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Excerpted From: Shyrissa Dobbins-Harris, The Myth of Abortion as Black Genocide: Reclaiming Our Reproductive Choice, 26 National Black Law Journal 85 (2016-2017) (223 Footnotes) (Full Document)
Some anti-choice and self-proclaimed anti-racists believe that abortion is yet another tool of white supremacy being used to commit genocide against the Black race. The underlying assumption of this myth is that Blackwomen lack the critical thinking skills to avoid falling into the pitfall of “murdering their babies”. Abortion by Blackwomen is often blamed on white women and their feminism as an insidious tool to further eradicate Black people in America. Prominent believers in this myth range from presidential candidates to religious leaders like Luis Farrakhan and Pastor Clenard Childress. Some Black anti-choice activists also believe that any contraception, or practices which limit the conception of Black infants is an act of genocide against the Black race.
This article explores the abortion as Black genocide as it pertains to Blackwomen and their reproductive rights, the basis for this myth, as well as its proponent's arguments. After defining genocide and the stereotypes used by proponents of the abortion of Black genocide myth in Part I, Part II names and describes the past and current proponents of the myth. In Part III, the myth of abortion as Black genocide is placed in the long herstory of Blackwomen and reproductive control here in the United States. Part IV explores the myth in its current form, including examples of outreach and advertisements by its proponents. Part V showcases Blackwomen's already robust response to this myth and highlights their continued participation in the struggle for Black liberation stateside.
A. Legal Definition of Genocide
The United Nations defines genocide in its 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as:
any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Anti-choice activists rarely provide a clear definition of genocide, but by using the widely recognized UN definition it is most likely that they are focusing on point “a.” The rhetoric used by these activists asserts the full personhood of any and all Black fetuses, thus abortion is the act of killing a member of the Black race. In Roe, the Supreme Court created a fundamental rights balancing test that centered on the gestational age of the fetus. During the first trimester, the court held that a woman's right to privacy allowed her to make the decision to seek and have an abortion. After the end of the first trimester the court held that the state may regulate the procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health. However, in the third trimester, the state's interest in women's health and protecting potential life was deemed stronger than the woman's privacy interest. Unlike in Roe v. Wade, neither the viability nor the gestational age are considered to determine whether abortion should be an available, legal option.
Although illogical, anti-choice activists equally blame abortion providers and pro-choice legislatures for what they believe to be genocidal behaviors. Under anti-choice logic, personhood begins at conception; thus, abortion is the killing of a member of a group. The intent requirement “to destroy, in whole or in part” is not addressed when anti-choice activists are accusing Blackwomen of committing genocide by abortion. In order to satisfy the intent requirement of the UN definition of genocide, anti-choice activists would have to prove that abortion providers and governments that allow abortions intend to destroy the Black race. To hold abortion providers responsible, activists would logically have to shift the blame from Blackwomen, rather than focusing their efforts on emotionally manipulative billboard campaigns, films, and websites.
The intent requirement as it pertains to individual Blackwomen is seemingly sidestepped by erasing their decision-making capacity. Instead, the blame is placed heavily at the feet of the government, for keeping abortion accessible, the doctors and clinics which provide abortions, and the (assumed) white feminism which is responsible for the widespread acceptance of abortion. Thus, proponents of the genocide myth assign blame to Blackwomen for choosing abortions, while also attempting to minimize their own decision making capacities by blaming white feminism and government actors.
Proponents of the abortion as genocide myth may also be arguing under section “d” of the UN definition of Genocide. Section “d” pertains to preventing births within a group, here the Black race. Although there is a historical basis for the argument that the US government is attempting to prevent births by Blackwomen, abortion has not typically been a tool in their reproductive coercion arsenal. By focusing on Blackwomen as perpetrators of genocide these activists undercut their own arguments for liberation of the Black race by curtailing the freedom of bodily autonomy for Blackwomen. Instead of properly condemning government actions that harm living Blackwomen and the black community (poverty, police brutality, mass incarceration) genocide myth proponents blame Blackwomen for practicing their own reproductive rights.
B. Misogynoir and Stereotypes of Blackwomen
The myth of abortion as Black genocide depends on denying Blackwomen their humanity and their agency to make medical decisions regarding their reproduction. The proponents of this myth rely heavily on misogynoir, which is anti-Black misogyny targeting Blackwomen. The term Misogynoir was created by queer Black feminist Moya Bailey who was searching for a term to correctly describe the particular brand of hatred (racialized sexism and sexist racism) aimed at fellow Blackwomen. Bailey has described its creation thusly:
I was looking for precise language to describe why Renisha McBride would be shot in the face, or why The Onion would think it's okay to talk about Quvenzhané the way they did, or the hypervisibility of Black women on reality TV, the arrest of Shanesha Taylor, the incarceration of CeCe, Laverne and Lupita being left off the TIME list, the continued legal actions against Marissa Alexander, the twitter dragging of black women with hateful hashtags and supposedly funny Instagram images as well as how Black women are talked about in music.
All non-Blackwomen can be perpetrators of misogynoir, and in perpetuating the myth of abortion as Black genocide, anti-choice activists rely on misogynoir to accuse Blackwomen of committing genocide.
The proponents of this myth sexualize racism by centering Blackwomen and their wombs as the site of genocide, without taking into account the actions of any male partners. As a result, they have mentally separated the Blackwoman from the fetus in her uterus. Now, there is a potential (and often actual) conflict between the interest of the Blackwoman (an actual person) and the embryo (who is being personified by anti-choice activists). This is an illustration of maternal-fetal conflict, a predicament that Blackwomen have long been forced into since the times of their enslavement.
The common stereotypes of jezebel and mammy are used as tools to justify the continued focus on the reproductive capabilities of Blackwomen. The jezebel stereotype paints some Blackwomen (particularly Blackgirls and young women) as promiscuous seductresses with insatiable sexual appetites. This stereotype helped to normalize, and to some explain away, the rape of enslaved Blackwomen by their masters and other men. In 1859, an appellate court in Mississippi overturned a death sentence for a Black male slave convicted of raping an enslaved Blackgirl around 9 years old. The legal basis for the decision was that the law did not recognize rape between slaves. Despite the young age of the victim, the stereotypes of lewd and promiscuous Blackgirls and women kept her rape from being recognized by law.
Even after emancipation, Blackwomen were assumed to be naturally promiscuous and lewd, thus incapable of being legally raped. As Dorothy E. Roberts, an American scholar and social justice activist writes, “The image of the sexually loose woman who is unrapable, who always consents, and who is therefore unprotected by the law, is a black woman.” Tracking the continued sexualization of Black bodies before, during, and after the end of chattel slavery showcases the continued sexualized violence that Blackwomen face and endure without legal recourse. After emancipation, Blackwomen were at continued risk of rape by their white employers privileged by a legal system that fails to see Blackwomen as sexual victims deserving of justice. Even in modern times, for every one Blackwoman that reports her rape 15 others do not. Further the over incarceration of Blackwomen puts them at greater risk for sexual violence within the prison system.
On the other hand, some Blackwomen are labeled as mammies and pushed to fulfill a strong and desexualized matriarchal role. Mammies originated as overweight, often dark-skinned, Blackwomen who cared for their masters' and later their employer's children with selfless love. Despite being literal property, the mammy is always loving to her white family and seems to genuinely care for them. A common depiction of this non-threatening caricature is that of Aunt Jemima, the syrup brand character. The mammy stereotype in its modern depictions transfers the previous affections for the master's family to her own Black family. Modern films that use this stereotype include The Help, Big Momma's House, and the entire Madea and Nutty Professor franchises. The spirit of the mammy is reintroduced to Blackwomen when they are urged to think of their fetuses first, and themselves and their wants second, if at all.
[. . .]
Given the incredible work that Blackwomen have and continue to partake in to advance and liberate the Black race as a whole, all men, but particularly Black men, should support them in their reproductive choices. The revolutionary work of Black reproductive justice activists and organizations are not so much asking for Black men's support, but demanding it along with their respect. They demand and deserve that the loyalty with which Blackwomen have supported Black men through slavery, Jim Crow segregation, Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements be reciprocated when Blackwomen attempt to exercise their own bodily autonomy.
The importance of this reciprocity could radically shift and repair some, but not all, of the gender chasms within Black social justice organizations and the Black community as a whole. By attacking the misogynoir of anti-choice activists, Blackwomen continue to assert their agency over themselves, and their communities. Not only can a race divided not flourish, but any movement that fails to center those members at the margins will inevitably reproduce the same oppressions that they claim to want to end. By trusting and empowering Blackwomen to make their own reproductive decisions, anti-choice activists can shift their considerable resources to more worthwhile and non-oppressive causes to ensure the thriving of the Black race.
These anti-choice organizations and activists detract, or completely ignore, the other sources of damage to the Black community by focusing solely on abortion as a genocidal plot. They also lobby for legislation which would limit or eradicate Blackwomen's already limited access to safe abortions. Eliminating access to abortions does not stop them from occurring, as is evidenced by the availability of illegal abortions pre--Roe V. Wade. It will however lead to women dying at the hands of illegal abortionists and many of those women will be Blackwomen. In an aim to limit the reproductive choices of Blackwomen, these anti-choice activists push towards a future where Blackwomen will continue to make the difficult choice to abort, and will have to risk their very lives in order to see that choice through.
The United Nations' definition of genocide includes provisions for “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” This provision would be clearly satisfied in the future that anti-choice activists attempt to march towards. Forcing abortion into back alleys will inflict an impossible condition onto Blackwomen, already burdened by the intersecting oppressions of misogynoir. In an ironic twist, these anti-choice activists attempting to save the Black race will bring about the destruction to the very lives that birth and sustain the race, Blackwomen.
Mass incarceration continues, along with high HIV infection rates, to lower the Black community's quality of life and endanger its survival. Our children continue to be overrepresented in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. These less misogynistic causes, among countless others, desperately seek activism and solutions that could benefit the Black community, but instead some Blackwomen and men foolishly choose to turn against Blackwomen that demand their own reproductive autonomy. Supporting Blackwomen who choose abortion also helps to reinforce the idea that their lives matter regardless of their reproductive choices. Working to end these injustices will positively impact the Black community, and do not rely on reinforcing traumatizing anti-Blackwomen tropes like the mammy and jezebel.
Given the current (and constant) state of American society, it is no surprise to me that Black women choose abortion over birth at higher rates than white women. But framing this as a free choice when it is made under constant duress (like most choices Blackwomen and girls make) is a scapegoat for the government, media, Black men, and American society as a whole. For example, the high rates of poverty among Blackwomen, the portrayal and blame on Black women for being single mothers, and the continued belief that Blackwomen are promiscuous. The Black community needs to abandon the myth of abortion as Black genocide and begin withdrawing support and shaming those who support it both outside and especially within our communities. Condemning us Blackwomen that choose abortion helps all of these actors avoid taking any responsibility for the toxic environment that Black mothers must choose to deliver their infants into. Denouncing, and attempting to deny us our agency will only slow the liberation of all of us, but it will not deter, nor stop us Blackwomen. We are not, nor have we ever been, mere vessels to birth your revolutionaries. We are the revolution.
J.D. 2016, UCLA School of Law, Critical Race Studies Specialization.
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