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To Court Blacks, Foes of Abortion Make Racial Case

 

Shaila Dewan

February 26, 2010

The New York Times Online

   
 

ATLANTA — For years the largely white staff of Georgia Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group, tried to tackle the disproportionately high number of black women who undergo abortions. But, staff members said, they found it difficult to make inroads with black audiences.


So in 2009, the group took money that it normally used for advertising a pregnancy hot line and hired a black woman, Catherine Davis, to be its minority outreach coordinator.


Ms. Davis traveled to black churches and colleges around the state, delivering the message that abortion is the primary tool in a decades-old conspiracy to kill off blacks.


The idea resonated, said Nancy Smith, the executive director.


“We were shocked when we spent less money and had more phone calls” to the hot line, Ms. Smith said.


This month, the group expanded its reach, making national news with 80 billboards around Atlanta that proclaim, “Black children are an endangered species,” and a Web site, www.toomanyaborted.com.


Across the country, the anti-abortion movement, long viewed as almost exclusively white and Republican, is turning its attention to African-Americans and encouraging black abortion opponents across the country to become more active.


A new documentary, written and directed by Mark Crutcher, a white abortion opponent in Denton, Tex., meticulously traces what it says are connections among slavery, Nazi-style eugenics, birth control and abortion, and is being regularly screened by black organizations.


Black abortion opponents, who sometimes refer to abortions as “womb lynchings,” have mounted a sustained attack on the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, spurred by a sting operation by young white conservatives who taped Planned Parenthood employees welcoming donations specifically for aborting black children.


“What’s giving it momentum is blacks are finally figuring out what’s going down,” said Johnny M. Hunter, a black pastor and longtime abortion opponent in Fayetteville, N.C. “The game changes when blacks get involved. And in the pro-life movement, a lot of the groups that have been ignored for years, they’re now getting galvanized.”


The factors fueling the focus on black women — an abortion rate far higher than that of other races and the ties between the effort to legalize and popularize birth control and eugenics — are, at heart, old news. But they have been given exaggerated new life by the Internet, slick repackaging, high production values and money, like the more than $20,000 that Georgia Right to Life invested in the billboards.


Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that black women get almost 40 percent of the country’s abortions, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the population. Nearly 40 percent of black pregnancies end in induced abortion, a rate far higher than for white or Hispanic women.


Day Gardner, now the president of the National Black Pro-Life Union in Washington, said those figures shocked her at first.


“I just really assumed that white people aborted more than anyone else, and black people would not do this because we’re culturally a religious people, we have large families,” Ms. Gardner said.


Many black anti-abortion leaders, including Ms. Davis and Alveda King, a niece of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the director of African-American outreach for Priests for Life, often recount their own abortion histories (each woman had two).


Abortion opponents say the number is so high because abortion clinics are deliberately located in black neighborhoods and prey upon black women. The evidence, they say, is everywhere: Planned Parenthood’s response to the anti-abortion ad that aired during the Super Bowl featured two black athletes, they note, and several women’s clinics offered free services — including abortions — to evacuees after Hurricane Katrina.


“The more I dug into it, the more vast I found that the network was,” Ms. Davis said. “And I realized that African-American women just did not know the truth, they did not understand the truth about the abortion industry.”


But those who support abortion rights dispute the conspiracy theory, saying it portrays black women as dupes and victims. The reason black women have so many abortions is simple, they say: too many unwanted pregnancies.


“It’s a perfect storm,” said Loretta Ross, the executive director of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective in Atlanta, listing a lack of access to birth control, lack of education, and even a high rate of sexual violence. “There’s an assumption that every time a girl is pregnant it’s because of voluntary activity, and it’s so not the case,” Ms. Ross said.


But, she said, the idea that abortion is intended to wipe out blacks may be finding fertile ground in a population that has experienced so much sanctioned prejudice and violence.


Black opponents of abortion are fond of saying that black people were anti-abortion and anti-birth control early on, pointing to Marcus Garvey’s conviction that blacks could overcome white supremacy through reproduction, and black militants who protested family planning clinics.


But that is only half the picture, scholars say. Black women were eager for birth control even before it was popularized by Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, and black doctors who provided illegal abortions were lauded as community heroes.


“Some male African-American leaders were so furious about what they perceived as genocidal intentions that in one case they burned down a clinic,” said Carole Joffe, the author of “Dispatches From the Abortion Wars.” “But women were very resolute, saying, ‘We want birth control.’ ”


In 2008, Lila Rose, a college student at U.C.L.A. and the founder of an anti-abortion group called Live Action, released four audio recordings of a man trying to make donations to Planned Parenthood clinics to pay for black women’s abortions. In one, the caller, played by James O'Keefe III, the provocateur recently arrested on charges that he tried to tamper with the telephones of Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, said, “You know, we just think, the less black kids out there, the better,” to which the Planned Parenthood employee replies, “Understandable, understandable.”


Planned Parenthood has apologized for the employees’ statements and says they do not reflect the organization’s values or policies.


The recordings led to calls by black leaders to withdraw financing of Planned Parenthood, which receives about $350 million a year in government money for education and medical services. They reinvigorated old claims that the organization was a front for racial genocide and that Sanger viewed blacks as undesirable.


Scholars acknowledge that Sanger did ally herself with eugenics, at the time a mainstream movement, but said she believed that birth control, sterilization and abortion should be voluntary and not based on race. She was also allied with black leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois and Dr. King, who praised her efforts to bring birth control to black families.


“It’s unfair to characterize those efforts as racially targeted in a negative way,” said Ellen Chesler, a historian and Sanger biographer, who is now on the board of Planned Parenthood.


Still, enough threads of truth weave through the theory to make “Maafa 21,” the documentary whose name is a Swahili word used to refer to the slavery era, persuasive to some viewers, at least at a recent screening at Morris Brown College, a historically black institution in Atlanta.


“Before we saw the movie, I was pro-choice,” said Markita Eddy, a sophomore. But were she to get pregnant now, Ms. Eddy said, “it showed me that maybe I should want to keep my child no matter what my position was, just because of the conspiracy.”

   
 
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