Monday, December 17, 2012

Roe and the Racial Politics of Abortion

Claims about race, racism, and abortion represent one of several historical arguments recently emphasized by abortion opponents (see, e.g., Tracy Thomas, Misappropriating Women’s History in the Law and Politics of Abortion, 36 Seattle U. L. Rev. 1 (2012)).  In the case of race, activists debate the legacy left to contemporary discussion by Margaret Sanger and the early family planning movement. But as I argue in an article forthcoming in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, the politics of race immediately before and after Roe, however, defy any of the simple explanations on offer in current debate. For many, concerns about abortion as a means of “black genocide” were real. Thea Rossi Barron, the head lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee, told me about the assistance that Jesse Jackson offered her in lobbying for the Hyde Amendment. Jackson worried about the ties between the movements for population control and abortion, particularly, the sterilization abuse epidemic revealed to have taken place in the late 1960s and 1970s. Women of color like Shirley Chisholm or Frances Beale instead responded to concerns about black genocide by demanding both abortion rights and protection against sterilization abuse, and many black and Chicana women worked within the mainstream movement to reform abortion laws.

Just the same, concerns abortion and racism reflected real social changes: the emergence of the black power movement and its new expression of protest and dissent, the rise of a feminist women’s health movement suspicious of the medical establishment, and the challenges to the role of population politics in the reproductive-rights movement. Even in the 1970s, opposing activists contested the history of race and abortion. Abortion-rights activists reframed their cause and its history, denying its connection to population control and stressing the importance of self-determination for women. Abortion opponents offered a very different historical narrative, highlighting arguments or players shared by the movements for eugenics, population control, and abortion rights.

In dialogue with one another, those on each side offered a highly politicized and oversimplified account of past reproductive politics. As Khiara Bridges has shown, social constructions of race continue to play an important role in access to reproductive health care (see Khiara Bridges, Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011)). We should not be surprised by this, given the uses of history in the abortion debate. The full picture of the racial politics of abortion is a large and complex one, and current debate offers little room for nuance of any kind.