In the film Precious, a teenage African American girl has two children by her HIV infected father. The possibility of abortion is never spoken of and the girl’s delivery of her second child is treated as a bootstraps triumph over the matriarchal hell of her upbringing by a degenerate “welfare queen.” Yet Precious is simply one more example in a long line of contemporary American films that “omit” reference to abortion as a viable life option. Popular glorifications of young motherhood in such white female-centered vehicles as Juno, Sixteen and Pregnant and Knocked Up promote a conservative pre-feminist vision of compulsory motherhood. In this moral universe abortion is a third rail alternative that only bad women make in shame and secrecy.
When I chose to have an abortion in my 20s as an underemployed college student on the road to a PhD it was in a climate in which the horrors of the pre Roe v. Wade era were distant and unimaginable. Now the pendulum has swung back, underscored by the recent debate over abortion coverage in the health care reform bills. Ostensibly drawing on the ban on federal abortion funding mandated by the Hyde Amendment, both the House and Senate bills drastically restrict abortion coverage in ways that will reduce the access of working and middle class women to safe legal abortions. Hyde restrictions on funding for abortion through Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for low-income women, effectively denied access to poor women seeking abortions. The House bill goes beyond Hyde, prohibiting insurers who participate in health reform insurance exchanges from including abortion coverage in their plans.
There has been very little national discussion of how women of color will specifically be affected by draconian restrictions on abortion in the health care bills’ mandated insurance exchanges. At approximately 6% of the U.S. population, African American women have a disproportionate number of abortions. African Americans’ long-standing allegiance to the Democratic Party has led to the assumption that blacks are unwaveringly pro-choice. However, there is tension between public support for choice among black voters and deeply held antiabortion sentiments in African American communities. A recent Zogby International poll showed an increase in anti-choice support among African Americans. Black anti-choice factions have gained greater visibility in the national arena on such far right media as Fox News. Internet searches for information on abortion and African Americans yield far more references to “black genocide” than to pro-choice African American views.
The overwhelming religiosity of African Americans, coupled with the political ascendance of the Religious Right, has made religious nationalist abortion foes the “authentic” voice of black America by default. It has also made frank talk about abortion's role in addressing the crisis of unwanted births in black communities virtually impossible. This climate fuels black nationalist and religious propaganda equating abortion with genocide. Hearkening back to eugenicist history, abortion foes point to a white conspiracy to reduce the black population. However, skyrocketing numbers of black children who are homeless, in foster care and/or Child Protective Services illustrate the gravity of caregiving issues facing many African American families. And black abortion foes offer no viable program for addressing this moral and social crisis. They offer no viable program for the dilemma of an 18 year-old who had her first child at age 12. They’re MIA when it comes to concrete assessment of how this 18 year-old (multiplied by 10,000) raising her second child by an incarcerated older man, develops parenting skills, deals with anger management, gets an education, finds health care resources, puts food on the table and grapples with the probability of being a single mother for the rest of her life.
The pervasiveness of popular images in which getting a man and becoming a mother are the be all end all of femininity make it easy to see why some young women decide to forgo abortion. Steeped in a culture where having a child at an early age is not stigmatized, being a young mother becomes an “antidote” to low self esteem and limited life opportunities. It is no mystery then why girls who see their friends get pregnant and have no other meaningful affirmation in their lives decide to sacrifice their youth for the fantasy of a baby’s unconditional love. It is no mystery why girls who are ambivalent go forward with a pregnancy anyway due to ignorance and/or fear about reproductive resources in their communities. Because of the deep social stigma associated with abortion, the burden of educating young women about the existence of alternatives to early motherhood increasingly falls on peers and mentors in their communities and not the frayed social welfare net.
Emphasis on reproductive justice has been a linchpin of black community organizing around a woman’s right to choose. Reproductive justice stresses the historical context of black women’s relationship to reproduction. Power and control over their bodies is a right that black women historically have not had. Under slavery compulsory pregnancy through rape and forced breeding was the norm for black women in this country. Sterilization policies advocated by eugenicist groups were also imposed on black women to assert racist control over black women’s reproduction. However, noting the connection between reproductive freedom and social justice, Loretta Ross, co-founder of the reproductive justice organization SisterSong remarked, “We understand why African-American women risked their lives then and why they seek safe, legal abortion now. It's been a matter of survival. Hunger and homelessness. Inadequate housing and income to properly provide for themselves and their children.” Choice is a key aspect of achieving self-determination and sovereignty for black communities in a racist patriarchal culture.
Nonetheless, recent polls have shown that there is increasing support for anti-choice antiabortion views among younger people. In a national culture in which the bankrupt “morality” of the Religious Right is the default position on ethics and personal choice, many young people have a limited a-historical view of the real life implications of restricted abortion access. In the debate leading up to the House and Senate bills, the morality police, lead by the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council, were out in full force, lobbying for more comprehensive restrictions on abortion coverage.
These views are reinforced by the Democratic shift in framing abortion initiated by President Obama.
In January Obama lifted a Bush-era “global gag rule” ban on funding for foreign family planning agencies that provide abortion services. Yet early in his presidential campaign he showed his willingness to kowtow to antiabortion forces out of political expediency. He cozied up to antiabortion evangelicals with rhetoric about “reducing” the number of abortions by reducing unplanned pregnancies. He rubbed shoulders with homophobe Pastor Rick Warren at his mega-church in Orange County and gave him a plum position at his inauguration. He re-legitimated Bush’s faith-based initiative program by approving its funding base and tacitly endorsing discriminatory church hiring policies. Obama’s politically expedient approach to choice has bolstered the anti-choice anti-abortion agendas of Blue Dog Democrats like Congressman Bart Stupak and Senator Ben Nelson. The Blue Dog’s aggressive recruitment by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has lead to the gutting of any semblance of progressive legislation in the Democratically-held Congress.
In the health care reform charade this will have disastrous consequences for black women and communities of color, who rely heavily on services like Planned Parenthood for preventive care (due in part to restrictions mandated by the Hyde Amendment). Every state that enacts parental notification laws and late term abortion restrictions further imperils the lives of women of color who generally have fewer health care resources than do white women of any economic level. The crisis of unemployment, unequal pay for equal work, unequal access to health care and a cradle-to-prison pipeline mean that African American women can least afford to be mis-educated about the right to choose because of religious dogma or destructive nationalist blather. In the midst of a dangerously reactionary climate we can least afford to cede visibility to self-appointed “authentic” morality police of black America. Simply put, abortion saves lives, black lives, and standing on the sidelines while the Religious Right and its allies hijack our rights is not an option.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a commentator for KPFK 90.7FM Los Angeles.