At each of the two clinics where I gratefully got abortions in the 1990’s lone white men were stationed outside with bloody signs of fetal apocalypse. As white men protesting in predominantly black and brown communities their presence was unchallenged, their bodies unhindered by the policing and criminal surveillance that all people of color in the public sphere face. This was the high water mark of Operation Rescue, the radical anti-abortion group which laid the groundwork for the current wave of anti-abortion militancy.
Then, as now, mainstream pro-choice activists ceded the moral high ground to the anti-abortion regime, wavering between whether to frame abortion as a matter of personal choice or as an inalienable right. It’s a legacy that has had grave consequences for intersectionality as the “post-feminist” trope of sluttish immoral women recklessly using birth control and abortion has become legion in American political discourse.
As a black atheist already damned to a smokin’ Christian hell, it’s gratifying to know that the Christian god has failed to completely prevent women from exercising their basic right to self-determination. But the Christian soldiers, fascists and terrorists of the American right have doubled down with hundreds of new restrictions on birth control, abortion and clinic access which have the most insidious implications for poor and working class women of color.
In Texas, Mississippi and Montana, clinic closures, vandalized clinics, restrictions on abortion physicians and providers and the GOP’s refusal to expand Medicaid further jeopardize the socioeconomic sustainability of communities of color. These attacks, concomitant with the Supreme Court’s pending decision on right wing retailer Hobby Lobby’s “religious freedom” challenge to the Affordable Care Act, could gut the rights American women have taken for granted for decades.
Pro-death, anti-abortion public policy and protest are a form of race, class and gender warfare disguised as religious morality crusades to “protect” innocent “babies”. Challenging the abortion as “black genocide” billboard campaign mounted by right wing foundations a few years ago, reproductive justice activist Loretta Ross said, “We decided to have abortions. We invited Margaret Sanger to place clinics in black neighborhoods. We are part of the civil and human rights movement. We protected the future of black children, not our opponents.”
Despite their high levels of religiosity, a solid majority of African Americans support safe and legal access to abortion. And African American women have the highest rate of abortion amongst all groups of American women. The reasons are not mysterious—black women are disproportionately poor, under-employed, single and living in highly segregated communities with limited health care access which have borne the brunt of the economic depression. Due to slavery and the violent legacy of Jim Crow, black women have a history of coercive control over their reproduction. Thus abortion is an essential right in a white supremacist capitalist economy that neither supports nor values women of color and their children.
For black women, the radical push for abortion on demand is not an abstract concept. Abortion on demand cannot be separated from the conditions of racial apartheid that black women find themselves in, especially vis-à-vis the wealth gap and the criminal justice system. Nationwide, unemployment rates amongst African American women have skyrocketed, as have sentencing rates for non-violent offenses committed by African American women.
Unlike white women, there is never a presumption of innocence or extension of “feminine” protection for black women who defend themselves against abusive partners (as the egregious sentencing and imprisonment of Marissa Alexander demonstrates), engage in sex work or consume/sell illegal drugs. Unlike white women, black women who do so are rarely deemed misguided, victimized or troubled but simply criminal; bad mothers, bad bitches, bad “hos” and everything in between. The intersectional work of the National Association for Pregnant Women has been critical to challenging the disproportionate criminalization of women of color for drug-related fetal homicide and fetal endangerment offenses.
Given the dire nature of these public, highly politicized assaults, there has been a shift in the tenor of discussions on abortion in my high school classes. Several years ago, religious-based anti-abortion pushback dominated. Male and female students routinely condemned abortion as a sin. Many trotted out the refrain that a “baby” shouldn’t be made to suffer or pay for a woman’s “mistakes.” Now there is more vocal support for abortion as a necessary life choice. Some girls of color express their desire to remain childless, pointing to the burdens child care and caregiving have placed on the lives and ambitions of their female relatives and friends.
But most of my students would be hard-pressed to attend a pro-choice rally or protest precisely because abortion is still identified in the mainstream as a single issue “white woman’s” cause, divorced from a more overarching reproductive and economic justice context. At the same time, pro-choice sanitization of abortion discourse, promoted by liberal politicians and religious progressives, continues to obscure the mortal danger posed by a teetering Supreme Court and near daily attacks on reproductive health care.
As the organization Stop Patriarchy notes, “For far too long, pro-choice people have hoped that the Democrats or the courts would somehow stop this fascist assault on women. Too many people have remained passive, or funneled all their energies into supporting politicians who have openly promised to seek ‘common ground’ with forces who are ﬁghting for female enslavement. Seeking ‘common ground’ has really meant ceding ground to this whole onslaught. There can be no common ground with those who are fighting for female enslavement. The fight over abortion has never been about babies it has been about control over women.”
A crucial part of the fight is framing abortion for Millennials who believe same-sex marriage and sex education are “morally acceptable” but view abortion as morally questionable. Despite their increased secularity, Millennials are still just as conflicted about abortion as older generations. Many believe that abortion is simply a matter of personal “choice”, rather than a moral right. This disconnect has not only been fostered by decades of high profile Religious Right campaigns against abortion but by “left wing” appeasement/equivocation—both sides clamoring to be on the right side of an imaginary God.