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Abortion and Black Women: A Brief History by Loretta J. Ross

Abortion matters significantly for most feminist projects. Black women’s relationship to abortion often gets characterized as oppositional or conservative. Loretta J. Ross, the creator of the term reproductive justice, confronts these assumptions in her 1993 Theorizing Black Feminisms piece. Ross’s essay focuses on Black women’s activism in relation to abortion, spurred by her own experience with birth control and the state:

It is providential that I kept my child rather than giving him up for adoption, because I was permanently sterilized by the Dalton Shield IUD at age 23. I sued A.H. Robins, the maker of the shield. and became one of the first Black women to prevail against this multinational corporation (143)

Ross thus notes that abortion does not automatically bring women freedom, though it provides control over women’s biology. This makes abortion a tool of bodily and political self-determination. Ross gives a history of abortion from the 1800s to 1970 to further this point.

Abortion in the 1800s

Black women slaves used birth control and abortion to resist enslavement, sometimes resorting to infanticide out of desperation. Africans that first arrived at the colonies brought along with them folk knowledge of abortion, passed on from societies in ancient times through the practice of midwifery. For example, in rural areas, some women would take alum water whereas women in urban areas relied on a concoction of petroleum jelly and quinine.  Black middle class and elite women sought out information through sources like the Black women’s newsletter The Women’s Era. 

Contrary to popular belief, then, abortion among Black women did not result from tools of domination. Instead, it started as a tool of resistance and a product of African women’s knowledge.

Birth Control and Abortion: 1915-50

The understanding of abortion and birth control as antithetical to Black women’s liberation probably started in the twentieth century. Around this time, the birth control movement aspired to use contraception as a method of population control by curbing Black women’s fertility. However, Ross challenges this assumption too:

It is both wrong, and racist, to assume that African-American women had no interest in controlling the spacing of their children and were the passive victims of medical commercial and state policies of reproductive control”(146)

According to Ross, Black fertility and infant mortality declined at end of the 19th century due to better social awareness. Black women saw themselves as builders and nurturers of the race and nation at large rather than breeders or matriarchs. Contraception thus helped them manage their newfound status as free women.

Around this time, Black women’s activism started to the mainstream through the work of Sojourner Truth and members of the Colored Women’s Club Movement, which directly addressed issues of Black women’s sexuality. Other organizations including the Black press promoted family planning and also reported mortality rates due to illegal abortions.

Eugenics and Genocide

Resistance to the use of contraception for Black women comes from several sources. The Catholic Church, for example, opposed it for religious and political reasons. White conservatives drew feared it would lead to birth control use among white women. Black nationalist leaders like Marcus Garvey expressed a belief that increasing the population would lead to the continuation of the Black race. As fears of depopulation spread in the Black community, a pronatalist trend began in the 19th century:

This trend also built successfully on traditional Black values that conferred adult status on women who became biological mothers, the first significant step toward womanhood (P. Collins, 1991:134). This shift in the critical thinking of African-Americans on population and motherhood presaged an inevitable conflict between the right of women to exercise bodily self-determination and the need of the African-American community for political and economic self-determination. In both schools of thought, wombs were to be the weapon against racism and oppression.” (148)

The eugenics movement evolved from biological determinism in the late 1800s. The movement used pseudo-scientific theories of race and heredity to promote the reproduction of “racially superior” people. Positive methods of eugenicism included tax incentives and education programs while negative methods included sterilization, involuntary confinement, and immigration registration for people considered undesirable.

Over time eugenicists started to embrace birth control advocacy and other population control policies, arguing that Black people and other “undesirables” might gain political power if permitted to breed. Indeed, White feminists like Margaret Sanger engaged with White nationalists and eugenicists, forming alliances that helped build a political establishment that exerted racist population control at people of color’s expense.

Eugenics rose in popularity during the Great Depression, turning birth control into a right for privileged women and a duty for the poor. During the twentieth century forced sterilizations happened in at least twenty-seven states. The eugenics movement had an international reach, rooted in the colonialism of the era. Thus Black women developed a sense of “paired values” in regard to abortion – balancing individual control over bodies while resisting depopulation policies managed through incentives and coercion. Ultimately, Black women supported birth control but offered a strong critique of eugenicists.

The Underground Movement: 1950-70

During the mid-twentieth century, abortions for Black women happened from health professionals operating illegally in the U.S. Some women traveled to Mexico while white women traveled to Black neighborhoods to get abortions from “Granny” midwives. Black midwives had continued to pass down their knowledge of abortion from slavery while the medical field increasingly relied on practices executed in hospitals.  Indeed a Black woman doctor, Dorothy Brown, became the first state legislator to propose a bill for abortion in the 1950s.

The issues of the eugenics movement had not disappeared, but rather got reframed as Nazism made a public endorsement of the practices unpopular. Demographers now endorsed a “time boom” theory that warned population growth in the Third World would affect the ability of the U.S. to govern world affairs. From this point forward, the U.S. linked foreign aid to depopulation policies.

On the domestic front, this rhetoric led to family planning programs directed at Black urban areas started in the mid-1960s. Additionally, conservative values prevented a national family program:

White conservatives saw family planning as an assault on traditional values of motherhood, while someBlack radicals saw it as a race- and class-directed eugenics program, thus the assault on birth control and abortion came from both the left and the right. (154)

Therefore, Black women continued to rely on their informal networks to gain access to services, birth control, health care, and abortion rights.

Some Black nationalists campaigned against blatant racism of family planning, claiming a connection between abortion and genocide. Some Black men advocated the shutdown clinics, complicating relationships among Black political organizations. For example, the 1967 Black Power conference in Newark, New Jersey drafted an anti-contraception resolution. Members of the Black Panther Party, however, supported free abortions and contraceptives on demand.

Black women largely supported the family planning movement. Due to death rates from illegal abortions, Black women supported clinics as well as Head Start and homes for unwed mothers. They succeeded in keeping family planning clinics opening even though they experienced sexist backlash.

In response, Black women developed a distinct feminist consciounsess. Women like Frances Bell and Toni Cade Bambara argued that birth control and abortion were revolutionary. African liberation required that women control their lives. The combination of a support for birth control and abortion as well as an opposition to sterilization creates a unique Black women’s standpoint that informed the feminist and civil rights movements of the late twentieth century.

Conclusion

Ross concludes with a sentiment that understanding this history helps reconceptualize Black women’s activism on abortion. Typically characterized through a male-dominated or eurocentric lens, current definitions of activism fail to grasp what these conceptions mean in Black women’s lives. I would add that unless we make the reproductive justice movement more visible, we continue to falsely assume birth control and abortion do not give Black women agency.

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