Culture Rant #1: Issue 18 / Summer 2019

They’re Coming for Black Womxn Too: The Strategically Disturbing Assault on Womxn’s Bodies

Written by Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina

The Alabama senate passed one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the United States, HB314 “The Human Life Protection Act.” Alabama’s law bans abortion and maintains that womxn and girls who are pregnant through rape and incest cannot legally access an abortion. Georgia passed a “fetal heartbeat” bill, HB 481, the “Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act,” which bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. Missouri’s recent abortion ban, HB 126, the “Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act” outlaws the procedure starting at 8 weeks. Several other neo-conservative Republican-held states are following these efforts, and this was foreseen in the current administration’s 2016 election platform, culminating in the appointment of two controversial ultra-conservative Supreme Court judges in 2017 and 2018. These events are precursors in the effort to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973); and they have been strategically planned for decades. Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case sought to provide balance over the issue of abortion, and ultimately decided that womxn have a right to privacy; a constitutional right to safe and legal abortions. Today abortion, though legal in all states, is very difficult to access. At this moment there are only two doctors who legally provide abortion care in the state of Alabama. Conservative evangelical-led state governments have systematically stripped away abortion access through the elimination of clinics that provide comprehensive reproductive health care; and by supporting “pregnancy resource centers,” pseudo health care offices disguised as abortion providers. These offices surreptitiously harassed, intimidated, and discouraged womxn from seeking abortions. Reproductive health care clinics (medical centers that offer a range of health care services for womxn like Planned Parenthood) have steadily declined through coordinated state and federal attacks. Yet the “pregnancy resource centers” have increased in numbers with government assistance and funding.

These sweeping state abortion bans are insidiously hidden behind religious extremism. This includes years of attacking Planned Parenthood and other comprehensive womxn care centers; staging pro-life harassment teams to harangue people trying to enter these facilities—to the violence perpetrated on health care providers. Now they target womxn at or before the moment they become aware that they may be pregnant. Because of this prohibition, by the time most womxn can verify that they are pregnant the opportunity to make a decision about an abortion has been blocked. This ban includes any person capable of giving birth. And these sanctions on abortion are far beyond the prenatal concerns argument.

This legislation—and there is more slated to come—is where racism, sexism, and class privilege intersect. Black womxn will be inordinately impacted by these laws. White male dominance and misogyny against womxn will be reinforced. Males who support a womxn’s right to choose will be marginalized. White womxn with money and social status will have immediate bespoke access to quality reproductive health care, including abortions. Girls will have their innocence and their futures brutally stolen. These state bans on abortion are extreme authoritarian efforts to control and criminalize womxn’s bodies. Proponents of the ban do not seek to improve womxn’s access to quality health care. These are not pro-life bills, they are strategic political and radical religious maneuvers designed to exert sexual and reproductive authority over womxn. These measures are dangerous to the overall health and wellbeing of womxn and their families.

History informs us that the recent state abortion bans forecast that the reproductive health of all womxn is at risk; and that at least initially, the rights of Black, Trans, and other WOC (womxn of color) will be abrogated. Within the American system of slavery Black womxn were more vulnerable to sexual and reproductive exploitation than other classes of womxn. Beginning in the mid-1600s colonial governments like Virginia began designating that slavery would follow the condition of the mother. These slave municipalities copied Virginia and the evolution of slave breeding, the reproductive exploitation of black womxn followed. Children were the chattel property of free white males, but in essence, they also represented the commercial property of the state. Scholars have meticulously documented the history of African American womxn and abortion.[1] These scholars assert that Black womxn employed abortion during the American era of slavery as a way to prevent the further enslavement of African people. There were many causes for this decision, but they included sexual assault, harsh labor, brutality, poor diet, and the Black womxn’s conscious assertion of her reproductive rights.

These new abortion laws are structurally racist and fundamentally sexist. While White men decided Roe v. Wade 46 years ago; 25 White male representatives voted for the 2019 abortion ban in Alabama. Complicity knows no bounds. White womxn collaborated in constructing and implementing this oppressive ban; and Black people were skillfully placed in the public relations frame for optimal press coverage in support of the ban. Yet the womxn most affected by these punitive anti-choice laws, at least initially, will be Black and Brown womxn. Black womxn who want safe, legal, and affordable abortions will not be able to get them. The inability to do so will have immediate life altering consequences for populations already at risk for socio-economic oppression. Womxn, who become pregnant because they have been sexually abused and/or assaulted by men, will be further demeaned and degraded, because they cannot choose an abortion. Womxn who seek abortion will be exploited by the state as they become victims of the criminal justice system. As states rush to establish laws that govern the use and function of womxn’s bodies, they assert unprecedented social, economic, and political control.

These abortion bans mean that womxn’s bodies and the children they produce will, in effect, become property of the state. Womxn—and mostly Black and Brown, along with poor White womxn—will not only be the first to experience various forms of incarceration (jails, electronic monitors), they will bear the enormous fines and fees associated with the criminal justice process. Post-conviction and incarceration womxn will return to their communities branded as felons—denied employment opportunities and politically disenfranchised. Black womxn who miscarry will be reported as being in violation of the abortion ban and potentially imprisoned. Under these laws, any physician, nurse, or health care provider who performs an abortion—or administers an abortifacient—can expect harsh penalties including being sentenced to years in prison (up to 99 years in Alabama). Structural racism will ensure that Black womxn (already over policed and surveilled in many communities) who are “suspected” of having been pregnant will be “reported” to the authorities. Concerns about the contemporary birth dearth (declining birth rates among certain populations) are also evident. The multi-state ban on a womxn’s right-to-choose guarantees that White womxn will be legally forced to give birth to more children.

We live in a society where a womxn’s body is more heavily legislated than the assault weapons which fuel rampant gun violence in the United States. We live in a country where unarmed Black womxn are exposed to escalating forms of state violence, including extrajudicial police killing. The series of recent state abortion bans, the anti-choice laws currently being enacted, represent an immense violation of human rights. Some states, and a number of businesses, including those encompassing the film industry, have initiated boycotts of Alabama and other anti-choice states because of the sweeping abortion ban. As we all rise to address this injury, we need to write and organize around Black womxn’s reproductive rights and justice, including the right-to-choose. We need to support pro-choice womxn’s healthcare centers, fund these organizational and protest efforts; and implement laws that make abortion access safe and legal. We need to elect womxn representatives in the state legislatures that will uphold the will and worth of all womxn.

The majority of womxn in this nation believe that abortion should be legal. This battle is not about morality. These laws are menacing. They are not good for womxn or society. As sweeping and comprehensive as these laws appear, much of their reasoning is faulty, emotionally laden, religiously-guided, and were not clearly thought out—they lack critical thinking. But these laws are not mistakes. There are enough unanswered questions in these briefs to understand that more rules about womxn’s bodies will be further developed over time. This moment is about authoritarian power and control. But we know that reproductive freedom is a womxn’s right. Affordable health care is a womxn’s right. Safe legal abortion is a womxn’s right. Womxn have the unequivocal right to make decisions about their own bodies.

 

[1] See Loretta J. Ross, “African American women and Abortion: A Neglected History,” Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, Vol. 3, No., 2, Fall 1992, 274-284; and “African American Women And Abortion: 1800-1970,” Theorizing Black Feminisms, Routledge, 2005, 155-174.

 

Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina is a Professor of History and Distinguished Faculty Researcher at Coppin State University in Baltimore Maryland. She is also a 2018-2019 Dresher Center Fellow at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of Slavery and Medicine: Enslavement and Medical Practices in Antebellum Louisiana.

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