Past and Present Collide as the Black Anti-Abortion Movement Grows

On more than 170 billboards nationwide, a campaign is exploiting America's racist medical history to foster the belief that abortion is black genocide.

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Mar 03, 2011

Just over a year ago, in February 2010, Ryan Bomberger’s impassioned campaign to convince black people that abortion is genocide burst into mainstream view. Bomberger’s Radiance Foundation, a Georgia-based anti-abortion group, placed dozens of billboards around Atlanta in coordination with black history month, touching off a media firestorm. "Black children are an endangered species," said the billboards, of which there are now at least 170 in at least five cities and states.

"I’m an adoptee and adoptive father who has worked in the urban community most of my adult life," says Bomberger, who is black. "I mourn the loss of beautiful possibility, not only in the unborn children who are unjustly killed, but the would-be mothers and fathers who are propagandized to believe that abortion solves any of the issues we face as a society."

In the year since the Radiance Foundation campaign began, the abortion-as-black-genocide meme has spread widely. As the House voted to defund Planned Parenthood last month, Georgia Republican Paul Broun lectured on the floor about eugenics. Last week, the group Life Always sparked outrage with a billboard in lower Manhattan that declared, "The most dangerous place for an African-American is the womb." FOX News shows have been abuzz with talk about high abortion rates in urban centers and among black women. Suddenly, the right is terribly concerned with the well-being of black babies.

The black-focused billboards direct viewers to websites–Bomberger’s and Life Always’ The two sites have a similar message: abortion is tantamount to genocide in the black community. Both campaigns identify Planned Parenthood as the villain at the center of this genocide–they claim the organization targets African Americans through outreach and strategic clinic locations, and point to founder Margaret Sanger’s early 20th century involvement in eugenics.

All of these campaigns also take as their staring point a fact that everybody agrees upon: black women have the highest rates of abortion in the United States. According to Melissa Gilliam, University of Chicago researcher and Guttmacher Institute board member, an African-American woman is four times more likely than a white woman to have an abortion in her lifetime. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 37 percent of all abortions in 2004 were obtained by black women, 34 percent by white women and 22 percent by hispanic women.

So why are African-American women having so many more abortions than other groups? Most reproductive rights and health advocates say it’s because of a much higher rate of unintended pregnancy among black women, a fact that is supported by data: black women have an unintended pregnancy rate three times that of white women, according to Guttmacher. This imbalance derives from larger health disparities: lack of access to health care, lower rates of contraceptive use, and higher rates of untreated STDs and of preventive disease overall.

Groups like the Radiance Foundation, in their language about abortion as "genocide" and "holocaust," imply instead a larger conspiracy, perhaps promoted by government, to threaten the black community. And like other public health conspiracy theories that have circulated in black neighborhoods over the years, the assertion is rooted in a very real and troubling history.

An Ugly Past Remains Present

Women’s reproduction has long been at the mercy of state control, particularly for women of color. For black women, this history dates back to slavery. As Dorothy Roberts outlined in her seminal 1998 book, "Killing the Black Body," women held in bondage had no control over their fertility whatsoever, and they were relied upon and manipulated in order to produce the next generation of labor. Even after emancipation, eugenics and paternalistic ideas about who was fit to reproduce influenced government policy in the U.S. These policies overwhelmingly impacted the lives and health of women of color, as well as low-income women, women with disabilities and others deemed "unfit." There is a deep history of forced sterilization across communities of color–some of which actually did result in the near elimination of certain Native American tribes.

These practices are not ancient history, and many incarnations still exist today: primarily through economic and social welfare programs that limit women’s access to certain forms of contraception or place caps on how many children they can have when receiving welfare. For example, undocumented women I worked with in Pennsylvania were able to get coverage for sterilization as part of their emergency medical coverage during pregnancy, but could not receive coverage for other forms of birth control since their Medicaid ran out shortly after giving birth. Women’s reproduction–but more specifically, the reproduction of women of color and low-income women–remains a practice in which the government is invested and deeply entwined.

Roberts outlines in her book how this reasoning was used within the black community to decry birth control and family planning, including abortion, from the early 20tht century through the civil rights era. Critics claimed that for the black community to succeed, black women needed to produce children, and that any attempt to limit fertility represented an effort to eliminate or weaken the race. In 1934, Marcus Garvey’s nationalist organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, came out against birth control. Garvey’s group and others called it "race suicide" and argued that controlling reproduction through birth control was harmful to the black community overall, and likely being promoted by whites in service of racism. This rhetoric popped up again and again in black nationalist movements, most often coming from the male leaders and figureheads. Bomberger echoes it today.

"After years of extensive research into the immense disparity of abortion’s impact on the black community, it was readily apparent that the history of the birth control movement (and America’s racist and eugenics-driven history of dehumanizing efforts to control black populations) provided much of the explanation," Bomberger told me in a recent interview.

He is a compelling leader for the black anti-abortion movement. A young African-American man, Bomberger leads with his own personal story about abortion–a common thread among movement spokespeople. A video on the Radiance Foundation website tells his story. Bomberger was adopted as an infant by a white Christian family. His biological mother, Bomberger claims, conceived him during a rape. In his own words, he "was once considered ‘black and unwanted’ but instead was adopted and loved."

His group is behind the largest billboard campaign we’ve seen to date: 172 so far in Atlanta, Arkansas, Milwaukee, Texas and most recently Los Angeles, with plans for expansion. But the Radiance Foundation and Bomberger are no means alone in the black anti-abortion movement. At least four other groups–Life Always, National Black Pro-life Coalition, National Black Pro-life Union and Issues4Life–also work specifically on abortion in the black community. The leadership behind these groups is primarily African-American, male and religious. Of the nine speakers advertised on the National Black Pro-Life Coalition’s website, three are women and six are religious–ministers, pastors or other Christian religious figures. While Bomberger partners with Issues4Life, a California-based anti-abortion group, he says he has no relationship to Life Always, the group behind the NYC billboard that was taken down last week.

New Voices, Same Messages

If these groups are not working in concert, they nonetheless share common messaging, particularly Christian-based rhetoric about sexual purity, abstinence and heterosexual marriage. Most of their websites also provide the typical anti-choice information about abortion, but with a racialized spin.

A 170-billboard campaign cannot be a cheap endeavor–Bomberger’s campaign site invites corporate sponsorships of "between $5,000 and $10,000" to cover new billboards–but it’s not clear how these campaigns are being financed thus far. Bomberger responded to my inquiry by stating that "there is no conspiratorial right-wing anything funding us. It’s individuals, mostly, who are simply passionate about defending life, in all of its stages." Others, however, allege that there are connections between this work and the Republican Party.

In fact, the black anti-abortion movement doesn’t look all that different from the mainstream, and mostly white, version–similar language about abortion, morality and reproduction; similar strong Christian influence. But the specifically racialized take, which often borrows from the language of civil rights and genocide, has a unique weight coming from within the black community. One of the often mentioned spokespeople of this movement is the is Alveda King, the neice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She’s affiliated with the NBPC as well as the National Black Pro-life Union.

Of course, they overlook another part of black America’s history with reproductive rights. According to Roberts, black women were actually overwhelmingly in support of birth control and fought to gain access to it throughout the 20th century. In 1941, the National Council of Negro Women became the first national women’s group to endorse birth control. Prominent female political figures in the black community came out against the rhetoric of their male counterparts when it came to reproduction. "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 and this right must not be relinquished," declared Frances Beal, head of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the civil right movement.

Roberts explains that these women had good reason to be in support of birth control: They were already using rudimentary methods of family planning, and suffered greatly from illegal and unsafe abortions. Prominent male leaders also stood beside them in support of family planning, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson and the Black Panther Party, among others.

"They have discovered a very volatile and provocative way of getting their anti-abortion message across," Roberts argues. "They are misusing and distorting history in order to support their view on abortion."

They are also misusing the much-cited data on black abortions. Abortion rates alone may appear to support the black anti-choice movement’s genocide claims. But those numbers can’t be taken in isolation. The fertility rate, for instance, directly counters the provocative genocide language. According to Gilliam, the fertility rate (meaning the average number of children a women will have in her lifetime) is the same for white and black women: 2.0. The black community in the U.S. is not in a state of population decline due to abortion, and continues to reproduce at rates equivalent to whites.

More broadly, there is the crucial point that criminalizing abortion actually poses a greater threat to the African-American lives. Before the procedure was legalized, "Illegal abortion was the cause of 25 percent of the white women’s deaths due to pregnancy, 49 percent of the black women’s, and 65 percent of the Puerto Ricans’," as Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman in Congress and a strong supporter of reproductive rights, wrote in her memoir. In addition, the legalization of abortion resulted in significant improvements in maternal and fetal mortality rates. "Maternal mortality in New York City dropped by more than half during the first year [abortion was legal], to an all-time recorded low. Infant mortality also dropped to a new low," reports New York Times columnist Linda Greenhouse. Bomberger responded to Greenhouse’s column that shared this data, refuting it with his own version of these numbers.

Reproductive rights advocates, including women of color, have come out strong against the billboard campaigns led by Bomberger and his movement cohorts. Sistersong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective has been organizing against the billboards since their launch in Atlanta last year. They’ve formed a group, called the Trust Black Women Coalition, that responds specifically to the racialized messaging. These advocates say that the campaigns unfairly target African-American women themselves.

"Black women’s wombs are not the main enemy of black children," says Roberts, who says they promote "toxic stereotypes" about black mothers’ irresponsibility. "Racism and sexism and poverty are the main enemy of black children. [The billboard] doesn’t highlight the issues behind why women are having so many abortions, it just blames them for doing it."

Indeed, it all leaves out the state policies that have had significant impacts on black women’s reproductive choices–welfare family caps, for example, that limit the number of children a for which a mother can receive support.

Planned Parenthood, instead, has been at the center of this movement’s attacks. They have come under fire for the government funding they receive under Title X–money specifically earmarked for family planning services like contraception as well as cancer screenings and overall reproductive health. Planned Parenthood has become a central health care provider nationwide, known for the affordability of their services and being a resource for low-income women and women of color. The abortion care they provide (which is not funded by federal money and, in fact, is legally mandated to remain separate from their other operations) has placed them at the center of this debate. 

As Loretta Ross and the Trust Black Women Coalition have pointed out, it was African American women who asked Margaret Sanger to bring family planning clinics to black neighborhoods, and it’s African American women now who seek out and support Planned Parenthood for the wide range of health services they provide, only a portion of which is abortion. 

"They are essentially blaming black women for their reproductive decisions and then the solution is to restrict and regulate black women’s decisions about their bodies," Roberts says of the burgeoning black anti-abortion movement. "Ironically, they have that in common with eugenicists."

Miriam Zoila Pérez is an editor at Feministing and the founder of Radical Doula, a blog that lives at the intersection of birth activism and social justice.