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African- American Women And Abortion

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Autor:  anton  24 November 2010
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African-American Women And Abortion

Loretta J. Ross

Only justice can stop a curse.

-- Alice Walker

This essay reviews the activism of African-American women in the abortion rights movement, highlighting the past fifty years.1 Many observers mistakenly view African-American women's struggle for abortion rights and reproductive freedom in the 1990s as reflecting a relatively recent commitment. More accurately, this activism should be placed in the context of our historical struggle against racism, sexism, and poverty.

The fact is, when methods of fertility control have been available and accessible, African-American women have advocated for and used these strategies even more frequently than their white counterparts.2 For example, when family Planning was first institutionalized in Louisiana in 1965, Black women were six times more likely than white women to sign up for contraception.3

But when contraceptives were unavailable and abortion was illegal, septic abortions were a primary killer of African-American women. One study estimated that 80 percent of deaths caused by illegal abortions in New York in the 1960s involved Black and Puerto Rican women.4 In Georgia between 1965 and 1967 the Black maternal death rate due to illegal abortion was fourteen times that of white women.5

Central to my argument is the fact that African-American women have never been "one dimensional victims of patriarchy."6 Nor have we been one-dimensional activists. African-American women have made consistent and critical activist contributions to the evolution of the reproductive rights movement in the United, States. Already in the early 1990s the Black women's club movement joined forces with early proponents of birth control and called for the placement of family-planning clinics in Black neighborhoods while criticizing eugenics or population control forces.

Black women in the 1920s and 1930s wanted individual control overfertility, while at the same time they resisted government and privately funded anti-natalist population control campaigns.7 This dual-value system seeded an expanded vision of reproductive freedom that guides our work today.

The early African-American activists understood the complex nature of Black womanhood and believed that fertility control was an essential part of the movement to rise from the brutal legacy of slavery. In the words of Brenda Joyner, reproductive rights activism by Black women has been and is "a feminism which realizes that the issues of reproductive control are broader than just the fight for gender equality. It is a feminism which understands the world simultaneously from race and class as well as gender perspectives." 8 This essay does not attempt to identify an essential Black women's viewpoint regarding these issues but seeks to provide "critical self-consciousness about our positionality, defined as it is by race, gender, class and ideology."9 The time has come for us to understand both our powerlessness in society and our influence on the reproductive rights movement.

Despite the fact that much of the decline in the fertility rates of African Americans since the Civil War resulted from the activism and deter-mined choices of African-American women, our contributions to the birth control and abortion movements in the United States have been obscured by racist and sexist assumptions about us, our sexuality, and our fertility. Distilling fact from myth is difficult because so many accounts of African-American and women's history are written from perspectives that fail to acknowledge our impact. This omission distorts the contemporary views of African-American women about the reproductive freedom movement and our ownership of it.

The Black feminist commitment to reproductive rights has remained buried for at least three important reasons. First, the movement for abortion rights is erroneously seen as belonging to the predominantly white women's movement. Feminist literature often (but not always) reflects a popularized perception that African-American women's awareness regarding gender equality and abortion rights is underdeveloped. Brenda Joyner, who has been an abortion provider for the past fifteen years, believes that white mainstream women's groups have undervalued the participation and concerns of women of color in the re-productive rights movement: "Perhaps the question is not really where are women of color in the abortion rights and reproductive rights movement. Rather, where is the primarily white middle-class movement in our struggles for freedom? Where was a white middle-class movement when the [1977] Hyde Amendment took away Medicaid funding of abortions for poor women?"10

Second, the struggle for reproductive rights is not commonly perceived as a part of the civil rights movement, although in fact it was part of that movement until after World War II. In the early twentieth century Black organizations were often visible supporters of fertility control for Black women, linking reproductive rights to racial advancement. For examples from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, the growth rate of the African-American population has been more than halved.11 Historians and demographers typically attribute this and other declines in African-American birthrates to poverty, disease, coercive family planning, or other external factors. These assumptions ignore the possibility that African Americans were in any way consciously responsible for the change by choosing to use birth control and abortion. In the 1930s African-American women were never passive victims of eugenics (the "improvement" of humankind through selective breeding), forced sterilization, and other medical, commercial, and state policies or reproductive control. Current debates over the genetic causes of criminality, the validity of IQ tests, inherited intelligence, welfare reform, quotas, and affirmative action all suggest the extent to which the eugenics movement still affects public policy. But for the past sixty years, African-American women have been at the forefront of challenging the relationship between racist science and public policy in our society.

Thus, a third reason that the Black feminist tradition has been obfuscated is that racist and sexist assumptions held by population experts, feminists, or the African-American community itself ignore our power as African-American women to make responsible reproductive and political decisions for ourselves. A historical perspective is necessary to understand and place in context the contemporary views of African-American women on abortion and birth control.

I have been a reproductive rights activist for the past twenty-three years, beginning with work in the early 1970s on sterilization abuse. Because I have organized Black women around reproductive rights, I have witnessed the development of a strong reproductive freedom movement among Black women during this period. In doing research to support my activism, I discovered a long tradition of reproductive rights advocacy by Black women that was either undocumented or not widely understood. Despite the lack of a full or easily accessible historical record, I became determined to reconnect the work of Black activists at the beginning of the twentieth century to the work and ideology of those at the end.

Many African-American women are alienated from the abortion issue. Our slave history makes many of us determined never again to relinquish control over our reproduction to anyone. As a 1989 brochure published by African American Women for Reproductive Freedom put it, "Somebody owned our flesh, and decided if and when and with whom and how our bodies were to be used. Somebody said that Black women could be raped, held in concubinage, forced to bear children year in and year out, but often not raise them."12 This haunting specter of slavery is real and moving. This is the collective nightmare that haunts our vision of a racist system controlling our bodies.

However, this rationale for abortion-that because as slaves we were valued for our procreative capacity, we should never be a slave to pregnancy again-is somewhat short of the Black feminist analysis necessary to understand the complexities of abortion and its impact on the lives of African-American women. Every Black woman must believe she has aright to control her body simply because she is human. This belief does not deny her femaleness or her Blackness but rests upon a fundamentally solid acceptance of her own uniqueness and sense of self-esteem-a belief in her human rights and right to bodily self-determination.13

When we demand control over our own bodies, we must not depend solely on our history of slavery, our African traditions, or even on a colorized white feminist analysis. We need to support abortion rights from an analysis that is built from a strong and shared understanding of how the forces of racism, sexism, homophobia, and economic oppression affect our lives. Equating the denial of abortion rights to slavery is convenient intellectual shorthand, but it leaves Black women vulnerable to manipulation by sexists who believe that our role is either to have babies for the long-awaited Black revolution or to cease reproducing altogether, to comply with racist assumptions about our "overpopulation."

It is equally futile to romanticize our claim to "traditional" African society, even though abortion and birth control were seen as the province of women, not the decisions of men, in most African societies. Traditional knowledge and skills are almost totally inaccessible to African-American women today. Sadly, they are even inaccessible to many African women because of the profuse marketing of contraceptives and other devices that has eroded the chain of knowledge that made women self-reliant in the past.

What we need is a new feminist theory of reproductive freedom for Black women. We have a strong understanding of the role that race, class, and gender have played in our lives-our triple-oppression theories. But despite our history of activism, many Black women still do not see abortion rights as a stepping-stone to freedom because abortion rights do not automatically end the oppression of Black women. On the other hand, these rights do allow some control over our biology, freeing us from unwanted Pregnancies, and they are fundamental to bodily and political self-determination. To ask whether African-American women favor or oppose abortion may currently be fashionable and an opportunity for manipulative politicians. But the answer is obviously yes: we obtain 24 percent of the abortions in the United States, more than 500,000 annually."14 The question is not if we support abortion, but how, and when, and why. Our circumstances have dictated our choices. Neither persuasive analysis nor ideology influenced African-American women to support abortion and birth control. We did so because we needed to. Necessity was the midwife to our politics.

Regrettably, African-American women have been reluctant to analyze our history regarding abortion and to speak out collectively and publicly in support of abortion rights. To do so in the 1960s and 1970s seemed to support arguments of Black genocide, a charge that was not unreasonable in view of a multitude of attacks on African Americans. To speak out also risked highlighting abortion over other aspects of our struggle to achieve reproductive freedom. These struggles involve our experiences of pregnancy, infant mortality, sterilization abuse, welfare abuse, and sexuality in general. Even since legalization, the word abortion has remained one of the most emotionally charged words within the African-American community, bringing forth twin fears of genocide and suicide. In some circles, we still refer to it as the "A" word!

To compound the problem, Black women are ambivalent about the mainstream pro-choice movement. While a 1991 poll by the National Council of Negro Women and the Communications Consortium revealed that 83 percent of African Americans support abortion and birth control, little of that support translates into membership in predominantly white pro-choice organizations.15 The pro-choice movement, as a subset of the larger women's movement, has not been able to attract significant numbers of Black women Into its ranks, even though many special projects targeting women of color proliferated in the 1980s.16

At the same time, the anti-abortion movement became adept at manipulating Black fears about genocide to silence the voices of Black women who believe in reproductive freedom. Anti-abortion proponents have made frightening inroads into Black churches, which often find it difficult to openly discuss issues of Black sexuality including abortion, AIDS, homosexuality, premarital sex, and teen sexuality. A generation ago, Black ministers were in the forefront of the struggle for reproductive freedom. Today, the silence of our churches-the moral corner-stones of our community-is a reflection of the church's disconnection from the real history of African-American women.

It is up to Black women living in these difficult times to define abortion rights for ourselves. By exploring the nature of our silence, we can connect ourselves to our foremothers who were activists for reproductive freedom. As Black feminist bell hooks says, "Moving from silence into speech is a revolutionary gesture."17 Our "revolutionary gesture" means finding our voices and rediscovering our history. We must document our own stories and give ourselves permission to speak proudly about the experiences of "ordinary" Black women whose "unexceptional" actions enabled us and the race to survive. We must dispel the myths surrounding our fertility and activism by developing our own critical analysis of abortion and birth control that does more than simply appropriate someone else's dogma. To extend bell hooks's observation, our struggle is not simply to move from silence into speech, but to change the nature and direction of our speech, to make a speech that is heard. We must make a speech that deliberately combines the personal stories and the objective reality that create the authority, authenticity, and uniqueness of the African-American female experiences. As an expression of my commitment to this credo, in this essay I draw, wherever possible, on the experiences of today's activists.

Historical Context: Slavery, Early Blackfeminism, And Fertility Control Activism

Before the Civil War, almost 20 percent of the total United States population consisted of African-American slaves.18 Plantation owners tried to keep knowledge of birth control and abortion away from both slaves and white women to maintain the system of white supremacy used to justify slavery and to increase their investments in human chattel.19 In addition to the rape of slave women by slave masters to increase the number of children, breeding techniques included giving pregnant slave women lighter workloads and more rations to increase their willingness to have children. Punitive measures were also used: infertile women were treated "like barren sows and passed from one unsuspecting buyer to the next." 20

African Americans covertly used contraceptives and abortions to resist slavery. Often they employed African folk knowledge to do so. In the context of slavery, abortion and infanticide expressed a woman's desperate determination to resist the oppressive conditions of slavery.21 As Angela Davis points out, when Black women resorted to abortion, the stories they told were not so much about the desire to be free of pregnancy, but rather about the miserable social conditions that dissuaded them from bringing new lives into the world."22

Throughout the nineteenth century, white Southerners repeatedly expressed their racist nightmares about a huge Black population increase. In fact, the Black population of the South was growing much more slowly than the white population. In 1870 there were 5 million Blacks in the South, and in 1990 there were 8.7 million, whereas there were 8.6 million whites in 1870 and 2O.5 million in 1910. 23

By the early 1900s Black women were making significant gains in controlling their fertility by marrying late and having few children.24 In this era the Black women's club movement, the organized voice of African-American women during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, directly addressed issues of Black women's sexuality 25 and sought to "confront and redefine morality and assess its relationship to "true womanhood."26 Stereotypes about Black women's sexuality and alleged immorality prompted many African-American women to "make the virtues as well as the wants of the colored women known to the American people ... to put a new social value on themselves." 27 The main organization for Black women's clubs, the National Association of Colored Women, had between 150,000 and 200,000 members, mainly middle-class women, in forty-one states in the mid-1920s.28 The club movement was integral to the networks that shared contraceptive information and supported "voluntary motherhood."29

In 1894 The Women's Era, an African-American women's journal edited by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, declared that "not all women are intended for mothers. Some of us have not the temperament for family life."30 Club members and others supported this perspective, and many responded to advertisements in Black newspapers in the early twentieth century for a medicated douche product called Puf, which was reported to "end your calendar worries."

The Birth Control Campaign, 1915-1950

Today it is commonplace to link the emergence of the birth control movement in the early twentieth century to the coercion of African-American women by a population control establishment anxious to limit Black fertility. While the population control establishment may have had its agenda, African Americans were willingly involved in the national birth control debate for their own reasons. African-American women were sensitive to the intersection of race, gender, and class issues that affected their drive for equality in early-twentieth-century American society. According to historian Jessie Rodrique, grassroots African Americans were "active and effective participants in the establishment of local [family-planning] clinics ... and despite cooperation with white birth control groups, Blacks maintained a degree of independence" that allowed the development of an African-American analysis of family planning and the role it played in racial progress.31

African-American women saw themselves not as breeders or matriarchs but as builders and nurturers of a race, a nation. Sojourner Truth's statement, "I feel as if the power of a nation is within me!" 32 affirmed the role of African-American women as "seminal forces of the endurance and creativity needed by future generations of Blacks not merely to survive, but to thrive, produce, and progress." 33

In this spirit, the Black women's club movement supported the establishment of family-planning clinics in Black communities. In 1918 the Women's Political Association of Harlem became the first Black organization to schedule lectures on birth control. They were soon joined by dozens of other clubwomen seeking information about birth control in their communities. The National Urban League requested that the Birth Control Federation of America (the forerunner to Planned Parenthood) open a clinic in the Columbus Hill section of the Bronx in 19 2 5. Several ministers held discussions about birth control at their churches, and inI931 the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell of the Abyssinian Baptist Church spoke at public meetings in support of family planning.34

African-American organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and leading Black newspapers like the San Francisco Spokesman (1932) and the Pittsburgh Courier (1936) promoted family planning. The Black press espoused this strategy as a means for uplifting the race, perhaps partially in response to the economic ravages of the Depression. The African-American newspapers of the period also reported the mortality rate of women who had septic abortions and championed the causes of Black doctors who were arrested for per-forming illegal abortions.35

The Baltimore Afro-American wrote that pencils, nails, and hat pins were instruments commonly used for self-induced abortions, and that abortions among Black women were deliberate, not the spontaneous result of poor health or sexually transmitted diseases. Statistics on abortions among African-American women are scarce, but 28 percent of Black women surveyed by an African-American doctor in Nashville in 1940 said they had had at least one abortion.36


The opposition to fertility control for women in the 1920s came primarily from the Catholic Church, from white conservatives who feared the availability of birth control for white women, and from Black nationalist leaders like Marcus Garvey, who believed in increasing the African population in response to racial oppression. President Theodore Roosevelt condemned the tendency toward smaller family sizes among white women as race suicide. He denounced family planning as "criminal against the race."37

As racism, lynchings, and poverty took their heavy toll on African Americans in the early twentieth century, fears of depopulation arose within a rising Black nationalist movement. These fears produced a pro-natalist shift in the views of African Americans. The change from relative indifference about population size to using population growth as a form of political currency presaged the inevitable conflict between those who believed in the right of Black women to exercise bodily self-determination and those who stressed the African-American community's need to foster political and economic self-determination.

In the United States, eugenics proponents believed that the future of native-born whites in America was threatened by the increasing population of people of color and whites who were not of Nordic-Teutonic descent. The eugenics movement not only affected the thinking in social Darwinist scientific circles, but it also grew to affect public policy, receiving the endorsement of President Calvin Coolidge, who said in 1924, "America must be kept American. Biological laws show ... that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races."38

Unlike Malthus, the neo-Malthusians of the eugenics movement believed in contraception, at least for those they deemed inferior. To promote the reproduction of self-defined "racially superior" people, eugenics proponents argued for both "positive" methods, such as tax incentives and education for the desirable types, and "negative" methods, such as sterilization, involuntary confinement, and immigration restrictions for the undesirables.39 The United States became the first nation in the world to permit mass sterilization as part of an effort to" purify the race." By the mid-1930s about 20,000 Americans had been sterilized against their will, and twenty-one states had passed eugenics laws.

Among supporters of eugenics were not only the rabid haters in the Ku Klux Klan but also respectable mainstream white Americans who were troubled by the effects of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. During this same period, thousands of Blacks fled the Jim Crow South and migrated to the North. These fast-paced demographic changes alarmed many nativist whites, who questioned birth control for them selves but approved it as a way to contain people of color and immigrants.

When the movement for birth control began, organizers like Margaret Sanger believed that fertility control was linked to upward social mobility for all women, regardless of race or immigrant status. Because the medical establishment largely opposed birth control, Sanger initially emphasized woman-controlled methods that did not depend on medical assistance. Her arguments persuaded middle-class women, both Black and white, to use birth control when available.40

Sanger's immediate effect on African-American women was to help transform their covert support for and use of family planning into the visible public support of activists in the club movement. But African-American women envisioned an even more pointed concept of reproductive justice: the freedom to have, or not to have, children.

The early feminism of the birth control movement, which promoted equality and reproductive rights for all women regardless of race or economic status, collapsed under the weight of support offered by the growing number of nativist whites. Under the influence of eugenicists, Sanger changed her approach, as did other feminists. In 1919 her American Birth Control League began to rely heavily for legitimacy on medical doctors and the growing eugenics movement.41

The eugenics movement provided scientific and authoritative language that legitimated women's right to contraception.42 This co-optation of the birth control movement produced racist depopulation policies and doctor-controlled birth control technology.43

The resulting racist and anti-immigrant public policies assumed Black and immigrant women had a moral obligation to restrict the size of their families. While birth control was demanded as a right and an option for privileged women, it became an obligation for the poor.44 In 1934 Guy Irving Burch, founder of the Population Reference Bureau, said, "I think there is good reason to be optimistic about the future of the native [white] American stock if birth control is made available to the millions of aliens in our cities and the millions of colored people in this country.45

African Americans protested these policies. The Pittsburgh Courier, a Black newspaper with an editorial policy that favored family planning, advocated in 1936 that African Americans should oppose depopulation programs proposed by eugenicists because the burden would "fall upon colored people and it behooves us to watch the law and stop the spread" of eugenic sterilization.46

One such program was the Negro Project, designed by Sanger's Birth Control Federation in 1939. It hired several African-American ministers to travel through the South to recruit African-American doctors. The project proposal included a quote by W.E.B. DuBois, saying that "the mass of ignorant Negroes still breed carelessly and disastrously, so that the increase among Negroes, even more than the increase among Whites, is from that part of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear their children properly."47 This quote, often mistakenly attributed to Sanger, reflected the shared race and class biases of the project's founders.

The Negro Project relied on Black ministers because of its white sponsors' belief that "the most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal."48 Sanger wrote, "We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members."49 The doctors recruited by the ministers were supposed to work for the project for free or, at best, demand payment from their patients. In contrast, the Birth Control Federation at the time paid most of the white doctors who worked on its behalf.

According to historian Linda Gordon, the project was the product of elitist birth control programs, whose design eliminated the possibility of popular, grassroots involvement in promoting birth control as a cause.50 Notions of civil rights, women's rights, or combating southern poverty were missing from this program. Politicians in southern states at this time were particularly interested in spreading birth control among African Americans to limit Black population growth, which could threaten their political and economic hegemony.51

It is extremely likely that the racism of the birth control organizers, coupled with the genocidal assumptions of eugenics supporters, increased Black distrust of the public health system and has fueled Black opposition to family planning up to the present time. By 1949 approximately 2.5 million African-American women were organized in social and political clubs and organizations.52 Many of them supported birth control and abortion, but at the same time they offered a strong critique of the eugenicists. A clear sense of dual or "paired" values emerged among African-American women: they wanted individual control over their bodies, but at the same time they resisted government and private depopulation policies that blurred the distinction between incentives and coercion.

Post-World War II Access

The birth control clinics established by Sanger and others met only a fraction of the demand for contraceptive services. The methods of birth control most commonly available to Black women in the 1950s included abstinence or infrequency of coitus, the withdrawal method, spermicidal douching, condoms, diaphragms, and the rhythm method. Of course when these methods faded (and they frequently did), Black women relied on underground abortion.

The majority of abortions available to African-American women in the 1950s and early 1960s were provided by doctors, midwives, and quacks operating illegally. Little information is available regarding the Black midwives who provided abortions, except for arrest records and court transcripts. Information on physicians is slightly more accessible. For example, Dr. Edward Keemer, a Black physician in Detroit, practiced outside the law for more than thirty years until his arrest in I956. He was sent to prison for fourteen months and afterward sold vacuum cleaners in New Jersey until he was able to win reinstatement of his medical license in the early 1960s. His assistant, LaBrentha Hurley, was jailed for sixty days and had to fight to get her children back after she was released. When Keemer resumed his practice, he continued openly to defy the law. By this time, he had become militant in the fight for reproductive rights. At a 1971 press conference held by the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, Keemer described an illegal abortion he had performed the previous day and pledged he would continue to save women's lives, whatever the consequences. He and his assistant were rearrested several days later and again faced prosecution.53

Ebony magazine published an editorial in 1951 that stereotyped illegal abortionists, ignoring highly skilled practitioners like Keemer and others. The article warned readers that "each year nearly 700,000 abortions are performed on unfortunate, desperate women [by abortionists] whose criminal and unethical methods annually claim the lives of about 8,000 victims." According to Rickie Solinger Ebony's readers had reason to be concerned because a disproportionate number of Black women died abortion-related deaths, many caused by self-induced abortions. A study of such deaths in Detroit, for example, from 1950 to 1965, revealed that of the 138 fatalities from septic abortions, all involved poor women, most of them Black."54

Long after the majority of "granny" midwives in other ethnic groups had been replaced by medically based hospital practices, there were still hundreds of Black lay midwives practicing in the Deep South, who provided most of the abortion and contraceptive services for southern Black women.55 According to Linda Janet Holmes, some of these women had midwifery lineages that extended as far back as slavery. Although these services were technically illegal, the women developed informal networks of communication that furtively shared contraceptive and abortion information.

Abortion was every bit as illegal in the 1950s as it had been in the 1920s, but until the years after World War 11 the crime of abortion had a protected status because law enforcement authorities often tolerated the practice as long as no women died.56 After World War II, however, the medical profession and the legal authorities stepped up their campaign to eliminate underground practitioners who provided illegal abortions. Black women who provided underground abortions were harassed and prosecuted more frequently than their white counterparts, especially white men.57

Lay midwives were especially easy targets, in part because independent midwifery associations did not exist. In reviewing the behavior of law enforcement in the 1950s, Solinger observed that the police were especially eager to arrest women who performed abortions, regardless of their safety records.58 Technically untrained and unprotected women were easier to convict than doctors. By the middle of the 1960s, most lay midwives had been forced out of business except in those places where racism, isolation, and poverty prevented ready access to both medical care and law enforcement.

Middle-class women could sometimes persuade doctors to arrange for a clandestine abortion or to provide a referral. Poor women either had the unplanned children or went to "the lady down the street"-either a midwife or partially trained medical personnel. Abortions from these illegal providers cost between fifty and seventy-five dollars, which was expensive considering that a pregnant woman might earn ten dollars a day.59 Many white women came to Black neighborhoods to obtain abortions, from doctors who were often also involved in the civil rights movement.60White women were frequently charged more than Black women in order to subsidize the cost of poor women's procedures.

If complications developed from illegal abortions, women visited physicians who operated in the poorer sections of the city. Only as a last resort did they go to hospitals, fearing the legal consequences of having obtained an illegal abortion. This pattern artificially lowered the number of septic abortions reported to hospitals and understated the incidence of abortions among Black women.

Dr. Joe Beasley, who helped establish one of the country's first statewide family-planning programs in Louisiana in the 1960s, observed that the leading causes of maternal mortality were the medical complications of criminal or medically unsupervised abortions:

The other thing we saw was tremendous problems of induced abortion, with the highest predominance in the lower socioeconomic group, and the middle and the upper getting more expensive abortions. So we see women very carved up--very crude abortions-knitting needles, cloth packing. And we see them coming in highly febrile, puerperal discharge in the vagina, germs in their blood, blood poisoning, septicemia, and those who survive have a very high probability of being reproductive cripples... then when we looked at it, there was a very low pattern of contraception in the lower socioeconomic group, in spite of what seemed to be a very strong desire not to have unwanted children ... I mean, if a woman will risk her very life with a criminal abortion, that's pretty damn strong motivations.61

Dangerous, self-administered procedures probably killed many women. Nurses reported that "sticks, rocks, chopsticks, rubber or plastic tubes, gauze or cotton packing, ball-point pens, coat hangers, or knitting needles" were frequently used by desperate women. Or they chose to use douches believed effective in inducing abortions made from detergents, orange juice, vinegar, bleach, disinfectant, lye, potassium permanganate, or colas. The gaseous explosions of soft drinks [were] said to cause a miscarriage; some teenagers considered them spermicidal."62 Clearly Black women needed and wanted abortion and contraception services. But few had access to safe and affordable treatment.

Population Policies for the African-American Community

In the mid-1950s Population "time-bomb" theories offered an updated approach to eugenics. These still-fashionable theories suggested that population growth in the Third World threatened the ability of the United States to govern world affairs. Brochures published by groups like the Draper Fund and the Population Council showed "hordes of Black and brown faces spilling over a tiny earth."63 By the early 1960s the United States government began supporting population control policies overseas, and linked foreign aid to anti-natalist depopulation pro-grams. Many U.S. politicians argued by analogy that urban whites in America needed to be protected from the "explosiveness" of overpopulated Black ghettos.

The expression of these fears coincided with the growth of the civil rights movement, in response to the militancy of the movement and its potential for sweeping social change. The political instability of the African-American population convinced many members of the white elite and middle class that Black population growth should be curbed through government intervention. White Americans feared, out of proportion to reality, that a growing welfare class of African Americans concentrated in the inner cities would not only cause rampant crime but would also balloon the national debt and eventually produce a political threat from majority-Black voting blocs in urban areas.

The new politics of population of the late 1950s was implemented domestically in the 1960s, with the establishment of family-planning programs in the South in predominantly Black urban areas. This occurred at the same time that African-American leaders were expressing interest in "taking over" the big cities and "holding them as enclaves against increasing repression."64 Federal and private campaigns to make family planning available and accessible to Black women, particularly in the South, split white conservative opinion on the issue. Some conservatives wanted a eugenically minded set of programs for African-Americans that would reduce the Black birthrate. For example Leander Perez of Louisiana, who supported birth control, was quoted as remarking, "The best way to hate a nigger is to hate him before he is born."65

But many conservatives, already threatened by racial integration, strongly doubted the wisdom of letting women of any race have control over their fertility.66 In addition to opposition from the Catholic Church, Protestant fundamentalists believed that family planning was a Communist plot imposed by-northern "carpetbaggers."67 In fact, they persuaded many white women not to go to newly established family-planning clinics. One center in Louisiana reported that in its first year of operation, 96 percent of its clients were Black. The proportion of white clients never rose above 15 percent.68

Generally speaking, family planning associated with racism was most frequently supported; associated with sexism, this support evaporated. This fissure among white conservatives about women's reproductive rights is still apparent today.

The 1960s launched a "boom period" for federally supported family planning to "eliminate poverty." President Lyndon Johnson, in his 1965 State of the Union message, singled out family planning as one of the four most critical problems in the nation. Even many Republicans jumped on the bandwagon. By 197O President Richard Nixon claimed, "It is my view that no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition."69

The year after passage of the 1964 Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Congress newly created Office of Economic Opportunity pressured the (OEO) to wage a war on poverty by emphasizing family-planning pro-grams for African Americans. Among politicians, one of the most persuasive arguments for family planning linked these programs with the reduction in health and welfare costs. Family planning, which offered a wide range of maternal and child-care services to poor women, was included in Medicaid coverage after a series of fights with Catholics and conservatives at the state level.

Despite this political agenda, with its racist undertones, some medical experts opposed family planning for African Americans, convinced that Black women "wanted to be pregnant and have all those children and that even if they did not want repeated pregnancies, they could not possibly understand the principles of birth control because they were not bright enough and lack behavioral control."70

The opposition from such odious sources did not confuse African-American supporters of family planning. By the late 1960s family planning became once again "synonymous with the civil rights of poor women to medical care."71 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., writing in 1966 in a Planned Parenthood publication, echoed this sentiment: voluntary family planning is "a special and urgent concern" for African Americans and "a profoundly important ingredient in [our] quest for security and a decent life."72 After the 1965 Supreme Court decision legalizing birth control for married couples, the NAACP reaffirmed its earlier commitment to family planning by adopting a 1966 policy statement that read in part, "Mindful of problems of family health and of economic stability, we support the dissemination of information and materials concerning family health and family planning to all those who desire it."73

During this period African-American women were not blind to the irony of a government plan to make contraceptives free and extremely accessible to Black communities that lacked basic health car. They criticized linking the alleged population problem with women's personal decisions to control their fertility. The only population problem, according to many African-American women, was that some people had problems with some segments of the population. There was much in the debate on population pressures that was reminiscent of the eugenicists. Those who blamed every social issue-riots, pollution, hunger, high taxes, ghettos, crime, and poor health-directly on the population growth of people of color ignored the maldistribution of land and wealth and racist and sexist discrimination in the job market.74

Because of the unavailability of contraceptives and abortions, many desperate African-American women chose sterilization as their only hope for avoiding unwanted pregnancies. Birth control by hysterectomy was widely available, and some Black women adapted themselves to the limited choices that existed. Yet African-American women warily watched state legislative proposals to sterilize poor women who had too many "illegitimate" children. None of these proposals succeeded, largely because of the militancy of women activists like Fannie Lou Hamer, who said that "six out of every ten Negro women were ...sterilized for no reason at all. Often the women were not told that they had been sterilized until they were released from the hospital."75 A national fertility study conducted by Princeton University found that 20 percent of all married African-American women had been sterilized by 1970.76

Despite the ways that racist politics cut across the bodily integrity of African-American women in the 1960s and 1970s, many women continued to sustain informal networks that spread the news about the availability of services. They became activists in support of birth control, for better health care, for abortion rights, and against sterilization abuse and population control, linking these issues to the project of improving the overall health status of the African-American community.

The Feminist Underground Railroad

Before abortion was legalized nationally in 1973, countless women perilously attempted self-abortion, and dangerous practitioners flourished because there were no safety standards without legalization. Despite the dangers, it is estimated that 200,000 to 1,000,000 illegal abortions occurred annually in the late 1960s.77

During the last decade of the illegal era, a few organizations operated an "underground railroad," referring women to illegal practitioners.78 Underground abortions were facilitated by church and community-based referral services and cooperative doctors' networks in the 1960s. In 1967 the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion began operating out of a New York City Baptist church, even before New York State legalized abortion in 1970. A similar service was started in Chicago in 1969. The clergy groups usually referred women to practitioners in Puerto Rico, Mexico City, and England, and helped thousands of women obtain abortions.79 Often women from the South traveled north to obtain abortions, sometimes paid for by untraceable discretionary funds from family-planning clinics."80

To address the problems associated with the lack of safe and affordable abortions, a group of women in Chicago began to provide abortions in 1969 through an illegal, floating underground network called Jane, officially known as the Abortion Counseling Service Of Women's Liberation. Deliberately patterned after the Underground Railroad that freed slaves, the group provided over 11,000 safe abortions between 1969 and 1973.81 While abortions from other illegal practitioners cost between $600 and $1,000, the women in Jane learned how to do abortions themselves and. lowered the cost to an average of $40.82 During its last year of operation, more than half of the collective's clients were women of color, most of whom were poor and Black.83

Although the members of the collective were predominantly white, there were a few Black women who provided services, according to Jane member Laura Kiplan. Because the group's clients were increasingly African American, the collective felt an urgency to seek out Black women to join the collective. They did not feel that turning to the militant Black organizations was an option, since most radical Black groups believed that abortion was genocide. Black male spokespersons viewed women's liberation as a threat to Black solidarity and claimed that abortion was a weapon against their community.84

One of the earliest African-American members of Jane was Lois Smith,85 who has, described her experiences as an abortion provider:

I discovered Jane when I escorted a girlfriend to get an abortion. You have to understand that the main problem was the secrecy; you couldn't tell people what you were doing. When I arrived at the facility, I saw that the clients were predominantly Black, but all the workers were white. Even while I waited for my friend, I began counseling the women, telling them they would be all right.

When I joined the collective, our primary problem was the illegality of what we were doing. This produced extreme secrecy and paranoia, but in a sense, it helped us bond as a group. It wasn't a Black or a white thing, but a women's need. The only alienation I experienced was caused by the secrecy, but our family and friends supported us. Sometimes we even used their houses, but we couldn't tell anyone outside of our circle. The Black women were most supportive by keeping silent and taking risks. Fears of police arrests were real. Women had to endure many risks to give our number to a friend, but the networking was steady in the Black women's community.

But abortion was not openly discussed in the Black community because other survival issues were key. Women had been surviving for years using abortion as necessary. But the illegality of the procedure made women feel marginalized and terrified. They had heard so many horror stories about back-alley abortionists that they were often afraid when they came to us. They couldn't tell their doctors or nurses or their husbands. They got sup-port from each other. It was very consistent how sisters supported each other.

The Black women who worked at Jane didn't come in as a group. Mostly we were involved one at a time, so we could never develop a critical mass, or even three to four of us, to get together to talk about what we were doing. But we didn't look on it as a Black or white women's issue; women needed termination of pregnancies, and there was unity created by women who were desperate."86

Black Opposition To Reproductive Rights

In the 1960s and 1970s, visible Black male political support for abortion rights was limited. As Angela Davis concluded, this was "a period in which one of the unfortunate hallmarks of some nationalist groups was their determination to push women into the background. The brothers opposing us leaned heavily on the male supremacist trends which were winding their way through the movement."87 Some Black male scholars of the period echoed the genocidal arguments previously used, but infused their analyses with new elements of sexism and anti-Semitism. Dick Gregory, a popular political activist, expressed his opposition to abortion rights this way: "My answer to genocide, quite simply, is eight Black kids and another on the way."88

Whitney Young, leader of the Urban League, reversed his organization's earlier support for family planning in 1962. Marvin Davies, head of the Florida NAACP, said, "Our women need to produce more babies, not less ... and until we comprise 30 to 35 percent of the population, we won't really be able to affect the power structure in this country." 89 This was a major ideological shift away from the early positions of the NAACP and the Urban League, when both organizations had sup-ported women's reproductive rights as a means of racial progress. The NAACP of the 1920s would have been horrified in the 1960s to find itself sounding more like Marcus Garvey and less like W.E.B. DuBois.

On the other hand, Black nationalist groups that traced their ideological roots back to Garvey were entirely consistent when they opposed family planning. In the late 1960s several birth control clinics were invaded by Black Muslims associated with the Nation of Islam, which published cartoons in Muhammed Speaks that depicted bottles of birth control pills marked with a skull and crossbones or graves of unborn Black infants. The Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP declared that the local family-planning clinic was an instrument of genocide. William "Bouie" Haden, reader of the militant United Movement for Progress, went one step further and threatened to firebomb the Pittsburgh clinic, and a clinic in Cleveland was burned."90

The Black Power conference held in Newark in 1967, organized by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), passed an anti-birth control resolution. Two years later, the May 1969 issue of The Liberator warned, "For us to speak in favor of birth control for Afro-Americans would be comparable to speaking in favor of genocide."91 Four years later, Congress appeared to confirm their suspicions: testimony before the U.S. Senate revealed that at least two thousand involuntary Sterilizations had been performed with OEO funds during the 1972-73 fiscal year.92

The Black Panther Party was the only nationalist group to support free abortions and contraceptives on demand, although not without considerable controversy within its ranks.93 "Half of the women in the Party use birth control, and we supported it because of our free healthcare program. We understood the conditions of the Black community," remembers Nkenge Toure, a former member. He also recalls that although there were no formal political education discussions around the issue, there was support from many party Women.94 Interestingly, not one female party member joined the mostly young, male militants who denounced family planning and attempted to shut down family-planning clinics in New Orleans and Pittsburgh.95 However, many of the Black churches that had supported family planning in the 1940s and 1950s did not join the opponents of family planning in the late 1960s because many Black ministers held the line. As one woman reported, "We converted a lot of brothers."96

Black Women Respond

The assault on birth control and abortion came from both the left and the right. White conservatives saw family planning as an assault on traditional values of motherhood, while some Blacks saw it as a race-and class-directed eugenics program. That such disparate forces aligned themselves against African-American women demonstrated that both white bigots and Black sexists could find common cause in the assertion of male authority over women's decisions regarding reproduction.

In contrast, many African-American women exerted a dynamic and aggressive influence on the family-planning movement. These activists were articulate and well organized and constituted the largest single bloc of support for family planning. They were so visible that politicians in some states began to see them as a potential political threat. In Louisiana it was estimated that family planners could mobilize as many as 70,000 women if they wanted to. This palpable power increased the determination of white conservatives, particularly in the South, to undermine public and private funding of family planning, as an effort of the "New Right" revolution that was beginning in the mid-1970s. In the last days of the Nixon administration, government agencies were dismantling many antipoverty programs, which included family planning. Public policy initiatives shifted from helping poor women control the size of their families to punishing them when they failed to do so.

African-American women noticed that "most of the commotion about the clinics ... seemed to be coming from men-men who do not have to bear children."97 Even when Black men successfully shut down clinics, as in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, women organized to reopen them because they "did not appreciate being thought of as random re-production machines that could be put to political use."98 African-American women fully understood the racist impulse that located Planned Parenthood clinics in poor Black neighborhoods but not in poor white neighborhoods. Still, they perceived the free services to be in their own best interests. Quoting from DuBois, they declared, "We're not interested in the quantity of our race. We're interested in the quality of it."99

In Pittsburgh about seventy women members of the National Welfare Rights Organization rebuffed attempts by African-American men to close family-planning clinics. They rejected the leadership of William "Bouie" Haden, who, it was discovered, was on the payroll of the Catholic Church. "Who appointed him our leader anyhow?" asked Georgiana Henderson. "He is only one person-and a man at that. He can't speak for the women of Homewood.... Why should I let one loud-mouth tell me about having children?"100 The women organized to remove Haden as a delegate from the Homewood-Brushton Citizens Renewal Council in a demonstration of political strength that frightened both Black and white men. Other African-American women around the country declared they would not tolerate male expressions of territorial rights over women's bodies.

Anti-feminism was not only a male prerogative. One noted Black critic of feminism was Linda LaRue, who wrote in 1970, "Black adoption of the white values of women ... has created a politicized, unliberated copy of white womanhood." LaRue asked in the same article, however, "How many potential revolutionary warriors stand abandoned in orphanages while Blacks rhetorize disdain for birth control as a "trick of The Man" to halt the growth of Black population? ... Would it not be more revolutionary for Blacks to advocate a five-year moratorium on Black births until every Black baby in an American orphanage was adopted by one or more Black parents?"101

In this period, in diverse places and in different ways, African-American women took leadership roles in promoting African-American's rights to control their own bodies. Dr. Dorothy Brown, one of the first Black female general surgeons in the South, graduated from Meharry Medical College in 1948 and, while in the Tennessee state legislature, became one of the first state legislators to introduce a bill to legalize abortion in 1967.102 Her bill which would have legalized abortion for victims of rape and incest, fell only two votes short of passing. Marion Sanders, in a 1970 Issue of Harper's Magazine, published "The Right Not to Be Born," in which she described the experiences of a Black woman who was denied an abortion after being exposed to German measles. She subsequently gave birth to a severely retarded daughter.103 This mainstream article supporting abortion rights for Black women in a sense foretold the current controversy about the conflicting rights of women to control their fertility and the rights of disabled people to be born.

A distinct Black feminist consciousness began consistently to counter the reactionary opponents to family planning. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress, dismissed the genocide argument when asked to discuss her views on abortion and birth control:

To label family planning and legal abortion programs "genocide" is male rhetoric, for male ears. It falls flat to female listeners and to thoughtful male ones. Women know, and so do many men, that two or three children who are wanted, prepared for, reared amid love and stability, and educated to the limit of their ability, will mean more for the future of the Black and brown races from which they come than any number of neglected, hungry, ill-housed and ill-clothed youngsters.104

In 1969 Frances Beal, then head of the Black Women's Liberation Committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), wrote, "Black women have the right and responsibility to determine when it is in the interest of the struggle to have children or not to have them and this right trust not be relinquished."105

This sentiment was echoed by writer Toni Cade Bambara in 1970: "I've been made aware of the national call to Sisters to abandon birth control ... to picket family planning centers and abortion referral groups and to raise revolutionaries. What plans do you have for the care of me and the child?"106 Black feminists argued that birth control and abortion are, in themselves, revolutionary-and that African-American liberation in any sense cannot be won without women con-trolling their lives. The birth control pill, in and of it self, cannot liberate African-American women, but it "gives her the time for liberation in those other areas."107 As the Black Women's Liberation Group of Mt. Vernon, New York, wrote in 1970, "Birth control [and abortion] is the freedom to fight genocide of Black women and children."108

In the early 1970s African-American women believed it was absurd to coerce Black women to be sterilized in order to limit their family size, when these women were willing to have fewer children voluntarily, if safe (and less permanent) methods were accessible. This combined support for fertility control and opposition to population control, a unique voice within the women's movement at the time, did much to inform both the feminist and the civil rights movements in later decades. African-American women rejected the single-issue focus of the women's movement on abortion, which excluded other issues of reproductive freedom. They also opposed the myopic focus on race of the male-dominated civil rights movement, which ignored concerns of gender justice. Activist women also learned a valuable lesson about sexist backlash that equated Black male domination with African-American progress.

Reproductive Rights Leadershipafter Roe V. Wade

The demand by Black women for reproductive freedom in the early 1970s was crystallized and refined by the development of Black feminist leadership in the second wave of the American women's movement in the late 1960s."109 African-American women were involved in the movement from its beginning, but both "outside reactionary forces and racism and elitism within the movement itself have served to obscure our participation."110 The fact is, Black women have made significant contributions to the reproductive freedom movement since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973.

In the spring of 1973 Doris Wright, a Black feminist writer, called a meeting to discuss "Black Women and Their Relationship to the Women's Movement." The result was that Black feminists, primarily located in New York, formed the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) in November 1973, under the leadership of Margaret Sloan and Flo Kennedy.111 Among those present were Shirley Chisholm, Alice Walker, and Eleanor Holmes Norton.112 NBFO activists organized (among other things) against sterilization abuse and for abortion rights. They organized support activities for Dr. Kenneth Edelin, a Black physician on trial in 1975 for performing an illegal abortion, who went on to become the chairman of the board of directors of Planned Parenthood. NBFO also Worked to end violence against women by advocating justice for Joann Little and Inez Garcia, women of color who were imprisoned for defending themselves against rapists.

It is important to highlight the connection between the anti-violence and the reproductive rights movements because many of the newer activists in the abortion rights movement in the mid-1970s actually came from the movement to end violence against women. They, like myself, worked at rape crisis centers or battered women's shelters. Significantly, few of the early activists came directly out of the civil rights movement without passing through some feminist crucible that heightened their awareness of gender inequalities.

Unfortunately, the early feminists in NBFO report that frictions with in the group split them apart. Fortunately, the ideas they promoted remain our legacy.

Some Boston-based activists in NBFO, including noted author Barbara Smith, formed the Combahee River Collective in 1975, named after a Harriet Tubman guerrilla action in i863 that freed more than 750 slaves and is the only military campaign in American history planned and led by a woman.113 This collective issued a Black feminist manifesto in 1976 that became a rallying cry for Black feminists, combining for the first time a comprehensive critique of racism, sexism, poverty, and heterosexism for Black women activists seeking ideological cohesion. Collective members worked for abortion rights and against sterilization abuse and presented many workshops in communities and on college campuses on Black feminism, reaching hundreds of young Black women.

In addition to the African-American women in Jane, others worked with early feminist women's health centers, learning not only how to advocate for abortions but, most important, how to perform them. Family-planning programs in the 1970s reduced the medical mystique and rigid hierarchies by hiring nonmedical outreach workers from the communities being served.114 Pioneers like Annie Joseph, Gloria Favorite, and Jacqueline Harvey from Louisiana proved that women formerly on welfare could become effective advocates for family planning.115 This limited democratization had an impact on the belief among women that we can or, more important, should learn more about our bodies to control our fertility.

In the early 1970s Byllye Avery (later founder of the National Black Women's Health Project) was part of a referral network for women who wanted to travel to New York to obtain abortions because they were illegal in Florida. Because flying to New York was not an affordable option for many poor women, she and several white women opened the Gainesville Women's Health Center in 1974 and learned how to perform abortions.116 Avery defined her clients' predicament this way: "For poor women abortion is a matter of survival: if I have this one more child, it etches away my margin of survival."117 Brenda Joyner of the Tallahassee Feminist Women's Health Center and Byllye Avery pioneered a new wave of Black feminists in the feminist women's health center movement that reached from Florida to California.

The SNCC Black Women's Liberation Committee changed its name in the 1970S to the Third World Women's Alliance and then, in the 1980s, to the Alliance against Women's Oppression. According to Toni Cade Bambara, "We heard each other in Fran Beal's Third World Women's Alliance Newspaper"118 Beal wrote: "The lack of the availability of safe birth control methods, the forced sterilization practices, and the inability to obtain legal abortions are all symptoms of a sick society that jeopardizes the health of Black women (and thereby the entire Black race) in its attempt to control the very life processes of humanbeings."119

When the Hyde Amendment, which eliminated subsidies for poor women's abortions, was upheld by the Supreme Court, a number of Black women joined or started reproductive rights organizations, such as the multiracial Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA). Brenda Joyner assessed the post-Hyde situation this way: "The government will not pay for a $200 or $300 abortion procedure for a poor woman on Medicaid. But it will pay for a $2,000 $3,000 sterilization procedure for that same poor woman."120

In the years immediately following Roe v. Wade, other pro-choice org

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