Commentary Race

Fighting Black Anti-Choice Campaigns: Trust Black Women

Loretta Ross

Women of color are fighting a race- and gender-baiting campaign that attempts to drive a racial wedge in the pro-choice movement and a gender wedge in communities of color. 

This article is cross-posted from On the Issues Magazine.

Editor’s note: Read all of Rewire’s coverage of this racist anti-choice campaign.

Sixty-five billboards were quickly erected in predominantly African American neighborhoods in Atlanta on February 5, 2010. Each showed a sorrowful picture of a black male child proclaiming, “Black Children are an Endangered Species.”

Georgia Right to Life and the newly-formed Radiance Foundation spent $20,000 to sponsor the billboards that included the address of a previously unknown anti-abortion website.

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This was the opening salvo in a campaign to pass new state legislation attempting to criminalize abortions provided to women of color allegedly because of the “race or sex” of the fetus. Doctors would have been subjected to criminal sanctions and civil lawsuits. Central to the argument of our opponents was the false claim that most, if not all, abortions are coerced.

At Sister Song Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, where one of the billboards was only a few blocks away, we knew that this race- and gender-baiting campaign would have national implications, driving a racial wedge in the pro-choice movement and a gender wedge in communities of color. The legislation would also trigger a challenge to Roe v. Wade.

Although SisterSong had not expected this fight, we could not afford to be silent. We surged into action to challenge the marketing of the billboards and the legislation. We formed a coalition for the fight with SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW!, Feminist Women’s Health Center, SisterLove, Planned Parenthood of the Southeast Region, and Raksha. We strategized together to use a reproductive justice approach that intersected race and gender as the smartest way to counter this intersectional attack on abortion rights.

We succeeded – this time. We won, in part, by shifting the debate, researching our opponents, understanding the divisions among our opponents, correcting their “facts,” and engaging our Civil Rights allies. In the process, we made new discoveries about how to deal with this latest tactic of our opponents.

Identifying the Campaign

Because of the conflation of race, gender and abortion, the billboards very quickly became national news, picked up by CNN, The New York Times, ABC, The LA Times and many others.

Our opponents began a misogynistic attack to shame-and-blame black women who choose abortion, alleging that we endanger the future of our children. After all, many people in our community already believe that black men are an endangered species because of white supremacy. Our opponents used a social responsibility frame to claim that black women have a racial obligation to have more babies – especially black male babies — despite our individual circumstances.

The campaign also accused Planned Parenthood, the largest single provider of birth control and abortion services in the black community, of targeting the community for “genocide” because of its “racist founder,” Margaret Sanger.

Change-up

We had to fight the rhetorical impact of the billboards by reframing the discourse as an attack on the autonomy of black women, shifting the focus away from the sad, beautiful black boy in the advertisements.

They tried to shame-and-blame black women who choose abortion

It was not accidental that they chose a black male child to feature in their messaging, exacerbating gender tensions in the African American community. We decided that the best approach was to emphasize our opponents’ negative subliminal messages about black women. Either we were dupes of abortion providers, or we were evil women intent on having abortions – especially of black male children – for selfish reasons. In their first narrative, we were victims without agency unable to make our own decisions, pawns of racist, profit-driven abortion providers. In their second narrative, we were the uncaring enemies of our own children, and architects of black genocide.

We decided on affirming messages that refuted both narratives. We had to manage both positive and negative emotions about abortion.

We repeatedly asserted our own agency as black women who are trustworthy, informed and politically savvy. We insisted that whether black women were pro-choice or pro-life, we were united in believing that black women could reasonably decide for ourselves whether to become parents. Freedom is inherent in black women and we would let no one limit our liberty. We aggressively linked women’s rights to civil and human rights.

Our messages: We decided to have abortions. We invited Margaret Sanger to place clinics in black neighborhoods. We are part of the civil and human rights movement. We protected the future of black children, not our opponents. We helped women. They judged them.

We found a resonating message of trusting black women that was widely embraced by African American women. This response forced our opponents to change their messages. They eventually declared—defensively—that they “do trust black women!” We knew we had scored a victory.

Researching the Opposition

We researched our opponents to debunk their emotional appeal that they were defending black children and women. At the same time, we resisted ad hominem attacks.

We kept asking the question, “Where do they get the money to finance their movement?”
With the support of Political Research Associates and the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, we looked at their connections and funding.

We learned from contacts that our opponents crafted this strategy in 2009 in a secret meeting on St. Simon’s Island in South Georgia between Georgia Right to Life (GRTL) and the Georgia Republican Party. They hoped to build an alliance between white and black conservatives, not only to restrict abortion access in Georgia but to split African American voters.

To provide an African American woman to champion the effort, Georgia Right to Life hired Catherine Davis, who failed twice at winning a Congressional seat as a black Republican. Davis’ partner was the Radiance Foundation that designed the billboard. It was set up by an advertising executive, Ryan Bomberger. Bomberger claims that he is the son of a white mother raped by a black man and that his mother gave him up for adoption because she did not believe in abortion. Bomberger says that it is his mission to save black babies, even if it means allowing rapists to choose the mothers of their children.

The billboard campaign was accompanied by a two-hour pseudo-documentary film, Maafa 21, that purported to trace the eugenics movement in promoting genocide against African Americans, and how abortion is part of it. It was created by a white Texan, Mark Crutcher, who has made a career of attacking Planned Parenthood. More than 20,000 copies were distributed free.

We looked at the cross-pollination between the anti-abortion movement and conservative figures from other arenas. Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is employed by the anti-abortion Priests for Life and revealed a close relationship with Fox News’ host, Glenn Beck, even speaking at Beck’s August 2010 rally that attempted to hijack the symbolic legacy of Dr. King’s historic 1963 March on Washington. These associations did not aid her credibility in the African American community. Sarah Palin’s endorsement of the billboards tied their campaign to other conservative figures distrusted by the African American community.

We also learned that race and gender became a bait-and-switch tactic by our opponents. When they could not locate any black women who had abortions because of the race of the child – no surprise! – they switched tactics to claim that they were really concerned that Asian American women were having sex-selective abortions, using even more disguised racism against “foreigners” and hyperactivating prejudices against immigrants.

Putting Out Facts

Anti-abortionists misused data and facts. The cornerstone of their genocide theory is that black women have had fewer children over a number of years. In fact, women of all races have fewer children when they have increased access to reproductive health services and educational and job opportunities.

We won by shifting the debate and correcting our opponents’ ‘facts’

The reality is that black women have always controlled our fertility when we could. We brought knowledge from Africa that helped us practice birth control and have abortions. After the end of slavery, we were determined to end the forced breeding of our bodies, and we cut our birth rate in half in the first 40 years after the Civil War. We continued this intentional decline as part of our racial uplift strategy to have fewer children and provide more opportunities for the ones we did have.

Black women, however, do have three times more abortions than white women, a statistic anti-abortionists used to demonize abortion providers. Black women have more unintended pregnancies, less access to contraception, are more vulnerable to childhood sexual abuse, and experience single motherhood more than our white counterparts. For reproductive justice activists, the solution is to help black women have fewer unintended pregnancies and to eliminate the obstacles that interfere with personal decision making.

Another anti-abortion tactic is to claim that abortion clinics are “always” located in African American communities, especially by Planned Parenthood. In Georgia, we were able to easily refute this claim by presenting demographic data, proving that only four of the 15 abortion clinics in our state are in predominantly black neighborhoods.

We addressed the story of Margaret Sanger and her allegedly racist agenda. We documented that African American leaders had worked with Sanger in the 1930s to ask for clinics in black communities. We challenged our opponents’ historical revisionism by citing famous leaders like Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Dubois, Walter White, Mary Church Terrell, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and organizations like the NAACP, the National Urban League and the National Council of Negro Women. We dared them to call these icons of the civil rights movement pawns of a racist agenda.

A Trust of New Leadership

Engaging leaders of Civil Rights organizations was critical to informing the African American community about the true facts of black women’s lives. We reached out to Julian Bond, former chair of the NAACP, who had endorsed the 2004 March for Women’s Lives. We had a boost when anti-abortion activists chose to picket the 2010 NAACP National Convention, trying to force them to retract their support for reproductive justice. The support of the NAACP opened the door for other Civil Rights organizations to join us, such as Rainbow PUSH.

Women of color are able to build stronger alliances between the Civil Rights and Reproductive Justice movements. It is equally clear that most male-led Civil Rights organizations will not take the lead on gender justice issues on behalf of women, especially on a difficult issue such as abortion.

We stopped the legislation in Georgia in the final two hours of the legislative session. And then we sat down to consider future plans. We created the Trust Black Women Partnership, a long-term strategy to ensure that black women can mobilize wherever such campaigns appear in African American communities, and to generate deeper discussions about black women’s autonomy and human rights.

Our opponents will not retreat, but, in fact, will “re-load,” as Sarah Palin would say. Georgia Right to Life and the Radiance Foundation, working with Priests for Life and its $10 million war chest, announced plans to spread their campaign. Similar billboards have already appeared in Arkansas, Texas, Missouri and Tennessee.

The anti-abortion opponents changed their tactics: now they claim to promote adoption for black children as a more compassionate alternative to abortion, ignoring the fact that four out of five “hard to place” children in the adoption system are African American.

The struggle in Georgia also highlighted tensions within the pro-choice movement about the leadership of women of color. The pro-choice movement must overcome its historical reluctance to confront accusations of racism and genocide. It must work harder to understand the power of the reproductive justice framework. Mainstream organizations have to step back and let women of color lead when race and gender intersect in abortion politics.

Reproductive justice activists recognize that we all live in a system of white supremacy that affects everyone in America: no one is immune to racism. The failure to recognize this legacy jeopardizes our collective ability to defeat our mutual opponents. Working honestly on race and power relations is not only the right thing to do, but it is the smart thing to do to defeat race- and gender-based attacks on abortion and women’s rights.

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

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