Despite anti-abortion campaigns, black feminists support abortion rights
Abortion is a contentious issue in the African American community, especially since many religious Black Americans share the same beliefs about fetal personality as white Evangelicals. But one group has consistently championed the importance of abortion rights for black people: black feminists. Why? Because they have long viewed abortion rights as part of broader goals of racial and reproductive justice.
As abortion rights became an increasingly important focus for feminists in the 1960s, black feminists did not place the same emphasis on it as white feminists. They were more concerned with how black women faced reproductive coercion along with other women of color, poor women, and disabled women.
Thirty-one states allowed forced sterilization sometime in the 20th century. These policies often disproportionately affected people of color, especially black people. For example, in North Carolina, in about 40 years of forced sterilization tolerated by the state, 5,000 of the approximately 7,600 sterilizations were carried out on blacks, who made up only a quarter of the state population. In 1961, civil rights activist Fannie Lee Hamer was sterilized without her consent by a white doctor who was performing surgery to remove a uterine tumor. These forced sterilizations were once so common that they were dubbed “Mississippi appendectomies.”
Also in the 1980s and 1990s, birth control, often semi-permanent forms such as implants or injections, became a condition of receiving public support in many states.
But despite this history of abuse, black feminists still campaigned fiercely for abortion rights because they understood the importance of physical autonomy, especially when it comes to procreation.
Why? Because abortion has long been a survival and resistance strategy for Black women. Historians have shown that abortion allowed even some semblance of self-determination during slavery. enslaved women could thwart the ability of enslavers to use their children as property to profit from birth control and abortion.
A full century later, Rep. Shirley Chisholm (DN.Y.), who served as the first black woman in Congress in 1969, continued to see the connection between racial justice and access to abortion. The same year that she entered Congress, Chisholm accepted an appointment as honorary co-president of what was then known as the National Association to Repeal Abortion Laws (NARAL).
Chisholm has repeatedly spoken out in favor of legalizing abortion during her tenure. In response to this endorsement, she repeatedly heard accusations that abortion was “genocide” against Black Americans. She addressed this argument in a chapter of her memoir.Unbought and Unbossed” (1970) entitled “Facing the Abortion Question”. Chisholm refuted arguments that birth control and abortion are “conspiracy”.[s] by the white power structure to keep black numbers down.” She also noted that she only ever heard these views expressed by men, writing, “To call family planning and legal abortion programs ‘genocide’ is male rhetoric for males ears. It falls flat on female listeners and thoughtful males.
Instead, Chisholm argued that reproductive choice enables women and their families to achieve economic prosperity and ensure that the next generation of black children are “raised in love and stability and educated to the limits of their abilities.”
Chisholm argued that a safe, legal abortion was a matter of survival, citing a study by Edwin M. Gold that found 49 percent of pregnant black women’s deaths were caused by botched abortions. Chisholm also stressed that then, as now, poor women and women of color had the least access to quality medical care, including abortion.
Over the next two decades, black women continued to mobilize for abortion rights.
In 1989 the Supreme Court ruled Webster against reproductive health services that states could restrict access to abortion. Donna Brazile, then executive director of the National Political Congress of Black Women, organized a conference call among leading black women that resulted in the release of a statement titled “We Remember: African American Women for Reproductive Freedom.” Sixteen black women signed the statement, including Chisholm; Faye Watterson, the first black female president of Planned Parenthood; Marcia Ann Gillespie, Editor-in-Chief of “Ms.” Magazine; and the future Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (DD.C.), then a professor at Georgetown Law School.
The statement echoed Chisholm’s refutation of claims of black genocide and instead firmly framed abortion as a freedom issue for Black women. The statement began by saying, “Choice is the essence of freedom. This is what we African Americans have been fighting for all these years. The right to choose where we would sit on a bus. right to vote. The right for each of us to go our own way, to dream and to reach for our dreams. The right to choose how we want to live our lives or not.”
Today, black feminists continue to view access to abortion as an important part of reproductive justice. The arguments that black women made decades ago still apply.
Friday’s Supreme Court decision is overturned Roe v. calf will disproportionately hit vulnerable people, including black women, jeopardizing the gains they have made over the past few decades due to their increasing ability to take control of their own bodies and lives.
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