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African- American Women And Abortion

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African-American Women And Abortion

Loretta J. Ross

Only justice can stop a curse.

-- Alice Walker

This essay reviews the activism of African-American women in the abortion rights movement, highlighting the past fifty years.1 Many observers mistakenly view African-American women's struggle for abortion rights and reproductive freedom in the 1990s as reflecting a relatively recent commitment. More accurately, this activism should be placed in the context of our historical struggle against racism, sexism, and poverty.

The fact is, when methods of fertility control have been available and accessible, African-American women have advocated for and used these strategies even more frequently than their white counterparts.2 For example, when family Planning was first institutionalized in Louisiana in 1965, Black women were six times more likely than white women to sign up for contraception.3

But when contraceptives were unavailable and abortion was illegal, septic abortions were a primary killer of African-American women. One study estimated that 80 percent of deaths caused by illegal abortions in New York in the 1960s involved Black and Puerto Rican women.4 In Georgia between 1965 and 1967 the Black maternal death rate due to illegal abortion was fourteen times that of white women.5

Central to my argument is the fact that African-American women have never been "one dimensional victims of patriarchy."6 Nor have we been one-dimensional activists. African-American women have made consistent and critical activist contributions to the evolution of the reproductive rights movement in the United, States. Already in the early 1990s the Black women's club movement joined forces with early proponents of birth control and called for the placement of family-planning clinics in Black neighborhoods while criticizing eugenics or population control forces.

Black women in the 1920s and 1930s wanted individual control overfertility, while at the same time they resisted government and privately funded anti-natalist population control campaigns.7 This dual-value system seeded an expanded vision of reproductive freedom that guides our work today.

The early African-American activists understood the complex nature of Black womanhood and believed that fertility control was an essential part of the movement to rise from the brutal legacy of slavery. In the words of Brenda Joyner, reproductive rights activism by Black women has been and is "a feminism which realizes that the issues of reproductive control are broader than just the fight for gender equality. It is a feminism which understands the world simultaneously from race and class as well as gender perspectives." 8 This essay does not attempt to identify an essential Black women's viewpoint regarding these issues but seeks to provide "critical self-consciousness about our positionality, defined as it is by race, gender, class and ideology."9 The time has come for us to understand both our powerlessness in society and our influence on the reproductive rights movement.

Despite the fact that much of the decline in the fertility rates of African Americans since the Civil War resulted from the activism and deter-mined choices of African-American women, our contributions to the birth control and abortion movements in the United States have been obscured by racist and sexist assumptions about us, our sexuality, and our fertility. Distilling fact from myth is difficult because so many accounts of African-American and women's history are written from perspectives that fail to acknowledge our impact. This omission distorts the contemporary views of African-American women about the reproductive freedom movement and our ownership of it.

The Black feminist commitment to reproductive rights has remained buried for at least three important reasons. First, the movement for abortion rights is erroneously seen as belonging to the predominantly white women's movement. Feminist literature often (but not always) reflects a popularized perception that African-American women's awareness regarding gender equality and abortion rights is underdeveloped. Brenda Joyner, who has been an abortion provider for the past fifteen years, believes that white mainstream women's groups have undervalued the participation and concerns of women of color in the re-productive rights movement: "Perhaps the question is not really where are women of color in the abortion rights and reproductive rights movement. Rather, where is the primarily white middle-class movement in our struggles for freedom? Where was a white middle-class movement when the [1977] Hyde Amendment took away Medicaid funding of abortions for poor women?"10

Second, the struggle for reproductive rights is not commonly perceived as a part of the civil rights movement, although in fact it was part of that movement until after World War II. In the early twentieth century Black organizations were often visible supporters of fertility control for Black women, linking reproductive rights to racial advancement. For examples from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, the growth rate of the African-American population has been more than halved.11 Historians and demographers typically attribute this and other declines in African-American birthrates to poverty, disease, coercive family planning, or other external factors. These assumptions ignore the possibility that African Americans were in any way consciously responsible for the change by choosing to use birth control and abortion. In the 1930s African-American women were never passive victims of eugenics (the "improvement" of humankind through selective breeding), forced sterilization, and other medical, commercial, and state policies or reproductive control. Current debates over the genetic causes of criminality, the validity of IQ tests, inherited intelligence, welfare reform, quotas, and affirmative action all suggest the extent to which the eugenics movement still affects public policy. But for the past sixty years, African-American women have been at the forefront of challenging the relationship between racist science and public policy in our society.

Thus, a third reason that the Black feminist tradition has been obfuscated is that racist and sexist assumptions held by population experts, feminists, or the African-American community itself ignore our power as African-American women to make responsible reproductive and political decisions for ourselves. A historical perspective is necessary to understand and place in context the contemporary views of African-American women on abortion and birth control.

I have been a reproductive rights activist



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