The news in January that Cecile Richards is stepping down from Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) after leading the reproductive rights giant for over a decade was met with predictable celebration in the anti-choice corners of the internet. It was also met with level-headed reason about the sort of challenges that Richards’ successor will face—and who should be chosen to face them.
Loretta Ross, co-founder of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and one of the foremothers of the reproductive justice movement, wrote for HuffPost that PPFA’s new president “must be prepared to stare down gathering white supremacist and anti-choice forces with clear eyes.”
“In this dangerous political moment,” Ross continued, “Planned Parenthood also requires an expert on white supremacy, someone who can use an intersectional analysis to respond to this neo-fascist, anti-democratic movement.”
Ross is right. White supremacy and misogyny are a rot in the Trump administration, and that rot is spreading. Members of this administration and Congress are systematically dismantling institutions and regulations upon which people of color, especially women of color, rely to make decisions about parenting—when to do it and whether to do it all. And that’s what reproductive justice is. As defined by SisterSong, reproductive justice is “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
This dismantling has been carried out by some of the most prominent anti-choicers in the abortion wars, who have managed to land key positions in the Trump administration. Matthew Bowman, for example, was a litigator at Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization that its president Alan Sears has dubbed the Christian “legal army.” Now Bowman is serving as a top lawyer for the Department of Health and Human Services.
And whether it’s decimating Obama-era regulations guaranteeing contraception access; permitting health-care providers to refuse abortion and pharmacists to refuse emergency contraception by enshrining discrimination into the delivery of health-care services on the basis of so-called sincerely held religious beliefs; or remilitarizing the police, thus ensuring that Black mothers will never find respite from worrying that their sons or daughters might head to the corner store for a package of Skittles and never return; the religious right and anti-choicers have laid bare their intentions by way of the current administration. They are putting the rights of women of color—Black women in particular—on the chopping block in order to increase white birth rates.
These are members of the same group, by the way, who proclaim outrage and despair about the rate of abortion in the Black community, calling it “Black genocide.” In reality, however, their plan is far more cynical. They’re not really concerned about Black babies. What they’re doing is using the high abortion rate in the Black community to feign concern about Black fetuses until they exit the womb, at which point they become children, who become adults, who sometimes become hashtags and statistics—and at which point this cloying concern turns to contempt.
They are, as Maya Rupert noted for Salon, “hijacking the racial justice movement in a craven effort to restrict the reproductive freedom of black women.” Rupert goes on to note that without pushback, such efforts may work—in part, because much of the reproductive rights movement has not faced its own complicity in racism.
The faux concern about Black babies is part of anti-choicers’ plan to eradicate abortion, not make this country a more hospitable birthing environment for Black women. And why do they want to eradicate abortion? Not because they want a country full of Black babies. The very notion beggars belief. But because criminalizing abortion would decimate abortion access not just for Black women, but for the real target of their anti-abortion ire: white women of “superior stock”—as eugenicists in the early 1900s put it.
To put it bluntly, the goal, in my opinion, is more white babies. After all, as noted white supremacist Rep. Steve King (R-IA) unabashedly tweeted, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” “Our”—presumably, King means “white”—civilization must be restored by well-to-do white women having more babies and repopulating the country with pure whiteness.
This is the sort of rotten thinking that the next head of Planned Parenthood must contend with, which is why a woman of color is best suited to lead the organization.
Richards’ recent speech at the Women’s March #PowertothePolls rally in Las Vegas, in which she told white women to do better, leads me to believe she feels the same way. It also exemplifies just why that change in leadership is so necessary.
“All across the country, the Women’s March inspired doctors and teachers and mothers to become activists and organizers and, yes, candidates for office,” Richards said. “And from Virginia to Alabama and to last week in Wisconsin, women have beaten the odds to elect our own to office …. Women of color, transgender women, rural and urban women.”
But she went on to point out—and I agree—that this country can’t expect women of color to carry it on our backs.
“So, white women, listen up. We’ve got to do better. … It is not up to women of color to save this country from itself. That’s on all of us. That’s on all of us.”
Richards stopped short of offering any concrete strategies about what white women can do to be better. And it’s for this very reason that she should hand the Planned Parenthood reins over to a woman of color—who I believe would be equipped to offer such concrete strategies and more. As Ross put it, “this moment calls for someone who feels the urgent threat of racism, sexism and income inequality in her very bones.”
Ross suggests that the next leader of Planned Parenthood should be a woman of color, not necessarily a Black woman. Women of color are certainly feeling the brunt of the Trump administration’s white nationalism. The administration’s stalwart refusal to permit undocumented minors to obtain abortions while at the same feigning concern about so-called chain migration, comes to mind.
I’m a little bit more petty than she is, and I’m willing to admit it. I want a Black woman—specifically a Black feminist—to be appointed. I’m hoping that the cognitive dissonance of blaming an organization run by a Black woman of supporting Black genocide might cause anti-choicers’ brains to scramble. It would make for good entertainment, at least.
But I’m also willing to admit that Planned Parenthood probably shouldn’t base its decision on my pettiness—perhaps. (Although I wouldn’t mind it.)
It should be based on what’s best for reproductive rights and justice moving forward. And I still come to the conclusion that the new leader should be a Black woman, because of the unique relationship between the organization and Black women.
Planned Parenthood’s population base is primarily Black and brown women. As Ross notes, Planned Parenthood’s “financial structure depends on the low-income black and brown women who rely on its services in communities with the greatest needs.” Given the relentless attacks on Black women by both anti-choice activists and politicians, with nonsensical accusations of Planned Parenthood perpetrating a genocide against their own people, Black women bear the brunt of the racist rhetoric.
So it’s important that the organization be run by someone uniquely and specifically positioned to rebut such rhetoric, as it was under former president Faye Wattleton. And it would be a good-faith showing that Planned Parenthood understands that Black women’s issues when it comes to reproductive rights and justice are different than that of white women.
Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever, founder of the Exceptional Leadership Institute for Women, agrees. In 2013, she was tasked with the responsibility of helping Planned Parenthood increase its engagement with the Black community. (Full Disclosure: In 2013, I spoke with Jones-DeWeever about Planned Parenthood’s engagement with the Black community.)
“They brought me on to help them understand better how to be more authentic and connect with Black women, and to be more respectful and understanding of the specific situations that Black women face when it comes to issues of reproductive justice and reproductive rights that are different from a white woman’s perspective on the very same issues,” Jones-DeWeever told me in an interview.
“They have been better at acknowledging the specific role that Black women play in a lot of the work that they do … in terms of the impact of our voting power,” she added. (In 2014, I wrote an article criticizing Planned Parenthood for relying on the same old voter outreach tactics that don’t give Black women the credit they’re due when it comes to delivering reproductive rights victories.)
Jones-DeWeever says Planned Parenthood has made strides in that regard. “They’re not as quick to write off election victories as attributable to some amorphous woman, which is often interpreted as white women,” she said.
There’s still room for improvement, of course. For example, when it comes to the organization’s founder, Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood still hasn’t quite figured out a way to reckon with her complicated views. As Loretta Ross noted in her article, “PPFA has never found a realistic and compassionate way to talk about Sanger’s complicated activism.”
“The organization has variously denied her racism, distanced itself from Sanger or kept a fearful silence about the entire controversy, not wanting to provide bullets for opponents’ guns,” Ross said.
Jones-DeWeever shares the sentiment. “Planned Parenthood has had a hard time getting their arms around how to rebut the relentless attacks on Margaret Sanger,” she says. She also notes the resurgence of Black genocide claims, which she calls “the ridiculous argument that just won’t die.”
She also notes that Black women have the most to lose from the continuous war on the organization. “When you look at the women who are disproportionately part of Planned Parenthood’s patient population as well as the patient population that are particularly under attack in states that have mounted a huge assault against Planned Parenthood,” Jones-DeWeever pointed out, “it’s Black women who have the most at stake.”
“With all of that, it just makes sense to me that a Black woman lead Planned Parenthood,” Jones-DeWeever added.
It makes sense to me too.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to note that Faye Wattleton served as president of PPFA from 1978 to 1992.