June 7, 2023
How Black Feminists Defined Abortion Rights

How Black Feminists Defined Abortion Rights

It will probably be months before the Supreme Court decides, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, whether to overturn Roe v. Wade. But, in this latest round of attacks on Roe, a novel line of argument has emerged: that forced pregnancy and parenthood no longer constitute a hardship for women. Lawyers representing Mississippi, the appellant in the lawsuit, describe a world that has fundamentally changed over the past fifty years, in which the burdens of parenting have been lifted and women have been empowered to have it all—to assume a career while still raising families. As for those women who would prefer not to parent, they now have the option to simply terminate their parental rights.

A Black member of the Third World Womens Alliance stands holding a sign that reads “We represent Black and third world...
A member of the Third World Women’s Alliance demonstrates, in 1970.Photograph from Getty

In a legal brief, Mississippi described a fantasy land, where “many (largely post-dating Roe) laws protect equal opportunity—including prohibitions on sex and pregnancy discrimination in employment,” where the law guarantees parental leave, and where there is “support to offset the costs of childcare for working mothers.” The brief continued, “Sweeping policy advances now promote women’s full pursuit of both career and family.” In an interview with a local television station, the state attorney general, Lynn Fitch, added, as a flourish, “Fifty years ago, for professional women, they wanted you to make a choice. Now you don’t have to. Now you have the opportunity to be whatever you want to be. You have the option in life to really achieve your dreams, your goals, and you can have those beautiful children as well.” These would be wild claims under normal circumstances, but, in the midst of the pandemic, when child-care costs have been rising dramatically and when intermittent and impromptu school closures have forced nearly two million women out of the workforce, they are ludicrous.

According to the legal regime in Mississippi, the ability to give up one’s child for adoption cinches the final loophole in the logic of banning abortion. Justice Amy Coney Barrett added her own gloss on this claim through her questioning of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization’s lawyers, suggesting that safe-haven laws, which allow women to relinquish their infants, mean that “the obligations of motherhood” no longer “flow from pregnancy.” She continued, “It doesn’t seem to follow that pregnancy and then parenthood are all part of the same burden. And so it seems to me that the choice, more focussed, would be between, say, the ability to get an abortion at twenty-three weeks, or the state requiring the woman to go fifteen, sixteen weeks more and then terminate parental rights at the conclusion.”

The powerful men and women championing an end to abortion seek to recast an unwanted pregnancy as an inconvenience for “professional women.” But rich women have always had a bounty of choices when deciding to end a pregnancy and when deciding to have children. Fitch, who likes to use her own story as a single mother of three as evidence that women can have it all, was able to afford day care and a nanny. It should go without saying that these are not options for poor and working-class women, who without access to abortion will lose their right and ability to control their own destiny. In 2014, three-quarters of abortion patients qualified as low-income or poor, according to the Guttmacher Institute. That year, Black and brown patients accounted for more than half of abortions performed.

That Dobbs originates in Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, twists this fairy tale into a cruel joke. In Mississippi, nearly half of women-led households live in poverty, almost twice the national average; twelve per cent of women in the state lack health insurance, compared with eight per cent nationally. Barrett’s blithe suggestion that pregnant women simply “go fifteen, sixteen weeks more” ignores, among many burdens, that pregnant women in Mississippi die at higher rates than their peers in most states, including Louisiana and Georgia. And because this case is no longer just about Mississippi, it also ignores the fact that Black women are three to four times more at risk of dying in childbirth than white women.

For poor and working-class women, a disproportionate number of whom are Black and brown, overturning Roe won’t mean that abortions will end. It will mean that safe and sound abortions in health-care facilities will move further out of reach. This dilemma has been a permanent feature of the modern movement for abortion rights. One study found that eighty per cent of deaths caused by septic abortions in New York City in the nineteen-sixties involved Black and Puerto Rican women. In Georgia, between 1965 and 1967, the Black maternal death rate was fourteen times that of white women. During this period, nurses reported that “sticks, rocks, chopsticks, rubber or plastic tubes, gauze or cotton packing, ballpoint pens, coat hangers, or knitting needles” were administered to terminate pregnancies. For these women, access to abortion was not abstract—it was a matter of life and death.

If the Roe decision had simply affirmed that access to abortion was elemental to the social equality of women, it would have become something closer to an incontrovertible right. Instead, the Justices explicitly disagreed with the appellant’s claim that “the woman’s right is absolute and that she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses.” The twenty-one-page decision, written by Justice Harry Blackmun, considers when life begins, the potential harm experienced by unwanted children, and the right to privacy between a physician and a patient, but there is nothing about the equality of women and the ways that forced pregnancy impairs its actualization.

Within a few years, new legislation began to restrict poor and working-class women’s right to an abortion. The passage of the Hyde Amendment, in 1976, eliminated Medicaid funding of abortion except in cases in which the mother’s life is at risk. The impact was immediate. The number of abortions financed by Medicaid dropped from three hundred thousand a year to a few thousand.

In Roe, the Supreme Court claimed to want to make a dispassionate decision, one not influenced by the larger debates concerning abortion. “Population growth, pollution, poverty, and racial overtones tend to complicate and not to simplify the problem,” Blackmun wrote. In this way, the Court’s decision reflected the narrowness of the mainstream women’s movement, which viewed abortion as the singular way to measure women’s right to control their reproductive lives. In both cases, the broad range of factors constraining women’s equality was ignored, because doing otherwise would open larger and more complicated issues involving pay, family structure, social provision, and a more capacious consideration of reproductive rights. It would also require accounting for the ways that women’s equality had different meanings for women who were not white or middle class. Black, Puerto Rican, and Chicana women had different constraints and burdens in their daily lives that meant they would have different approaches to achieving liberation.

When the National Organization for Women formed, in 1966, it patterned its mission after the civil-rights strategy of changing the legal framework of discrimination. Yet even as NOW demanded a dramatic expansion of rights for women, it largely overlooked the concerns of poor and working-class women of color. This was made plain in 1969, when NOW’s president, Betty Friedan, gave an address at a conference that marked the formation of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. She said, “As the Negro was the invisible man, so women are the invisible people in America today: we must now become visible women who have a share in the decisions of the mainstream of government, of politics, of the church—who don’t just cook the church supper but preach the sermon; who don’t just look up the Zip Code and address the envelopes but make the political decisions; who don’t just do the housework of industry but make some of the executive decisions. Women, above all, who say what their own lives and personalities are going to be, and no longer listen to or even permit male experts to define what ‘feminine’ is or isn’t.” These were certainly examples and sites of sexism, but Friedan ignored the possibility that “woman” was not a universal category as she prioritized the problems of white and middle-class women as the most urgent. And if there was any confusion over whom she was addressing, Friedan went on to explain that NOW’s purpose was to “break out of the confines of that sterile little suburban family to relate to each other in terms of all of the possible dimensions of our personalities.”

The chasm between middle-class white women’s demands and aspirations and those of poor and working-class women of color began to be addressed by the emergence of Black feminists in the late sixties. These women, who included Toni Cade Bambara, Frances Beal, Alice Walker, and Barbara Smith, argued that real equality could be achieved only by expanding the parameters of what constituted “reproductive justice” to include the entire context within which decisions about having or not having children were made. Organizations like NOW mobilized predominately white women to fight for abortion rights, but they often ignored or minimized the glaring issue of coerced or forced sterilizations, which was critical to women of color. According to a national study conducted by Princeton University in 1970, twenty-one per cent of married Black women had been sterilized. As the legal scholar Dorothy Roberts has observed, “The dominant women’s movement has focussed myopically on abortion rights at the expense of other aspects of reproductive freedom, including the right to bear children, and has misunderstood criticism of coercive birth-control policies.”

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