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Whitewashing Reproductive Rights: How Black Activists Get Erased

Black women fought for reproductive and abortion justice before feminism had a name.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Library of Congress


Black History Month is a time for celebration of heritage. It’s 28 days that our ancestors’ stories and struggles are shared in schools, media and communities. But, as with most things these days, it’s been appropriated, mangled and spoon-fed to us without the rich flavor and spice. Bland.

Over the past few decades, we have seen conservatives distort our legacies of struggle, erase the disproportionate impact of their policies, and co-opt our victories — remember  Glenn Beck’s attempt to reclaim the civil rights movement from those who have “distorted” it? More recently and preposterously, the Christian right and some groups on the left have been whitewashing black history in the movement for women’s autonomy — even using it and  our children against us without our full consent. They’ve rewritten history to the point that many believe our ancestors were fervently antiabortion, and still would be today. We’ve allowed them to change the legacy of our leaders, and it’s time we take it back. It’s time we tell our own stories.

Abortion for black women has always been a  revolutionary rejection of patriarchy, white supremacy and forced systems of oppression. The great scholars Patricia Hill Collins and Angela Davis have explained that throughout slavery and into the 20th century, self-abortion through herbal remedies, hangers, hatpins and pencils were a way out of slavery and poverty. Our ancestors fought hard to refuse to carry the children of their master rapists and rear another generation of slaves, even when it meant that “barren” women were deemed worthless chattel and sold between plantations. From generation to generation, stories and recipes were passed down to ensure that women weren’t forced to carry pregnancies they never desired or weren’t able to carry healthily. For as many powerful women that raised children in the worst conditions imaginable, so there were those who refused.

Antiabortion activists think themselves clever when they  compare abortion to slavery, but reams of historical records prove their narrative to be rooted in quicksand. They have ignored the stories of men and women being raped, beaten, starved and worked literally to death and the reverberating effects of that most inhumane of institutions. It is indeed preposterous to assert that a free black woman deciding her own fate as her ancestors have done for centuries (including within the context of slavery) is a  perpetrator of the crimes from which she continues to suffer.

Black women have been a part of the workforce since our arrival on these shores. But as our elders joined the ranks of laborers during World War I, they found a great need for access to birth control and abortion. In  “When Abortion Was a Crime,” historian Leslie J. Reagan writes that hospitals and the medical establishment, already mainly white-serving, sought to disenfranchise midwives and keep them from providing abortions while community doctors set up clinics to help families access then-illegal abortion care. In Detroit, Dr. Edgar Bass Keemer Jr. provided abortions from 1938 through the 1950s, ensuring that black women had access to safe abortion care regardless of their income. Whether contraception or abortion, men and women in the black community have always banded together to provide for the needs of our own.

During the civil rights movement, economic justice and equality were central to organizing – and Martin Luther King Jr. knew that family planning was key to achieving them. Many activists today say that King would be “pro-life,” but we have stories and his own words to the contrary. In 1966, Planned Parenthood  honored him for his work in opening access to family planning methods; his wife, Coretta Scott King, accepted the award on his behalf. King explained that because black workers were often relegated to low-wage jobs, limiting family size was important to economic success. “For the Negro,” he said, “intelligent guides of family planning are a profoundly important ingredient in his quest for security and a decent life.” The day she accepted the award, Coretta Scott King said she was “proud to be a woman.”