In a July 10 op-ed at the Wall Street Journal, Jason Riley wondered whether it was too much to ask for the “Black abortion rate” to be part of the discussion on the future of Roe v. Wade in the wake of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court. I am a Black mother who has spent much of my professional and personal life advocating for people to access the full range of sexual and reproductive health care regardless of age, race, income, or ability. So I have to ask, has the author been paying any attention or listening to Black women like me? If not, he should take a seat.
Black women have been leading conversations on these issues for decades, but their voices are too often ignored or silenced with ahistorical perspectives like Riley’s. Had he paid attention, he would know Black women working in their communities on these issues have been talking ad nauseam about reproductive justice, which puts abortion, birthing, and parenting in the context of the totality of the Black experience in America. Instead, he villainizes Black women by suggesting our terminated pregnancies are akin to “black violent behavior.”
Black people who have abortions aren’t being forced to do so, and trying to coerce Black women into continuing their pregnancies or expanding families is advancing white supremacist notions about what Black women are here for. Why is it so offensive to imagine that every Black woman in America may not have the desire or means to have or expand their family? We have been coerced enough. Black liberation is not measured in numbers of Black births; it is measured by thriving, autonomous Black lives.
If Riley was truly concerned with the quality of life for the “Black population,” he would have noted in his piece issues like sexual violence and the fact that intimate partner violence is a leading cause of death of Black women. And the maternal health crisis, in which Black women are three to four times more likely to die while giving birth than white women—even Serena Williams nearly lost her life giving birth. Or he would have talked about the world Black babies are born into and the realities for Black families that choose to have one, as well as those who don’t. That includes addressing issues like the wage gap, Black net worth, and what it would take for Black families to catch up to the generational wealth of white people. Many people can’t even afford an abortion because they can’t afford their rent.
Where is his outrage about these things? Where is his lecture to Black men and against white supremacy, or is he only here to bully and critique Black women?
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My work in reproductive justice comes from my deep love of children and my hope for what is possible in the world when every child is raised not only in a family where they are wanted, but where they have the emotional, financial supports to thrive. My own birth was the result of a wanted pregnancy in the highly educated Black married couples of which Jason Riley speaks. Still, I am a survivor of physical and sexual child abuse. I’m a trained birth doula and ran a youth sexual health organization for four years. While people who are opposed to abortion are calling Black women murderers, how are they contributing to Black children and families?
I am a queer, Black mother, co-parenting two Black boys in Chicago, where just Saturday a Black man was shot in the back five times by police in the neighborhood that I grew up in. I fear for my sons’ Black lives, not as much for gang violence as for police brutality and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Like many Black women, I sit at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, ability, and more. At 16, my friend Everton was shot in the head on the six-block walk from his house to my house. My mother and I launched a neighborhood-based anti-violence campaign in response, and my mother ran for alderman on an anti-violence platform. Three years later, I had an abortion while in college with the man I would later marry (and divorce). I’m clear that my choice to have an abortion was not murder, nor a crime; when there was a crime, I took action against it.
I had a miscarriage seven months ago, and while it was a devastating loss I am still grappling with, I’m clear that the pregnancy I lost was not yet a person.
Jason Riley’s problematic views have already been debunked. But even more troubling, when Riley compares abortion to homicide, he is assigning personhood to fetuses. While whether life begins at conception is an age-old debate that will never be answered in a way that will satisfy everyone, it is absurd and insulting to make this comparison.
Abortion is an act of compassion, love, and self-determination, not the legal or moral crime that conservatives would like it to be. The juxtaposition of abortion and so-called Black-on-Black crime is an anti-choice talking point built on a myth that white supremacists perpetuate for their own purposes. “Black-on-Black crime” is not a thing, and certainly not relevant to any conversation about abortion.
Strangely, anti-choice interests in the “Black population” always end after birth. Readers see this when Riley partially connects Black abortion rates to racial disparities in crime, poverty, school suspensions, and mass incarceration. However, his acknowledgment and analysis of the issues fall short. Black families have always been under attack. Black women and mothers are perpetually targeted and criminalized in an epidemic of over-policing and prosecution.
Let’s be clear: “Black self-destructive behavior” as Riley calls it, is not the cause of the systemic failures that, by design, have contributed to our oppression—racism is. Whether a Black person chooses abortion or not, we should support the reproductive decisions Black people make about their own lives.
Riley cites polling from 1973 to make his argument that Black people have historically been “less likely than whites to support abortion.” But it’s 2018, and the polling from today is the polling that matters. Sixty-seven percent of Americans believe that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned, including 43 percent of Republican voters. Two-thirds (67 percent) of Black Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. If Black civil rights groups are more supportive of reproductive rights than they were 40 years ago, as Riley suggests, it’s because the world and our analysis has evolved about the intersectional nature of oppression. His should too.