In 2000, black women made up approximately 6% of the population of the United States. In the same year, however, black women accounted for more than a third of the women who underwent abortion procedures. Abortion is an issue that deserves some attention in the black community, and the urgency at which this topic should come under review was made all the more obvious last Wednesday.
On April 18th, the Supreme Court upheld the Federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban in a 5-4 decision. Though partial birth abortion, or intact dilation and extraction (D&E) abortion procedure, as it is known by medical professionals, is rarely performed (more than 85% of abortions are performed during the first trimester), it has garnered an intense amount of attention as of late, amassed primarily by its pro-life opponents. The procedure has been debated for some time now, and its national significance was catalyzed by the election of a predominately Republican Congress correlating with George W. Bush’s entry into presidential office. Relying primarily on what could be considered the more gruesome aspects of the procedure in order to produce a dramatic public response, opponents of intact D&E succeeded in influencing members of Congress and, subsequently, five Justices of the Supreme Court to ban the procedure in the United States, even in the instance that it might be the more favorable option for the mother’s health.
Both pro-life and pro-choice activists view the Court’s decision as having a profound effect on their work—on the one hand signifying a victory and compelling action towards prohibiting abortion altogether, and on the other, ushering in a sense of loss and a fear with regard to the status of women’s reproductive rights. What’s missing from the activism and debate, however, is a face to represent the population that makes up a significant amount of those who choose to have abortions: black women. Pro-life activism is dominated by Christian groups and more conservative politicians, both of whom tend to have white males at the helm, and pro-choice advocates, at least in more mainstream sources, tend to be white women and liberal politicians, who, on a national level, tend to be white males. As women of color have often complained of being poorly represented by feminists, stating class and race as deciding factors in the limited consideration of their issues, (as people of color in general often feel misrepresented, if represented at all by politicians), the abortion debate seems to be one from which black women would be inevitably excluded, despite the high numbers of those who decide to undergo the procedure.
Hopefully the first federal ban on a form of abortion will encourage black activists on either side of the fence to speak up with regard to the pending future of black women’s bodies. Some activists have been mobilizing for years and add quite an interesting twist to the debate. Pro-life leaders like New Jersey Pastor Clenard H. Childress, Jr., who is the director of the Life Education and Research Network (L.E.A.R.N.), has introduced the issue of race into the abortion discussion, citing abortion statistics as a source of the black community’s demise. On L.E.A.R.N.’s website blackgenocide.org, he notes that abortion is one of the leading killers of young black Americans, and he hopes to encourage black women to consider other options besides abortion as a means of literally boosting the black population. Though his site and many of his teachings border on the extreme (i.e. the photo exhibition of aborted fetuses on the website), some of his points regarding racism within the feminist and reproductive rights movements and his advocacy of counseling for women to have healthier pregnancies are important factors for black women to consider. Other organizations also directly involve race, ethnicity, and class as influencing factors for debate with regard to abortion and reproductive rights as a whole. Pro-choice groups like the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, whose mission is to “protect the rights and human dignity of all women, particularly pregnant and parenting women and those who are most vulnerable including low income women, women of color, and drug-using women,” seek to provide guidance for pregnant women of multiple backgrounds, despite their choice with regard to whether or not they decide to give birth. They too provide counseling, public education, and engage in legal advocacy in order to advance their support of women in communities of color. Though the scale of the work done by the aforementioned groups is different considering their size and funding, they each encourage the public to remember that people of color are very much a part of the abortion debate, and signify far more than simple statistics.
It is my hope that the ban will encourage women of color to examine what their womanhood means to the people meant to represent them on Capitol Hill. In both the decision by Justice Kennedy and the dissenting opinion by Justice Ginsburg, the role that women serve to society was central. With the Court arguing that abortion, particularly the specific procedure entailed in the ruling, has a potentially profound and emotionally taxing effect on the women who undergo it, and the dissenting opinion discussing the physical effects of various abortion options on the health of women, in addition to both opinions discussing the role of medical professionals who practice abortions, it is undeniable that the black female community must play a role in future decisions of this sort. Black women’s physical and mental health, role in society, and position as mothers to the future of our community are often called into question, and with so many black women opting for abortions each year, we can no longer ignore the fact that debates about reproductive rights pertain to us too.
But our focus cannot stop there. We should encourage legislators to think about more than just abortion. What about other aspects of reproduction? HIV/AIDS is so prevalent in the black community, specifically among black women, that we should make sex education in communities of color one of the legislators’ new focal points. While we’re at it, we should also add foster care and adoption agency reform, as the system is overrun with black children. We should advocate additional funding for counseling young mothers who don’t have familial or spousal support. We should also add better prenatal care for lower-income women and encourage increased accessibility to childcare centers for women who must work to provide a home for their families. We should make a list for reform that could fill the pages of more court decisions and laws in the future. The legislators seem to think that their decisions regarding women should simply begin and end with our bodies, but it clearly goes much further. It’s up to us to remind them of just that.
You can find the fulltext of the Supreme Court Decision for Gonzalez v. Planned Parenthood and Gonzalez v. Carhart here: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/05-380.ZS.html