No Conspiracy Theories Needed: Abortion Foes Cry Racism

On February 19, Rev. Walter Hoye, executive elder of the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church of Berkeley, California, was sentenced to 30 days in jail for violating an Oakland law mandating a buffer between protesters and clinic patients. Hoye, who targets women entering abortion clinics to “draw attention to the devastating impact abortion has had on the African-American community,” was given the option of serving his 30 days through community service and a $1,100 fine—a sentence Hoye himself chose in favor of probation. As the Family Research Council admits, not even the county DA was seeking jail time for the Reverend.

Nevertheless, Hoye’s legal representation at the Life Legal Defense Foundation plans to appeal the verdict—no doubt to highlight what they call Hoye’s “special calling to work for the end of the genocide-by-abortion taking place in the African-American community.” Hoye’s fellow activists rose to the occasion, announcing via press release that a host of black pro-life leaders would descend on Oakland for the sentencing to stand in solidarity with Hoye against “a deliberate attempt to silence the Church and its prophetic role in protecting the innocent lives in our community and especially Black babies.”

In all, the small-potatoes case of Rev. Hoye is just another moment in the sun for increasingly vocal anti-abortion activists who claim to fight abortion on anti-racist grounds; they tar abortion and family planning services as racist and eugenicist population control measures leading to a slow “black genocide.”

Another such moment came last September, when four Republican and two Democratic congressmen—led by anti-abortion stalwart Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ)—proposed a new bill to the House: the Susan B. Anthony Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, which would “prohibit discrimination against the unborn on the basis of sex or race, and for other purposes.” (The invocation of Anthony’s name is in keeping with the anti-abortion makeover of the early feminist leader as an anti-abortion champion.) Though the bill has now expired, and never stood much of a chance, the fact of its introduction marked the mainstreaming of a once-fringe argument.

Anti-abortion activists routinely compare Roe v. Wade to the Dred Scott decision to further an “abortion as slavery” analogy—akin to the controversial but commonplace language of an “abortion Holocaust”—comparing their fight to the struggle for civil rights or abolition.

Lynching is for Amateurs

Lately, however, anti-abortion groups don’t simply seize the mantle of abolitionism, but argue directly that abortion is a concerted attack on people of color. Black and brown populations are, according to the new rhetoric, allegedly targeted for aggressive population control by abortion providers who deliberately place clinics in inner-city, low-income neighborhoods, resulting in higher rates of abortion among Latina and black women in the United States compared to white women.

Though two recent studies by the Guttmacher Institute found that these statistics were due simply to a higher incidence of unwanted pregnancies among women of color—“No conspiracy theories needed,” remarked Guttmacher—anti-abortion activists continue to claim that providers are targeting black and Latino populations, and have leafleted inner-city neighborhoods with denunciations of “Klan Parenthood,” juxtaposing images of lynchings and aborted fetuses with the slogan “lynching is for amateurs.” The argument’s popularity is climbing, spurring numerous rallies, publications, and organizations devoted to spreading word of abortion providers’ supposedly racist motives. Indeed, Rep. Franks, the lead sponsor of the Susan B. Anthony bill, said he was inspired by a Washington DC abortion clinic protest last April that denounced the “black genocide” of abortion.

Among the most prominent names in the movement are Day Gardner, of the National Black Pro-Life Union; Rev. Clenard Childress and Johnny Hunter of the group Life Education and Resource Network (LEARN, at the Web site Black; and Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King. King, the media darling of the bunch, addressed the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 38th Annual Legislative Convention this summer, arguing that “fully 1/4 of the black population of the U.S. has gone missing” due to abortion.

In November, vocal anti-abortion advocate (and former NFL player) Rev. Herb H. Lusk II, the recipient of a $1 million “faith-based” grant under President Bush, echoed this demographic argument when he opened a Philadelphia crisis pregnancy center with the explicit aim of curtailing abortions among black women. Said Lusk, “When I began to consider that the African-American population alone has declined in the past three years across the nation, I realized that we’re not procreating our own race; and that is a direct result of abortion in our communities.”

During this January’s annual March for Life, Alveda King led a group of demonstrators in laying thousands of roses on the White House lawn to symbolize African-American abortions as part of her “Birmingham Letter Project.” The BLP Web site features a dyptic photograph of a hip, white pro-life man wearing red “Life” duct tape over his mouth next to three black civil rights marchers being hosed into the side of a building by segregationist police.

(The injection of righteousness the association brings to the anti-abortion movement prompts even less self-conscious posturing, as a group of white anti-abortion youth activists arrested this month in Birmingham quickly capitalized on their location to declare: “Outrageous Civil Rights Violations in Birmingham.” “We were arrested yesterday because of the content of our message,” claimed the group’s campus director in a clear sampling of “I Have a Dream.” “We’re just doing what Rosa Parks would have done,” added another.)

This sort of bargain-basement martyrdom conferred onto pro-lifers has a flip side as well, vilifying abortion- and contraception-rights advocates as modern-day Klanswomen. In late January, the religious right organized against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s proposed inclusion of contraception in the stimulus package, in part by denouncing her as a bigot and a racist who wanted “to reduce the number of children [born] to the nation’s poorest economic groups, which tend to be persons of color and other minorities.” The Pro-Life Action League made a similar criticism this week against the Guttmacher Institute, claiming that the Institute’s call for publicly-funded birth control “takes aim at the poor by recommending more government spending on programs to reduce the birth rate,” and that it “smacks of racism.”

“Klan” Parenthood?

Many major anti-abortion groups have adopted the “black genocide” argument in recent years—appropriating traditionally liberal anti-racist rhetoric to accuse Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, of being a eugenicist motivated by a desire for racial fitness through breeding; or citing past instances of abuses in population control as condemnation of all family planning and reproductive health programs today.

Complicating the response of abortion rights advocates to the charges is the partial—though very limited—truth to the charges. Margaret Sanger did embrace the popular theory of eugenics in the 1920s, though as Planned Parenthood and historian Ellen Chesler have clearly documented, her positions were far more nuanced, voluntary, and individualistic than the caricature preferred by anti-abortion activists, and she worked in partnership with esteemed black leaders of the day, such as W.E.B. DuBois and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, in setting up her family planning services in Harlem.

These mitigating factors are often lost amid the inaccurate or out-of-context reports about Sanger and were further obscured last spring, when a group of anti-abortion activists made taped calls to numerous Planned Parenthood clinics. Posing as racist donors, the UCLA student-activists requested that their money be used to abort the fetuses of black women. When an Idaho clinic official awkwardly accepted such a donation, they publicized the tape of the conversation as proof of Planned Parenthood’s “racist agenda.”

More broadly, although feminists and reproductive rights advocates have successfully changed population-control programs to prioritize women’s rights over demographic quotas enforced through abusive or coercive measures (as documented at length in RD contributing editor Michelle Goldberg’s forthcoming book, The Means of Reproduction), fertility control certainly bears the cross of a history that includes abuse and coercion of women of color and poor women.

Indeed, it still does, though the most recent example in the United States is Louisiana Republican John LaBruzzo’s 2008 proposal to pay poor women $1,000 to sterilize themselves. Predictably, the quasi-civil rights argument against “black genocide through abortion” lends itself to other contradictory moments as well when taken up by Christian conservatives—a group with a history of antipathy to civil rights and minority concerns. This was emphasized when Stephen G. Peroutka of Pro-Life Radio called for “the defunding of the racist agenda of Planned Parenthood,” as the first, necessary step towards combating racism. Tempering the integrity of Peroutka’s plea is the fact that Peroutka’s brother and 20-year law partner, Michael, was the 2004 presidential candidate of the far-right Constitution Party, a group that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has ties to white supremacist organizations.

Regardless of these clunky historical facts, Obama’s presidency and the GOP’s dismaying efforts to appeal to “the hip-hop generation” appear to have prompted resurgent interest in these arguments as a race-conscious update to the anti-abortion message. Since late December, a number of anti-abortion organizations have made public and prominent hires of activists who frame their anti-abortion work in such terms: Pro-Life Unity hired a vice president, Samuel Mosteller, from the ranks of the “black genocide” faction of the anti-abortion movement; Georgia Right to Life announced the hire of Catherine Davis to lead outreach to African Americans by claiming to fight “individuals and organizations that have as their mission to eliminate blacks from America”; and veteran activists have issued dozens of press releases demanding that Obama fight racism by fighting abortion.

Proponents of the argument certainly see it, and the moment, as a key opportunity for the cause. In response to Rep. Frank’s September bill, one longstanding anti-abortion and anti-contraception group, the Population Research Institute (PRI), claimed that the proposed law represented “a new front in the abortion wars”—one that they hope could associate the pro-life movement with anti-racism and attract a different demographic of supporters. The argument wasn’t new, conceded PRI head Steve Mosher. Anti-abortion intellectuals have long proposed that linking female infanticide and sex-selective abortion with all abortion might persuade reluctant supporters of abortion rights (and indeed this argument looks likely to gain steam as well, as an Oklahoma congressional panel cleared the way for a vote on an anti-sex selective abortion bill this week). But more important than new ideas was the opportunity for emotional impact.

“I propose that we—the pro-life movement—adopt as our next goal the banning of sex-and race-selective abortion,” said Mosher. “Even those who believe in the absolute right to destroy a child under any and all circumstances, it is safe to predict, will be uncomfortable defending such an extreme position.”

The effect of the rhetorical shift, PRI mused, could be as emotionally powerful in swaying moderates against abortion as was the graphic, and disingenuous, campaign against “partial-birth abortion”—a non-issue that nonetheless bolstered the power of the pro-life movement by outraging the public against a fictitious depiction of late-term abortion. As the “black genocide” argument continues to build momentum, that’s a good history lesson to keep in mind—of an equally manipulative, fact-free argument that won on emotion alone.