Earlier this month, Renee wrote a post about an Atlanta billboard targeting black women’s reproductive rights by pointing to the higher rates of abortion among black women, and claiming that abortion clinics are attempting to abort black children out of existence. It’s a great post, touching on many things that will come up here, and you should go read it.
It turns out this issue is about more than a billboard campaign — SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective clues us in to the fact that it’s also turning into an issue of legislation and public policy. Anti-choice legislators in Georgia have introduced HB 1155 – The Sex and Race Selection Bill, and while it sounds warm and fuzzy on the outside, SisterSong assures us that it’s not (pdf):
This bill seeks to ban the solicitation and targeting of women of color by abortion providers throughout the state.
This misleading issue of abortions for sex- and race-selection in Georgia means that we have to use facts and science to stand up for women of color without undermining our support for abortion rights or without enforcing racial stereotypes about women of color. Intent on driving a wedge between reproductive justice and racial justice organizations, and pro-choice advocates, the bill reflects the false assumption that abortion providers throughout the state “solicit” women of color. If implemented, this bill will adversely impact abortion providers by requiring them to prove that they are not targeting women of a certain race or ethnicity. This burden could result in delayed medical services, particularly for women of color. Additionally, this legislation would alter the racketeering laws of the Georgia Code to include abortion providers. This is unacceptable as abortion is legal in the State of Georgia, and the alleged abuses of this medical procedure are unfounded. Such a bill would have a terrible effect on women’s ability to access reproductive health care services throughout the state.
While explicitly targeting women of color and attempting to coerce them into abortions would obviously be a horrific, racist thing, as the press release states, there’s no indication that it’s an issue requiring legislation. Further, the legislation is not a benign preventative measure, but an effort to restrict abortion access further than it is already restricted. The women who would be impacted, as is always the case, are those who are already marginalized. It’s clear that proponents of this bill, and those behind the billboard, do not have black women or children’s best interests in mind. They are rather simply opposed to any and all abortions, and find that non-white targets are easy to hit, for a myriad of reasons.
For all of the above reasons, and because I always trust people on the ground to know what is best for their communities much better than I ever could, I strongly support SisterSong in their campaign to defeat HB 1155. As of yesterday, the bill was approved through sub-committee, but the full Judiciary Committee has suspended consideration and not yet voted. SisterSong is urging Georgia residents to call Chairman Rich Golick of the Non-Civil Judiciary Committee TODAY and urge him to VOTE NO TO HB 1155. His office number is 404.656.5943, and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are someone who can take action, SisterSong has also prepared a list of talking points for your email or phone call (pdf).
But while we are on the topic, I’d also like to discuss the subject of these types of anti-choice attacks a little more closely.
The line of argument being made here — that abortion providers target women of color, usually black women specifically, and are responsible for a genocide, and/or interested in ethnic cleansing — is not new. It’s an argument that has been advanced for some time. The thing is that while we may strongly disagree with the ideas and politics of anti-choice organizers, their methods aren’t usually irrational. Their messaging comes from somewhere, and is repeated because it has an effect on someone. In the case of this racial argument, the appeal to white, anti-choice leaning people is clear: it’s a way to make themselves look like do-gooders, through the guise of anti-racism. But the argument is seemingly more commonly advanced in communities of color. Folks with white guilt aren’t usually the target — black women usually are.
What I rarely see discussed in U.S. pro-choice communities, at the top levels still usually dominated by white activists, is why this messaging is seemingly effective enough to win continued use. The easy answer is that oppressed people are used to prejudice, and thus tend to find accusations of such prejudice compelling, sympathetic, and in line with their lived experiences. (For example, I am probably more likely to believe an accusation of sexism than an average man.) While this may indeed play a role, I’d argue that we’re foolish, as well as promoting racism ourselves, if we ignore that many people of color are suspicious towards pro-choice people because of the movement’s own history with racism.
Because while, no, it’s not true that Planned Parenthood wants to “kill black babies,” it is true that the mainstream U.S. reproductive rights movement has not always been friendly to black women, or had their best interests at heart. Margaret Sanger may not have been the militant eugenicist and racist that she is often portrayed as, but the fact is that she did support some forms of eugenics, which inevitably have a racist impact. While it’s not true that pro-choicers want to coerce certain women into abortion (that would be far from supporting choice), it is true that the more privileged and influential among us have traditionally ignored the rights that would allow many women to carry desired pregnancies to term, and the rights that would allow marginalized women to raise their own children. And while the mainstream reproductive rights movement has long championed access to birth control, it has less frequently promoted real informed choices and consent among anyone other than middle-class white women, as the 1990s Norplant debacle shows.1
And as action alerts, blog posts, and protest marches tell us, the focus of the movement still is on abortion, rather than equally on the ways that women’s reproductive autonomy is similarly under attack in terms of birthing options, childcare options, healthcare, and social services. The focus of the mainstream reproductive rights movement is still on choice, with little recognition of the fact that in order for meaningful choice to exist, we have to have justice first. And while those who support reproductive rights are much more likely than opponents to care why it is that black women have so many more abortions than white women (working from the position that abortion is morally neutral, but it is always better for a woman who actually wants to continue a pregnancy to be able to do so, and that preventing an unplanned pregnancy is always more ideal than an otherwise unneeded medical procedure), it’s also typically considered a separate issue, a different aspect of being liberal or progressive, and not key to women’s health and reproductive agency.
The U.S. mainstream reproductive rights movement still fails to look at these issues from a holistic standpoint concerning all of women’s lives and the natural variance among them, and as a result those issues that have particular historical resonance among women of color are also left by the wayside.
Thankfully, there are amazing organizations like SisterSong that are not only run by women of color, but also use this framework and organize in communities based on local concerns and needs. But while I think it’d be a great world where they were, they’re still not the face of the pro-choice movement. Those white and middle-class run organizations that, for all of their other courage and important work, have historically excluded many groups explicitly and still gloss over issues today, are.
And until U.S. pro-chociers address this history and the many current problems that remain, not only are these attacks going to continue, we’re also going to be limited in our room for criticism. We can keep addressing individual arguments — and we should — or we can also start addressing the reasons why they may be effective, and start making those people of color who are not already a part of the movement, and who have good, rational reasons to be suspicious, feel as though they are welcome, and as though their issues matter just as much as anyone else’s. If we really care about reproductive justice, we shouldn’t even think about accepting any other kind of movement, anyway.