The Abuses of History

The story of racism and eugenics, in the United States and elsewhere, is a story that needs to be told. Moreover, it is a story that needs to be told by feminists, because it is a story that was and still is written on our bodies, and one which continues to have implications for the way we understand reproductive choice. It was through women’s bodies, and our sexuality, that race as we understand it was constructed. It was through repeated violations of our bodily integrity – whether forced sterilization and forced abortion or forced birth – that eugenicist experiments were carried out. It is a story with repercussions that continue into the present, with racist politicians attempting to coercively or forcibly sterilize low-income women, and it is a disturbing reminder of what can happen when women’s fertility is perceived as a political tool rather than something that we have a right to control.

Which is why I am so disturbed by the recent anti-choice campaign that has proclaimed black children an “endangered species” due to abortion. I won’t post a picture of the billboard here; honestly, I can’t stand to look at it any more. This campaign takes the story of racism and eugenics – a horrifying, yet crucially important story, for women in particular – and uses it to further an anti-woman agenda, and from what I’ve seen, their co-option of this narrative has been frighteningly effective.

It’s no coincidence that, in trying to market the anti-choice message to the Black community, these anti-choicers talk about “children” rather than women. It’s so easy to shift the abortion debate onto fetuses and forget about women entirely. Because the fact is that safe, legal abortion SAVES WOMEN’S LIVES. Margaret Sanger’s racist and eugenicist beliefs cannot and should not be erased from the history of Planned Parenthood, of the reproductive justice movement, or of the United States more broadly, but this does not change the fact that Planned Parenthood performs much-needed services, services that allow women not only to survive, but to choose the kinds of lives we want to live. Thanks to organizations like Planned Parenthood, women’s lives are no longer dictated by our uteri. Reproductive choice grants us control over our bodies and, to some extent, our lives – something that is crucial for all people, but particularly to people who are systemically marginalized, excluded and oppressed by capitalist and patriarchal society.

Overall, Black women have a higher fertility rate than White women, despite the fact that they terminate more pregnancies. So while the higher abortion rate in the Black community is certainly due in part to economic restrictions on family size, it probably has a lot more to do with a high rate of unintended pregnancies – due, most likely, to inadequate sex education and inadequate access to effective birth control. If the people behind this campaign were really interested in reducing the abortion rate, they would call for educational and healthcare reform, rather than restricted access to abortion.

Sadly, choice is severely limited by social injustice. I have no doubt that there are many Black women who would like to carry their pregnancies to term, but simply lack the resources to do so. In a country where millions lack health insurance, where women of colour are far more likely than men or than white people to live below the poverty line, and where pregnant women – particularly low-income Black women – are stigmatized with stereotypes such as that of the “welfare queen”, it’s no wonder that many women feel that abortion of their only option. This needs to end; reproductive choice becomes meaningless in the face of severe social injustice. The solution, however, is to dismantle the systems that keep so many women of colour poor and marginalized, not to intimidate women into giving birth to children they don’t want.

Abortion is a difficult choice, and one that all women, I believe, would prefer to avoid, but it is also profoundly necessary. For many women, including many women of colour, it is a matter of survival. Anti-choicers like the people behind this “endangered species” campaign may claim that they care about women’s rights and about the welfare of marginalized communities, but behind this is ultimately the belief that fetuses are more important than women. The fact that they have co-opted such a powerful and significant historical narrative to do so only makes their anti-woman ideology more insidious and more disturbing.

(Note: I’ve been avoiding this subject for several weeks, largely because I don’t feel that I have a particularly good understanding of race issues, or a particularly strong grasp on my own privilege. I ultimately decided that the subject was important enough that I should write about it anyway, but I’ll be the first to admit that my analysis is probably fairly lacking. If anything I’ve said here is inaccurate or offensive in any way, please let me know.)

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  • Eugenia de Altura  On February 28, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    You know, I’ve read a variety of responses to the Atlanta billboard issue, and I really value yours, because it reminds us of the longer history of eugenics in America, and provides a woman-centered, historically grounded, pro-choice interpretation of the meaning of this billboard battle. Thank you! Just goes to show, even if you don’t know everything about an issue, you should jump in on the debate–god knows that the antis do!

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