Fighting the Black Anti-Abortion Campaign: Trusting Black Women
by Loretta J. Ross
On the Issues Magazine
Sixty-five billboards were quickly erected in
predominantly African American neighborhoods in Atlanta
on February 5, 2010. Each showed a sorrowful picture of
a black male child proclaiming, "Black Children are an
Georgia Right to Life and the newly-formed Radiance
Foundation spent $20,000 to sponsor the billboards that
included the address of a previously unknown anti-
abortion website. On The Issues Magazine - Rodriguez
Calero, Angel y Maria, 2000 Acrollage Painting
This was the opening salvo in a campaign to pass new
state legislation attempting to criminalize abortions
provided to women of color allegedly because of the
"race or sex" of the fetus. Doctors would have been
subjected to criminal sanctions and civil lawsuits.
Central to the argument of our opponents was the false
claim that most, if not all, abortions are coerced.
At Sister Song Women of Color Reproductive Justice
Collective, where one of the billboards was only a few
blocks away, we knew that this race- and gender-baiting
campaign would have national implications, driving a
racial wedge in the pro-choice movement and a gender
wedge in communities of color. The legislation would
also trigger a challenge to Roe v. Wade.
Although SisterSong had not expected this fight, we
could not afford to be silent. We surged into action to
challenge the marketing of the billboards and the
legislation. We formed a coalition for the fight with
SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW!, Feminist Women's
Health Center, SisterLove, Planned Parenthood of the
Southeast Region, and Raksha. We strategized together
to use a reproductive justice approach that intersected
race and gender as the smartest way to counter this
intersectional attack on abortion rights.
We succeeded - this time. We won, in part, by shifting
the debate, researching our opponents, understanding
the divisions among our opponents, correcting their
"facts," and engaging our Civil Rights allies. In the
process, we made new discoveries about how to deal with
this latest tactic of our opponents. Identifying the
Because of the conflation of race, gender and abortion,
the billboards very quickly became national news,
picked up by CNN, The New York Times, ABC, The LA Times
and many others.
Our opponents began a misogynistic attack to shame-and-
blame black women who choose abortion, alleging that we
endanger the future of our children. After all, many
people in our community already believe that black men
are an endangered species because of white supremacy.
Our opponents used a social responsibility frame to
claim that black women have a racial obligation to have
more babies - especially black male babies -- despite
our individual circumstances.
The campaign also accused Planned Parenthood, the
largest single provider of birth control and abortion
services in the black community, of targeting the
community for "genocide" because of its "racist
founder," Margaret Sanger. Change-up
We had to fight the rhetorical impact of the billboards
by reframing the discourse as an attack on the autonomy
of black women, shifting the focus away from the sad,
beautiful black boy in the advertisements. They tried
to shame-and-blame black women who choose abortion
It was not accidental that they chose a black male
child to feature in their messaging, exacerbating
gender tensions in the African American community. We
decided that the best approach was to emphasize our
opponents' negative subliminal messages about black
women. Either we were dupes of abortion providers, or
we were evil women intent on having abortions -
especially of black male children - for selfish
reasons. In their first narrative, we were victims
without agency unable to make our own decisions, pawns
of racist, profit-driven abortion providers. In their
second narrative, we were the uncaring enemies of our
own children, and architects of black genocide.
We decided on affirming messages that refuted both
narratives. We had to manage both positive and negative
emotions about abortion.
We repeatedly asserted our own agency as black women
who are trustworthy, informed and politically savvy. We
insisted that whether black women were pro-choice or
pro-life, we were united in believing that black women
could reasonably decide for ourselves whether to become
parents. Freedom is inherent in black women and we
would let no one limit our liberty. We aggressively
linked women's rights to civil and human rights.
Our messages: We decided to have abortions. We invited
Margaret Sanger to place clinics in black
neighborhoods. We are part of the civil and human
rights movement. We protected the future of black
children, not our opponents. We helped women. They
We found a resonating message of trusting black women
that was widely embraced by African American women.
This response forced our opponents to change their
messages. They eventually declared-defensively-that
they "do trust black women!" We knew we had scored a
victory. Researching the Opposition
We researched our opponents to debunk their emotional
appeal that they were defending black children and
women. At the same time, we resisted ad hominem
We kept asking the question, "Where do they get the
money to finance their movement?" With the support of
Political Research Associates and the Institute for
Research and Education on Human Rights, we looked at
their connections and funding.
We learned from contacts that our opponents crafted
this strategy in 2009 in a secret meeting on St.
Simon's Island in South Georgia between Georgia Right
to Life (GRTL) and the Georgia Republican Party. They
hoped to build an alliance between white and black
conservatives, not only to restrict abortion access in
Georgia but to split African American voters.
To provide an African American woman to champion the
effort, Georgia Right to Life hired Catherine Davis,
who failed twice at winning a Congressional seat as a
black Republican. Davis' partner was the Radiance
Foundation that designed the billboard. It was set up
by an advertising executive, Ryan Bomberger. Bomberger
claims that he is the son of a white mother raped by a
black man and that his mother gave him up for adoption
because she did not believe in abortion. Bomberger says
that it is his mission to save black babies, even if it
means allowing rapists to choose the mothers of their
The billboard campaign was accompanied by a two-hour
pseudo-documentary film, Maafa 21, that purported to
trace the eugenics movement in promoting genocide
against African Americans, and how abortion is part of
it. It was created by a white Texan, Mark Crutcher, who
has made a career of attacking Planned Parenthood. More
than 20,000 copies were distributed free.
We looked at the cross-pollination between the anti-
abortion movement and conservative figures from other
arenas. Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr., is employed by the anti-abortion Priests for Life
and revealed a close relationship with Fox News' host,
Glenn Beck, even speaking at Beck's August 2010 rally
that attempted to hijack the symbolic legacy of Dr.
King's historic 1963 March on Washington. These
associations did not aid her credibility in the African
American community. Sarah Palin's endorsement of the
billboards tied their campaign to other conservative
figures distrusted by the African American community.
We also learned that race and gender became a bait-and-
switch tactic by our opponents. When they could not
locate any black women who had abortions because of the
race of the child - no surprise! - they switched
tactics to claim that they were really concerned that
Asian American women were having sex-selective
abortions, using even more disguised racism against
"foreigners" and hyperactivating prejudices against
immigrants. Putting Out Facts
Anti-abortionists misused data and facts. The
cornerstone of their genocide theory is that black
women have had fewer children over a number of years.
In fact, women of all races have fewer children when
they have increased access to reproductive health
services and educational and job opportunities. We won
by shifting the debate and correcting our opponents'
The reality is that black women have always controlled
our fertility when we could. We brought knowledge from
Africa that helped us practice birth control and have
abortions. After the end of slavery, we were determined
to end the forced breeding of our bodies, and we cut
our birth rate in half in the first 40 years after the
Civil War. We continued this intentional decline as
part of our racial uplift strategy to have fewer
children and provide more opportunities for the ones we
Black women, however, do have three times more
abortions than white women, a statistic anti-
abortionists used to demonize abortion providers. Black
women have more unintended pregnancies, less access to
contraception, are more vulnerable to childhood sexual
abuse, and experience single motherhood more than our
white counterparts. For reproductive justice activists,
the solution is to help black women have fewer
unintended pregnancies and to eliminate the obstacles
that interfere with personal decision making.
Another anti-abortion tactic is to claim that abortion
clinics are "always" located in African American
communities, especially by Planned Parenthood. In
Georgia, we were able to easily refute this claim by
presenting demographic data, proving that only four of
the 15 abortion clinics in our state are in
predominantly black neighborhoods.
We addressed the story of Margaret Sanger and her
allegedly racist agenda. We documented that African
American leaders had worked with Sanger in the 1930s to
ask for clinics in black communities. We challenged our
opponents' historical revisionism by citing famous
leaders like Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Dubois, Walter
White, Mary Church Terrell, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell,
Sr., and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and organizations
like the NAACP, the National Urban League and the
National Council of Negro Women. We dared them to call
these icons of the civil rights movement pawns of a
racist agenda. A Trust of New Leadership
Engaging leaders of Civil Rights organizations was
critical to informing the African American community
about the true facts of black women's lives. We reached
out to Julian Bond, former chair of the NAACP, who had
endorsed the 2004 March for Women's Lives. We had a
boost when anti-abortion activists chose to picket the
2010 NAACP National Convention, trying to force them to
retract their support for reproductive justice. The
support of the NAACP opened the door for other Civil
Rights organizations to join us, such as Rainbow PUSH.
Women of color are able to build stronger alliances
between the Civil Rights and Reproductive Justice
movements. It is equally clear that most male-led Civil
Rights organizations will not take the lead on gender
justice issues on behalf of women, especially on a
difficult issue such as abortion.
We stopped the legislation in Georgia in the final two
hours of the legislative session. And then we sat down
to consider future plans. We created the Trust Black
Women Partnership, a long-term strategy to ensure that
black women can mobilize wherever such campaigns appear
in African American communities, and to generate deeper
discussions about black women's autonomy and human
Our opponents will not retreat, but, in fact, will "re-
load," as Sarah Palin would say. Georgia Right to Life
and the Radiance Foundation, working with Priests for
Life and its $10 million war chest, announced plans to
spread their campaign. Similar billboards have already
appeared in Arkansas, Texas, Missouri and Tennessee.
The anti-abortion opponents changed their tactics: now
they claim to promote adoption for black children as a
more compassionate alternative to abortion, ignoring
the fact that four out of five "hard to place" children
in the adoption system are African American.
The struggle in Georgia also highlighted tensions
within the pro-choice movement about the leadership of
women of color. The pro-choice movement must overcome
its historical reluctance to confront accusations of
racism and genocide. It must work harder to understand
the power of the reproductive justice framework.
Mainstream organizations have to step back and let
women of color lead when race and gender intersect in
Reproductive justice activists recognize that we all
live in a system of white supremacy that affects
everyone in America: no one is immune to racism. The
failure to recognize this legacy jeopardizes our
collective ability to defeat our mutual opponents.
Working honestly on race and power relations is not
only the right thing to do, but it is the smart thing
to do to defeat race- and gender-based attacks on
abortion and women's rights.
Loretta J. Ross is National Coordinator of the
SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health
Collective, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia.
Also see A Simple Human Right; The History Of Black
Women And Abortion by Loretta J. Ross in the Spring
1994 edition of On The Issues Magazine.
Also see 'Feminists for Life': A built-in
contradiction? by Eleanor J. Bader in this edition of
On The Issues Magazine.
Also see Republicans Aim to 'Divide and Conquer' by Lu
Bailey in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
Visit The Café of On The Issues Magazine for new
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