with the legislation and preparing materials for the larger national campaign that is ahead. We need funds to print materials, hire staff, formulate talking points, to finish a film, and all within the next 90 days.
It’s time for civil rights organizations to step to the front and center about the abuse of civil rights laws that’s taking place in this attack on black women’s right to abortion and the characterization of abortion as genocide. The purpose of civil rights is to expand people’s freedoms, not take them away. This bill in Georgia does exactly the opposite, it sets up a situation where, because of their race and gender, people can be denied freedom and access. The fact that they’re trying to say they’re fighting for the civil rights of fetuses makes a mockery of what people marched and died for. The intent of civil rights law is not to discriminate against black women or anyone else.
Historically, we have not enjoyed loud voices speaking out in support of abortion rights; the NAACP has been the exception. When they supported the March for Women’s Lives in 2004, they held the line. But we could use more support. There should not be a split between the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, particularly when black women are the bridge between both.
“The purpose of civil rights is to expand people’s freedoms, not take them away.”
Other than money, the thing we most need people to do is speak out about their own experiences. We have got to normalize abortion in the black community. It shouldn’t be a dirty little secret. We have made it safer to have an abortion than to talk about abortion. The black woman who wants to help will start writing and blogging about her own abortion experiences, and will take this discussion into her own church, her own community, and speak out. Young people often don’t understand that making that critical decision to have an abortion, at a critical time in our lives, made the rest of our lives possible. And the lives of the children we already had or had subsequently.
I just wish the entire black community could unite any time the dignity and rights of black women are attacked. Instead of being a united community ready to defend ourselves and our agency, we end up being a divided community along the gender fault. That black men who come from black women are so willing to disrespect black women never ceases to amaze me. The more we adopt the mainstream mores in our communities, the less we care about those communities and the more we simply care about ourselves. It is a historical step backward.
Events in Georgia, efforts in Utah to criminalize abortion, the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, and the recent designation of April as Abortion Recovery Month by anti-abortion Republican governors Rick Perry of Texas and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, remind me both how crucial it is that women have the right to choose when to bear children, and how important that right has been for me personally. In my 20‘s I twice chose to have an abortion rather than give birth to unwanted children. Was I using birth control when I got pregnant? Yes. Was I not as conscientious as I should have been? Probably. Did I consider giving birth because I’d made a mistake and my punishment was to be doomed to raise it? Not for a moment. I did not choose abortion casually or cavlierly, but thoughtfully and gratefully. It was clear that the life I was trying to build for myself and the child I already had would be seriously threatened by another child. My decision to have an abortion was made soberly and with much thought. I have absolutely no regrets, then or now. The right to a safe, accessible, legal abortion is a right I will continue celebrate and fight for as long as it is under attack. It made my life possible.
Jill Nelson is a journalist and author of five books. She lectures widely on race, gender, politics and media.