March 1, 2011

Racist Propaganda Hurts All Women

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Anti-choice extremists have a new tactic in their campaign to deny women the right to control their own fertility: using racism as a wedge issue.  The most recent example of this was a billboard in Soho last week proclaiming that “The Most Dangerous Place for an African-American is in the womb.”  The conspiracy theory behind this and similar messages is that the pro-choice movement is really a genocidal plot against African-Americans.

It is bad enough that those behind such messages have deliberately distorted women’s history to advance their anti-woman agenda.  What’s worse is that their argument depends on the idea that women of color – including the countless women who have fought for reproductive rights generation after generation – are either ignorant dupes or willing conspirators in their own oppression.

The focus of the “Black genocide” propaganda is often Planned Parenthood founder, Margaret Sanger, a proponent of eugenics. Today, the word “eugenics” is most commonly associated with the Nazis, who seized on the idea of “selective breeding” as a means to wipe out races they deemed inferior.  But for Sanger and many others, the practice of eugenics was directed at eliminating mental and physical disabilities that were thought to be hereditary, without regard to race.  Such views are rightly considered ignorant and unethical today, but they are a far cry from those advanced by the Nazis, and it is deliberately dishonest to conflate the two.  In fact, the Nazis were vehemently opposed to Sanger’s belief that women should control their own fertility — it was the duty of all Aryan women to produce as many “superior” children as possible — and they burned Sanger’s books on birth control.

Moreover, those reading anti-choice literature should be warned that many statements ascribed to Sanger are taken out of context, intentionally misattributed, or just fabricated altogether. Anti-choice activists also neglect the fact that it was Black women who invited Sanger to set up birth control clinics in their neighborhoods. It was Black women who utilized family planning and accessible health care to help themselves and their children. In fact, Sanger was joined and supported in her work by civil rights giants as such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Dubois, Walter White, Mary Church Terrell and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., as well as organizations like the NAACP, the National Urban League and the National Council of Negro Women. They understood more than anyone how access to family planning would save the lives of Black women and allow families and communities of color a better chance to realize the promise of freedom and equality. Indeed, when abortion was legalized, mortality rates amongst Black women dropped significantly.

The most insidious part of the whole effort to smear Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood and the pro-choice movement, is that it is all a huge distraction from the real threat to (disproportionately minority) women. There is a reason that African-American women account for 37 percent of all abortions despite the fact that they make up just 13 percent of the country’s female population. But the reason is not a racist pro-choice movement conspiring to target Black women. Rather, it is the ongoing inequality that denies Black communities access to contraceptives, sex education, and basic health care services in general. And it is exactly that inequality, the institutional racism of our health care system, our economy, our schools, that anti-choice activists on campus and in Congress seek to exacerbate.

When House Republicans voted last week to defund Planned Parenthood of all federal funding — funding that is used solely for preventive health care services — they voted to cut off low-income (disproportionately minority) women from their number one provider of life-saving cancer screenings, birth control, annual exams, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, and more. In essence they voted to increase the number of unplanned pregnancies, increase the number of abortions, increase the number of cervical cancers that could have been prevented, increase the number of sexually transmitted diseases that could destroy women’s lives. Then, they went even further by subsequently voting to cut spending on social programs like WIC and Head Start, programs that help to diminish the disadvantages of children born poor.

There is a reason that women of color were some of the loudest and fiercest defenders of Planned Parenthood at the organization’s Stand Up for Women’s Health Rally, which drew over 6,000 people to Manhattan’s Foley Square last Saturday.  Amongst a coalition that included SisterSong, the Brooklyn Young Mother’s Collective, Trust Black Women and many others, there was no confusion about what is at stake in these attacks against Planned Parenthood. To paraphrase one of many signs waving above the rally’s diverse crowd, the most dangerous place for an African American is not “in the womb.”  Rather, it is in a country that has allowed anti-choice extremists to leverage racist propaganda to take away their rights.

Lauren Schneider is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at las362@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Lauren Schneider