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Abortion and the Politicization of Black Women’s Bodies

Feb. 1, 2022, 9:00 AM

The U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1, 2021, heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization amidst outrage by reproductive rights advocates. Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy blatantly defies the court’s precedent setting the abortion limit at around 24 weeks. There is worry that Mississippi’s law will be upheld by the majority of justices, leading to the overruling of Roe v. Wade.

Since the right to abortion in Roe was first established by the court, the politics around abortion have drastically changed. Today the religious right is perceived as a strong political movement against abortion rights, while in the past, the issue of limiting abortion was perceived as a “Catholic issue” that most other denominations generally did not consider a widely Christian stance.

The rise of the religious right’s anti-abortion narrative fits into the political frame of a period when anti-Black policies and racist interests were advantageous to those seeking power, in this instance following a legacy of reproductive injustice for Black women specifically.

Prior to the 1973 Roe decision, messages related to issues such as abortion and other reproductive rights were likely assessed through a race-neutral lens. As evidenced in common narratives of the religious right, it is more commonly expressed that the religious right’s response to Roe was due to a reactive backlash from the decision to allow a channel for people to terminate pregnancies, which is not completely true.

Civil Rights Movement

As the civil rights movement began achieving gains in the 1960s, churches remained mostly segregated. Green v. Connally (1971) and other decisions across the country began to establish that the Internal Revenue Service may deny tax-exempt status or deductible contributions to any organization operating a private school that discriminates in admissions based on race.

As religious institutions began to respond to the effects of these cases, powerful religious evangelical leaders began to call themselves “new abolitionists” and began to vehemently defend their rights to running their religious academies and universities without government interference, as they had grown accustomed to raising money and recruiting students for customized education.

A movement grew to establish the church as a strong political actor in order to preserve these rights. This included religious-based institutions. Randall Balmer, a historian at Dartmouth College, is a leading scholar who discusses this connection between segregationist beliefs and abortion rights in his book, “Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right.”

After testing several issues to unify under, abortion became the issue of choice. A common American paradox arose, especially in the Southernstates—vehemently defending segregationist values under the guise of freedom from government interference, one that can be traced back to slavery and the Civil War.

Stripping Reproductive Autonomy Through Law

The reproductive autonomy of Black women has traditionally been stripped through law in our country, as enslaved Black women were commonly forced to engage in sexual activity through rape, their mothering labor was controlled and appropriated, and their children sold.

Enslaved women were also harshly criminalized for infanticide despite the horrors of slavery and in cases where they gave birth to stillborn babies or infants that died shortly thereafter. Legal recourse was rare because of their legal status.

These punitive cases were sensationalized by racist tropes of the violent and monstrous Black mother. Further, in order to maintain and justify the treatment of Black women at the time, racist characterizations of Black women and girls’ sexual health and motherhood persisted during that time and included stereotypes around Black women’s sexual prowess, criminality, lack of intelligence, and inherent sexually deviant behavior.

Jim Crow, Southern Strategy

Historians often reference these tropes when referring to the Black codes, Jim Crow laws, and political strategies such as the Southern Strategy that tap into racist White solidarity and lead to mass incarceration. It is not surprising that the narrative around abortion developed at a time when political figures used criminalizing anti-Black tropes for political advantage through the criminalizing era known as the war on drugs.

During and after the social movements of the 1960s, racist tropes against Black women re-emerged alongside their male counterparts for racist political gain. The anti-abortion movement mirrors the messaging that was common at the time during its rise, as it criminalizes and villainizes anyone who makes the decision to get an abortion.

Although Black women are not the only people who get abortions, the religious right continues a legacy of describing women who seek abortion as lazy, immoral, irrational, criminal, and uneducated despite a lot of information about the reasons for seeking abortion, and the need for access to sex education, access to medical care, and access to contraceptives in order to improve the lives of those living in marginalized communities.

These tropes exist regardless of the reasoning behind a woman’s decision to seek abortion care, and the religious right has developed a theoretical high horse, while failing to scrutinize the racist origins of its own movement. All people seeking abortion are affected by these negative tropes, especially anyone who cannot afford abortion costs. There are serious consequences to the abortion stigma.

The reproductive justice movement emerged as a coined term in 1994 to describe an ongoing movement that recognized that the women’s rights movement, led by and representing middle class and wealthy White women, could not adequately defend the needs of women of color and other marginalized women. The racist origins and undertones that exist from the erasure of the history of reproductive injustice and fights for the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent in safe and sustainable communities can often be ignored.

As the decision in Dobbs emerges, the movement for reproductive freedom will not only depend on the work of reproductive justice activists and organizers, reproductive rights advocates, abortion clinics, abortion funds, etc., but it is also crucial for legal and policy professionals to contribute to the fight.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Jilisa R. Milton is a civil rights attorney, policy analyst, community organizer, social worker, and abolitionist of harmful practices against Black people. She is a survivor of police violence and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Birmingham Chapter. Currently, she serves as national vice-president of the National Lawyers Guild.