Jan 25, 2011

Still Trusting Women, 38 Years Later

Saturday was the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s been some internet chatter about abortion rights over the past few days. I often shy away from writing about this because I generally feel like the debate about abortion is just beating a dead horse – everyone has said everything there is to say about it a thousand times over, and I’m not sure what new ideas I can add to the debate. Plus, I spend many, many hours every week thinking about birth control and abortion (see: dissertation) and it’s hard to distill those thoughts down into a blog post. But in honor of the occasion, I’m going to try.

Plus, abortion is back in the news. Last week we learned that Republicans across the country are introducing a record number of anti-abortion laws in state legislatures, aiming to restrict access to abortion even more than it already is (88% of American counties have no abortion provider); that Congressional Republicans are working to make federal limits on abortion access even more stringent, effectively trying to force health insurance companies not to cover abortion; that even in New York City, the “abortion capital of America”, abortion is “complicated”; and that, as always, poor women are getting the worst treatment – and no one is paying attention. By the by, earlier today I was reading Michelle Goldberg’s book The Means of Reproduction and found that the same guy who’s sponsoring the latest Congressional anti-abortion legislation, New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith, has spent lots of time lobbying Latin American countries to ban abortion – because, apparently, interfering with women’s lives here in the U.S. isn’t enough for him.

For me the most cynical anti-abortion arguments are those tying abortion to racism – especially when these arguments are made by white people with little demonstrated interest in actually fighting racism. Rick Santorum is the latest to get into this game. Remember him? He’s a former Senator from Pennsylvania who lost his 2006 re-election campaign by the largest margin of any sitting Senator since 1980. Last week he said this in an interview about abortion:

"The question is -- and this is what Barack Obama didn't want to answer: Is that human life a person under the Constitution? And Barack Obama says no….I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, 'We are going to decide who are people and who are not people.'"  The implication was clearly that because of the history of slavery, African-Americans must be anti-abortion.

Ta-Nehesi Coates has a brilliant takedown of this statement in which he picks apart, piece by piece, the analogy Santorum was trying to draw between abortion and slavery. As Coates admits, though, his post lacks any analysis of the way gender operates in this statement, so I’m going to add that, with a bit of history thrown in for fun.

For a very long time black women in America have been faced with coercion in reproductive matters. In slavery this included rapes by slaveowners resulting in pregnancy and confiscation of their children to sell; in this century it has included forced and uninformed sterilization, confiscation of children for unproven offenses (ranging from being in an abusive relationship to drug use), lack of access to gynecological care, and inaccessible abortion care resulting in forced childbearing.

In the 1960s, when the use of birth control became more widespread, a myth spread that “the black community” believed that birth control was a government effort to carry out genocide by limiting the number of black babies. This myth has been perpetuated ever since and is often used by anti-abortion activists. Melissa Harris-Perry wrote a fabulous article in The Nation last year about efforts of this kind by Georgia Right to Life, saying that “Georgia Right to Life has revived this racial masquerade by portraying its opposition to reproductive rights as a campaign for racial justice.” As Harris-Perry beautifully points out, Georgia Right to Life (like other pro-lifers) doesn’t seem nearly as concerned about ensuring a good quality of life for actual black children as it is about black fetuses.

Anyway, back to that myth. The truth is more like this: in the 1960s, there was a vocal segment of male leadership in the Black Power movement that argued that blacks needed to increase their numerical presence in order to gain more power in America. They called on black women to have more babies to further the cause. Jesse Jackson said in 1971, for instance, that “Virtually all the security we have is in the number of children we produce.” (Jackson later changed his mind and became a support of reproductive rights, including abortion rights.) Many black women, though, did not like being told how or when to reproduce by black men any more than they liked being told by other people. As Jennifer Nelson demonstrates in her book Women of Color in the Reproductive Rights Movement, black women were among the first to develop a truly robust concept of reproductive rights that included the right to decide when to have children (that is, to not be forcibly sterilized), the right to decide when not have children (access to birth control and abortion), and the right to take care of their children once they were born (child care services, living wages, adequate medical care, etc.). Frances Beal, a SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) activist and founder of its Black Women’s Liberation Committee, wrote in 1969:

“Black women have the right and the responsibility to determine when it is in the interest of the struggle to have children or not to have them. It is also her right and responsibility to determine when it is in her own best interests to have children, how many she will have, and how far apart and this right must not be relinquished to anyone. The lack of the availability of safe birth control, the forced sterilization practices and the inability to obtain legal abortions are all symptoms of a decadent society that jeopardizes the health of black women (and thereby the entire black race)….”

The fallacy that “the black community” has long opposed birth control speaks to a deeper issue: as with many social movements, men in the Black Power movement were seen to speak for the movement as a whole, and indeed for the entire race at times, silencing women’s voices on an issue that was, indeed, hugely important to them.

So back to Rick Santorum and Barack Obama: Santorum tapped into this long history, perhaps more than he knew, when he questioned the right of “a black man” to pronounce a verdict on abortion. But Obama had the best answer of all: when he was asked during the presidential campaign what his position on reproductive rights was, he answered “I trust women. Period.” And to me, at the end of the day, that’s absolutely what it’s all about.  

1 comment:

  1. (88% of American counties have no abortion provider)

    I wish that every story where a writer claims that abortion rights are here to stay would have to note this fact as a disclaimer. It doesn't get said enough.