The Public Eye - Summer 2010 Edition
Is Abortion "Black Genocide
This February, a highly provocative series of 65 billboards went up around Atlanta, which featured an African American infant and the proclamation, “Black Children Are an Endangered Species.” The signs directed viewers to a website, TooManyAborted.com, created by the Radiance Foundation—a vague antiabortion and “personal transformation” nonprofit founded by biracial advertising executive Ryan Bomberger—with funding from Georgia Right to Life.
At the unveiling of the billboards, Georgia Right to
Life Minority Outreach Director Catherine Davis explained their
justification: “Planned Parenthood’s Negro Project,” she said, “is
succeeding.” She was referring to a 1939 project begun by Planned
Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger that has inspired decades of claims
that family planning is a racist plan to wipe out populations of color.
It’s an old argument, with roots in the Black Power and Black
Nationalist movements. But in recent years it has become the province of
anti-abortion groups who are selectively co-opting civil rights rhetoric
to present abortion and even contraception as eugenicist plots disguised
as voluntary reproductive choices, which are leading to a slow “Black
African Americans, in particular, are thirteen percent of the population but account for 37 percent of all abortions. However, Guttmacher determined, this is due to their greater incidence of unwanted pregnancies, resulting from economic inequality and poor access to contraception and education. Nonetheless, the anti-abortion movement holds that Black and brown populations are being targeted by abortion providers who deliberately place clinics in inner-city, low-income neighborhoods.
For the past several years Black History Month has brought an onslaught of antiabortion activities related to this “Black genocide” strategy. This year was no exception. At the same time that the Georgia billboards appeared, white Republicans Representative Barry Loudermilk and Senator Chip Pearson introduced the so-called Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (SB 529 and HB1155) into the state’s legislature. The bill, which the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports was crafted to pose an immediate challenge to Roe v. Wade before the composition of the Supreme Court changes, would criminalize race- and sex-selective abortions and has been fast-tracked through Georgia’s legislature. The Senate passed it on March 26, and although the original House bill floundered in the House special judiciary committee, SB529 quickly replaced it and is currently before the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill, which rests on the assertion that many women are coerced into abortions as a result of race or gender biases, goes on to establish “the offense of criminal solicitation of abortion” and to require doctors to prove patients have not been pressured into abortion. On April 15, Georgia Right to Life launched a series of robocalls that featured 2008 presidential candidate and Fox talk show host Mike Huckabee, stumping for the bill on the grounds of its “powerful implications for the sanctity of human life nationwide.” The Network of Politically Active Christians has made a similar pitch, and Focus on the Family may soon join the fight.
Reproductive-rights advocates of color have been
appalled by these campaigns, with their implicit accusation that women
of color are either dupes or agents of genocide against their own
people. (Not to mention that the language of the billboards implies a
tone-deaf comparison between Black children and animals.)
Civil Rights Rhetoric and “Black Genocide”
The token leaders to whom Hatcher is referring are a small but busy cadre of Black activists working in White-run anti-abortion organizations. For example, in late 2008, Pro-Life Unity hired a Black vice president, Samuel Mosteller, and in January 2009, after years of failed attempts to reach out to African Americans, Georgia Right to Life hired Davis to spread the word that reproductive healthcare providers such as Planned Parenthood have a “mission to eliminate blacks from America.”
Most visible of these leaders is Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King Jr., whose full-time position with Priests for Life was the first funded role for a “Black genocide” activist. Her main strategy—and critics say her sole qualification—has been capitalizing on her uncle’s legacy, often asking, “How can the dream survive if we murder the children?” She takes frequent aim at a speech delivered on behalf of Martin Luther King Jr. by his wife, Coretta Scott King, in acceptance of the 1966 Margaret Sanger Award. The speech includes a lament about the number of unwanted children among poor Blacks. Alveda King suggests that Martin Luther King didn’t write the speech—to her ears, it sounds like it was written by a woman—and that his wife’s delivery of it was due to a marital disagreement. On Alveda King’s website, she annotates the speech with quotations from the Rev. King that she believes refute his apparent support for the birth-control movement.
Alveda King and other “Black genocide” spokespeople make ample use of imagery that aligns the anti-abortion cause with the Civil Rights Movement. There is no shortage of high-emotion analogies. The Rev. Johnny Hunter, the president of the Life Education and Resource Network (LEARN), talks often about “womb lynchings.” The president of LEARN’s Northeast chapter, the Rev. Clenard Childress, who founded the website BlackGenocide.org, frequently partners with the California-based group Genocide Awareness Project, which hosts “photo-mural” demonstrations on university campuses, comparing abortion to the Rwandan genocide . In 2007, 10,000 pamphlets published by the Waco, Texas-based anti-abortion group Life Dynamics Incorporated were mailed to inner-city neighborhoods to publicize an appearance by the Black right-wing radio personality, the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson. The pamphlets denounced “Klan Parenthood” and juxtaposed images of lynchings with those of aborted fetuses, under the slogan “lynching is for amateurs.”
Anti-abortion activists have long compared Roe v. Wade to the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which opened the territories to slavery. They have also pointed to the Constitutional mandate to count Blacks as 3/5 of a person to further their “abortion as slavery” analogy. Their strategy now includes merging this rhetoric with the wave of fetal “personhood” amendment campaigns in place in eight states—and building in dozens more. In January, the American Life League and Father Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, hosted a meeting about overturning Roe v. Wade, which focused both on recruiting supporters in Black communities and passing fetal personhood bills. “There’s a lot of personhood legislation nationally,” agrees Childress, “and that’s going to remind most African Americans that there was a question about our personhood with Dred Scott.”
In an email interview, Pavone said that the language
of the Civil Rights Movement lends itself seamlessly to the
anti-abortion cause. After visits to Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer
Baptist Church with the King family, Pavone said, “I have thought to
myself, the message is exactly right. Nothing has to change except to
include one more group of people—the unborn.” Pavone and Alveda King
both sample civil rights language in their outreach to Black pastors,
explaining that the “beloved community” must include the unborn, and
“that nonviolence includes nonviolence to children in the womb”
—messages they’ll further this summer through a series of “freedom ride”
bus tours kicking off in Birmingham on April 27, led by Alveda King and
a host of “Black genocide” leaders.
In 1999, Childress helped lead 1,500 people, mostly Black activists, on the “Say-So” anti-abortion march from Newark, New Jersey, to Washington, D.C., where they laid 1,452 roses—the number of abortions black women were then having daily—on the steps of the Supreme Court. Childress, a 2007 candidate for the state assembly who often says that “the most dangerous place for an African American to be is in the womb of their African American mother,” was recruited to the anti-abortion movement by a White Catholic activist who convinced him to attend a 1994 conference featuring the Rev. Johnny Hunter.
While other organizations contribute money or materials, Childress supplies bodies for protests from his 200-member, Montclair, New Jersey, congregation, New Calvary Baptist Church. His young “zealots” frequently volunteer for high-commitment activism, such as a bus trip to Birmingham in 2003, where they crashed a mainstream Civil Rights Movement celebration, and recent trips to NAACP conventions to protest the exclusion of “Black genocide” concerns.
Childress is featured in Maafa 21: Black Genocide in 21st Century America, a 2009 film produced by Mark Crutcher, a White Texan who runs Life Dynamics Incorporated—the producer of the “Klan Parenthood” brochures. Maafa is a Swahili word that refers to the African holocaust of abduction and slavery. The film argues that the maafa didn’t end with slavery but rather continues in a plot to exterminate the black population through ongoing eugenics programs created by “wealthy white elitists.” Its chief villain is Planned Parenthood founder, Margaret Sanger.
“In the African American community, if you shout conspiracy, they’ll listen, because of the history they’ve had in this country,” Childress told me . “I come from the conspiracy tone whenever I’m speaking, especially to African Americans, so they understand you’ll have to do some digging, you’ll have to go beneath the veneer.” (Apparently operating under the same philosophy, Alveda King dismisses the studies citing higher rates of unwanted pregnancy among Black women as the cause for high abortion rates by suggesting that Planned Parenthood intentionally distributes faulty contraception to minority teens so they’ll need abortions. )
Childress’s loose attitude toward historical accuracy seems representative of the broader “Black genocide” movement. Thus, Maafa 21 sidesteps historical hurdles to suggest that Sanger’s support for sterilization on mental illness grounds (see sidebar) was a coded effort to target Blacks; that a eugenics movement mobilized to legalize abortion to market it to Black women; and that the government “hired Planned Parenthood” to continue eugenics programs.
The film, which received support from Priests for Life, premiered at the United States Capitol Visitor Center last year on Juneteenth, an African American holiday that marks the issuance of the emancipation proclamation. The host was the White Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ)—a steadfast ally of the “Black genocide” cause. Later, Alveda King and others held a screening of the film for congressional aides. In early March, Maafa 21 was the feature presentation at the Jubilee Film Festival at the 45th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” attacks outside of Selma. The film has been shown at numerous Black churches and colleges. In April, Childress, sponsored by the Christian student group Every Nation Campus Ministries, discussed the film at Florida A&M, the largest historically black college in the country—an event he predicts will exponentially spread his message into the Black community.
In a March fundraising appeal seeking support to fill requests for the film, Crutcher claimed that 13,000 copies had already been distributed. He triumphantly announced, “Life Dynamics has hit pay dirt” with Maafa 21, as the film rages “like a wildfire” through the Black community. The film, he said, is “the stone our pro-life movement would use to bring the abortion Goliath to his knees.”
“Black Genocide” and Healthcare Reform
For close to fifteen years, the “Black genocide” movement has drummed up publicity by capitalizing on discussions of race or Black history in the media and promoted the posturing of White anti-abortion activists laying claim to Rosa Parks’s legacy. But from these awkward origins, the movement has grown enormously over the past year. In January, Lou Engle, the White founder of the anti-abortion group Bound4Life as well as of a group that campaigned to pass California’s Proposition 8 forbidding same-sex marriage, convened a Martin Luther King Day march on a large Planned Parenthood clinic under construction in Houston, calling it an “abortion supercenter that targets the minority community.” The march drew prominent White anti-abortion leaders, including the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Richard Land.
Sex- and Race-Selective Abortion
At the end of February, Representative Franks upped the ante in the “Black genocide” debate, telling a blogger that with “half of all black children” being aborted, “Far more of the African American community is being devastated by the politics of today than were devastated by the policies of slavery.” After his statement, a lineup of leaders from the “Black genocide” movement came to his defense. Alveda King declared that any critics of Franks shared “the slave owner’s mindset.” Day Garder of the National Black Pro-Life Union said Franks “should be revered as a great modern day abolitionist.”
Franks’ activism on the subject is longstanding. In 2008, he said a “Black genocide” protest in Washington, D.C., inspired him to sponsor a bipartisan House bill that would prohibit “discrimination against the unborn on the basis of sex or race, and for other purposes.” The bill, which benefited from the collaboration of “Black genocide” leaders like King and Childress, was reintroduced by Franks last spring as the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2009. It has 42 sponsors.
Intellectuals in the anti-abortion movement have long counseled linking abortion with female infanticide and sex-selective abortion, as a method of converting moderates who would recoil at the thought of reproductive choice being used as a weapon of gender inequality. This argument is making the rounds in states as well. Oklahoma passed a law banning sex-selective abortion in 2009 (it was struck down this February on technical grounds). Expanding the strategy to race may be even more potent. In addition to Georgia, with its Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, Arizona, Mississippi, and New Jersey have proposed bans on race- and sex-selective abortions.
When Franks first introduced his bill in 2008, the Catholic anti-abortion and anti-contraception group, Population Research Institute, mused that the bill’s premise—that there is discrimination through abortion—could be as powerful as the campaign against so-called partial-birth abortion. “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,” PRI President Steve Mosher suggested.
There’s a clear sense among abortion-rights activists in Georgia that the campaigns there are deliberate efforts to splinter alliances between reproductive-rights and racial-justice organizations, as well as to lay the groundwork for a national push. During a March press call organized by the blog Reproductive Health Reality Check, Loretta Ross, the national coordinator of Sister Song: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, explains that because Georgia has the highest number of Black elected officials in the country, the anti-abortion movement is using the state as test case for enshrining the “Black genocide” argument into law. The issue has been deployed, she says, in classic wedge-politics fashion, to draw Blacks and South Asians—who are allegedly the targets of providers promoting sex-selective abortions—into the conservative base.
“I actually see this as an opening salvo,” says Ross, “because if the Right can deliver this bill in the state of Georgia as a successful trial balloon, I think it will embolden them to believe that around the country they can drive a wedge into the African American community and into other communities of color.” In fact, Sister Song has heard reports that a Republican legislator in Arizona may soon introduce a bill on race- and sex-selective abortion aimed at finding support among the Latino community.
SPARK’s Paris Hatcher agrees:
Anti-Abortion Movement Cynicism
On the basis of their past votes on issues of concern to Black voters, says Ross, the Georgia bill’s sponsors are not convincing advocates for civil rights. She notes that
Indeed, during the three hours of debate preceding the passage of SB 529 in Georgia’s Senate, Black Democratic Senator Vincent Fort indicated his skepticism by introducing an amendment to it addressing racial profiling—an issue tackled in an earlier Senate bill that never made it out of committee. His amendment was ruled unconstitutional.
While in recent years conservative Christian groups have made efforts, both calculated and sincere, to address racism, the Religious Right has an undeniable history of antipathy to civil rights and minority concerns. The quasiprogressive language of “Black genocide” rings hollow when politicians such as Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC), a Confederate flag defender, signs on to Franks’s bill; when Tony Perkins, who managed the Louisiana Senate campaign that famously bought White supremacist David Duke’s mailing list, protests Houston’s Planned Parenthood on antiracist grounds; or when Pro-Life Radio’s Stephen Peroutka calls for “the defunding of the racist agenda of Planned Parenthood,” while he and his brother and law partner Michael are the principal sponsors of the Institute on the Constitution : a thinktank closely tied to the far-right Constitution Party, which calls for repealing the Voting Rights Act.
Alfred Ross, the founder and president of the Institute for Democracy Studies, which researches antidemocratic movements in the U.S., studied right-wing organizations in the early 1990s for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. He tracked ties between the anti-abortion movement and fringe groups such as the Taxpayer Party (now the Constitution Party) that, he says, represented “the first underground movement that justified the creation of a militia.” These groups promoted antisemitic conspiracy theories that condemned legal abortion as a Jewish plot.
More recently, attacks on Planned Parenthood have found ammunition in the work of the anti-abortion ingénue Lila Rose, a White University of California Los Angeles student who gained fame for a “sting operation” that caught several Planned Parenthood clinics accepting donations targeted to fund abortions for Black women. (Rose was inspired, boasts Childress, by reading his BlackGenocide.org website.) Rose’s collaborator in the scheme was James O’Keefe, the right-wing activist behind a similar 2009 sting against the community organizing group ACORN, in which O’Keefe posed as a pimp. In phone calls to Planned Parenthood, O’Keefe claimed he was donating out of concern that affirmative action would harm the prospects of his (fictitious) child.
However, complicating the “gotcha” appeal of his
script are revelations that O’Keefe’s racist playacting isn’t far
removed from his college history of holding an “affirmative action bake
sale” or his later involvement in a 2006 Race and Conservatism
conference, sponsored by the Robert A. Taft Club, a paleoconservative
organization affiliated with a network of racist groups, which drew an
audience of noted antisemites and White supremacists. O’Keefe was
arrested this winter for breaking into the office of Senator Mary
They’re bottom feeding: whatever bait they can throw
up, no matter how rancid, they use.”
Likewise, the organizations screening Maafa 21 for black audiences, such as the Frederick Douglass Foundation, Global Outreach Campus Ministries, and the Network of Politically Active Christians (NPAC), which is now lobbying for Georgia’s “Black genocide” bill, “have close ties with religious right powerhouses Focus on the Family and Family Research Council,” says Sarah Posner, the author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters (2008). Some groups, like the NPAC, which shares offices with the Family Research Council, were created specifically “to bolster Religious Right and Republican outreach to Blacks,” Posner says.
The Power of Rumor
Maafa 21, says Posner, argues “that Blacks have been ‘hoodwinked’ by diabolical, eugenics-promoting family planning advocates.” The film, she says, “is intended to tap into anger about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and involuntary sterilizations of the early- to mid-twentieth century.” NPAC Executive Director Dean Nelson told Posner that Maafa 21 screenings have been successful because they reinforce Black people’s historically justified sense that they’ve been lied to.
But the comparison between the Tuskegee experiment and abortion is a false one, says Faith Pennick, the director and producer of Silent Choices, a 2007 documentary about Black women and abortion. The Tuskegee victims had no opportunity to give informed consent—unlike women seeking abortions. Nonetheless, says Pennick, who is African American, the genocide argument “hits a nerve with Black people, particularly those who are uncomfortable with abortion, because they say, here’s another example of us being messed with.” The sad reality is that rumors about eugenics experiments keep many young women of color from accessing what’s often the only affordable medical care in their communities.
Pamela Merritt, an African American blogger and the statewide e-organizer for Planned Parenthood affiliates in Missouri, witnessed this firsthand in 2003, when she volunteered in a transitional home for teen mothers in St. Louis. In a discussion about where the women could obtain affordable HIV/AIDS tests, their first reaction was, “Not the Planned Parenthood!” When Merritt asked them why, they told her that at Planned Parenthood, women are given shots that will keep them from ever having babies. “It wasn’t the same thing as the prolife rhetoric that you shouldn’t even walk through the door,” says Merritt. “It’s the sense that, if I walk through that door, they’re going to do something to make me not have this baby.”
The big issue, for Merritt, is sex education. She has met a stream of young women in her community who have been taught so little about reproduction that a number aren’t really sure where children come from, and there is a vicious cycle of STD re-infection among the St. Louis population. Into this knowledge vacuum come out-of-state groups such as Lou Engle’s Bound4Life, which tour local churches to promote the idea of Planned Parenthood’s “Black genocide” agenda. “Call me militant,” Merritt says, “but from my perspective, not allowing more women of color, without fear or dogma or this crazy conspiracy theory, to have access to medically accurate information and health care, is itself part of a mass plot to hold back communities of color.”
“Dupes” and “Sell-Outs”
In the 1990s, when Alex Sanger, Margaret Sanger’s grandson and the chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council, ran Planned Parenthood New York City, he observed that the Black escorts working at the city’s clinics were particular targets of protesters, who would single them out and accuse them of committing genocide against their own people. Sanger sees the problem as originating in older splits in the various Black rights movements, which, he says, were often along gender lines, as Black women leaders demanded the ability to control their fertility while male leaders were more concerned about “the genocide issue.”
Co-opting this old fight, anti-abortion groups claim that Blacks who support choice are either genocidal elitists or dupes. Alveda King suggests that a White-led birth control movement “cultivate[d] Black leaders” to coerce them into targeting other people of color. Day Gardner likewise refers to the Black politicians, ministers, and community organizers who worked with Margaret Sanger in Harlem as Judases “who sold their souls for ‘thirty pieces of silver’” when they were hired to enact “ethnic cleansing.”
Childress and Maafa 21 focus on mainstream Black organizations, such as the NAACP, and leaders such as Jesse Jackson, who at one time opposed abortion rights, depicting them as formerly principled advocates who bought into Planned Parenthood lies in exchange for campaign support. In Maafa 21, the Dallas, Texas, pastor Stephen Broden, a leader in the “Black genocide” movement who has addressed Tea Party conventions, remarks of Jackson, “There’s never been a shortage of Black leaders willing to sell us down the river.” (Gray, who was Jackson’s South Carolina presidential campaign manager in 1988, instead suggests that Jackson’s understanding of the issue evolved.)
The argument leaves Black women facing the accusation that they are either fools or murderers—and either way complicit in what Mark Crutcher says is Planned Parenthood’s sinister plan for “convincing the target group to commit mass suicide.” The accusation cuts to the heart of an intersection of sexism and racism for Black women, who have historically been pressed to choose allegiance between two aspects of their beings: their gender and the race.
It continues today. Maame Mensima-Horn, an African American activist based in Miami who consulted for Sister Song, says that the “Black genocide” argument has remained a male-driven conversation that shuts out women of color and ignores the role they have played in the reproductive justice movement. Mensima-Horn sees a new generation of male activists relegating women to “breeder” status and blaming them for a deficit in the Black population.
It seems a neat return to the 1920s debate in the Black community about how to best uplift the race. W.E.B. DuBois argued for “quality versus quantity,” saying that Black interests were best met by family planning that allowed parents to invest more in fewer children, not by simply birthing greater numbers. In 2010, Catherine Davis of Georgia Right to Life seems to take the latter position, saying that if Black women hadn’t had abortions, “we would be 59 million strong.”
The emphasis underscores a history of sexism in the Civil Rights Movement and its institutions, says Gray, in which Black women’s intellectual and physical labor was the backbone of the movement yet was rarely acknowledged. Today, “Black genocide” movement leaders, such as Childress and King, emphasize male leadership in both the movement and church—not surprising in conservative circles, but the destructive effect on women of color continues.
For Gray, this kind of sexism is a result of White fundamentalist outreach as well as a symptom of a larger problem: the breakdown of political education in Black politics.
And not, Grays says, to become a mother “because these people think you ought to be a mother.”
Women of Color at the Intersection
The question of how to counter the “Black genocide” argument is almost as complicated as its history. Ellen Chesler, historian and author of Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America (1992) says that, after one hundred years of variations on the argument, she’s not sure what the response should be. Alex Sanger says it’s the same dilemma that faces the larger prochoice movement, of boiling down a complex argument to a catchphrase, to counter anti-abortion slogans that claim abortion is murder, or now, genocide.
Gloria Feldt, author of The War on Choice (2004) and a former president of Planned Parenthood, says that many reproductive-rights activists who came out of the Civil Rights Movement are so horrified by accusations of racism that they haven’t been able to look at the their history.
Part of the answer could be more discussion of the issue led by women of color. Feldt notes the need for more diversity in the reproductive-rights movement, and more women of color in visible leadership roles. Faith Pennick agrees that inadequate outreach by prochoice groups to women of color, and insufficiently direct attempts to address the complicated history of Sanger and eugenics, has “left a door open for prolife organizations to come in and say, ‘they don’t care about you, but we do.’”
“That’s my motivation for addressing it, because this is what makes someone feel not comfortable in joining a movement we need more women of color joining,” says Pamela Merritt.
Another part of the solution, many activists agree, must be more discussion of sexuality and reproductive issues in communities of color. Gray says that’s a problematic absence in the Black community, which avoids discussions of abortion as it has shunned talk of AIDS and gay issues.
“There is a need to have more conversations,” agrees Paris Hatcher. She points out that the Georgia billboards and legislative campaign have had the unintended, positive effect of drawing hundreds of people into the debate—to rallies, email campaigns and public comment on media stories about the issue. The conversation itself affirms a long unacknowledged truth: that abortion is a Black issue. “There is ample silence in our communities, and it’s important that we are vocal about what’s going on and talking about what’s going on with our bodies,” says Hatcher. “If we’re not talking about them, they’re being divvied up by other people”
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