Abortion and Race
Since the original publication of this book, two developments have prodded me to pay much closer attention to the racial dimensions of abortion politics than I did earlier: first the increase in virulent, overt racism that has marked both everyday life and the law in the context of neoconservatism; and second, the profound impact of black feminist writing and theorizing on perspectives of gender, including issues of women’s reproductive freedom and choice.
For the one-third of abortion clinic patients who are women of color, both the experience of abortion and the meanings of antiabortion resentment have been different from their meanings for white women. One is struck by the absence, in crowds of "Operation Rescue" demonstrators, of people of color; except for an occasional black preacher and his followers, it is overwhelmingly a white Christian movement. One senses that, whatever misgivings black and Latin people may have about abortion and the white feminists whom they perceive as leading the "pro-choice" movement, they are aware of the underlying racism of the antiabortion campaign. This racism manifests itself in at least three ways: the sexual stigmatization of women of color, especially black women, in the white patriarchal ideas antiabortionists propagate; the racially discriminatory impact of legal barriers to abortion access; and the eugenic implications of pronatalist ideology.
If antiabortion zealots are reclaiming the white daughter’s purity, the underside of their obsession is the black daughter’s continued objectification as sexually "impure." Constructions of the "bad black woman" as "licentious, loose, immoral, and promiscuous" reach far back into the history of the early slave traders and certainly into the sexual abuse of black women under slavery itself.24 Made both the physical and the symbolic objects of white men’s "arbitrary carnal desires," black women slaves simultaneously functioned to keep white women "free and pure from the taint of immorality. . . [by acting] as a buffer against their degradation."25 The legacy of this stigma for young black women growing up, as reported by black women social scientists, has been complex. On the one hand, the image cruelly persists of black women as sexually promiscuous, "of Black America as Babylon, where the Studs and Sapphires are always making babies"26—or using taxpayers’ money to abort them. As I argue in Chapter 7, this image permeates the attack on government funding of abortion services and grows out of the same sexist and racist impulses as the attacks on welfare and social service spending generally. The denial of abortion funding and access is clearly racist in its consequences: Poor women are disproportionately women of color and are more likely to suffer deaths or injuries from illegal or botched abortions. They are also more likely to have to resolve unwanted pregnancy through sterilization, which is both permanent and government funded. But these policies are also racist in the implicit stereotypes upon which they rest.
As a result of the historical legacy of sexual insult, shame, and abuse from white society, young black women grow up with ambiguous messages from families and female kin about sex. According to a study by Gloria Joseph, from protective mothers and grandmothers they may learn "that sex is dirty, that it is not a subject for polite conversation, . . . that sex will get you into trouble"; they may receive a "puritanical upbringing" that entails as much lack of information or misinformation about sex (and birth control) as many white women experience.27 (Young black women in one of Joseph’s discussion groups recalled, "You got to be careful with boys" was the message. "You got to be! Not why. They didn’t tell you why you gotta be careful with boys."28)
Yet black women’s socialization about sex has another side, in which
"the idea and image of men and sex being integral to and necessary for life [become] firmly embedded and eventually internalized in their minds."29 The roots of this positive emphasis on sexual expression are diverse. In the analyses of Joseph, Barbara Omolade, and others, they include the conditions of "overcrowded dwellings" that may make sex a visible, thus ordinary, part of everyday life (a condition more tied to class than to race); the explicit and affirmative erotic messages contained in the lyrics of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and other blues singers as well as more recent forms of music, dance, and street talk in popular black culture; and the strong tradition of independent black women running farms, working in cities, raising children, and seeking their pleasure outside traditional patriarchal structures.30 According to Joseph, even the black church does not function as a rigid enforcer of taboos against premarital sex, as white churches do, and may itself convey mixed messages when "an unmarried teenage mother’s baby [is] welcomed and handled by all of the women parishioners."31
Their historically particular and complex socialization about sexuality and childbearing may partly explain many black women’s reluctance to get involved in activities supporting women’s abortion rights. To the extent that such activities are associated with (white) feminist aspirations to "sexual freedom," they may conflict with black women’s experience in several different ways. First, the sense of a collective past in which black women were systematically raped and sexually demeaned by white racists, having constantly to "prove" their "virtue," may make it difficult or painful for many black women to identify with a movement whose emphasis is "sexual liberation."32 Second, some black women, identifying with the models of black women who have defied traditional sex codes and stereotypes, may feel this movement is irrelevant to their needs. As another of Joseph’s interlocutors puts it, "those White women keep talking about being oppressed about this and oppressed about that, and how men oppress them sexually. Well, I don’t feel oppressed at all when it comes to sexually dealing with men. Lots of times I could teach them a thing or two."33 For still others, however, the abortion issue may simply pale next to the daily onslaught of life-and-death crises caused by inadequate health care; child and infant mortality rates twice as high as those for whites; death rates from childbirth four times, and from hypertension seventeen times, those of white women; and the decimation of families by AIDS, drugs, and poverty.34
People of color in the United States have often, and sometimes justifiably, been wary of those promoting abortion and birth control as more interested in racist eugenics or population control than in health (see Chapter 2). But racism can also take the form of (white) pronatalism. The pro – natalism of the so-called right-to-life movement is not so much about numbers as it is about a patriarchal conception of women’s roles as childbearers,
mothers, and wives (Chapter 7). Yet a populationist note is also audible in the continued refrains about adoption as an "alternative to abortion." The symbolism of "giving up a baby for adoption," of course, is that of maternal self-sacrifice and woman as vessel. Yet beyond that, these refrains appeal to commonly voiced concerns about the "shortage of babies to adopt," and this shortage, it is well known, specifically involves white babies. As Patricia Williams notes, while black people were bought and sold under slavery, now "it is white children who are bought and sold, [and] black babies have become ‘worthless7 currency to adoption agents—’surplus7 in the salvage heaps of Harlem hospitals."35 What, one wonders, do antiabortionists intend should become of the approximately 500,000 additional nonwhite babies who would be born if (hypothetically) all abortions were to stop? Whether their solution is adoption by white upscale baby consumers (making poor pregnant women into conscripted surrogate mothers), or increased poverty and suffering (since they oppose the level of social spending needed to help poor mothers raise their own babies), it is a patently racist and class-biased fantasy.
In the end, neither history nor common sense supports the belief that women of any race or class can be stopped from having abortions through coercive legislation or judicial fiat. Prior to Roe and in most societies where abortion is outlawed, estimates of the high numbers of illicit abortions attest to the risks women are willing to take to end unwanted pregnancies (Chapter 1). With the development of reasonably safe pharmacological substances to induce early abortions, such as the new drug RU486, currently banned in the U. S. but available in France, coercive measures will become all the more difficult to enforce.36 Yet abortion politics cuts through a much broader swath of social reality than the simple, almost timeless fact of abortion suggests. As this book argues, abortion politics invokes deeply conflicting values and symbolic meanings defining the intersections between sexuality, race, gender, and the state. The antiabortion movement represents people who not only feel their traditional way of life threatened but wish to impose it on everyone who is "different." One of the most interesting developments in contemporary American politics is the clash between this tendency and an even more traditional American view: that people ought to be left alone in their way of life.