The Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and the efforts of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to ban most abortions after 15 weeks nationwide materialized the worst fears of Black reproductive rights activists and maternal health activists. They have long warned that if and when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, it would have an injurious and disproportionate impact on Black women and other Black people who are able to get pregnant, particularly those living in the rural South.
But despite Black reproductive activists’ urgent efforts to draw attention to how these laws will disproportionately impact Black communities, Black women note that they often feel invisible in the current public debate over abortion in mainstream media outlets. Black women have long connected civil rights on the basis of race to reproductive rights, foregrounding legal abortion as a major front in the struggle against racism and sexism. Historically, the Black press was a space for Black women to make those arguments about bodily autonomy. While access to this platform did not translate into the Black press’s wholesale support for reproductive rights, it did illustrate the political and social stakes of the debate.
Known for its campaigns to end anti-Black racism and discrimination, the “fighting press,” as it was called, was much more circumspect in their position on abortion in the years that preceded the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973. Structural racism was so prevalent in the lives of Black people in the 1970s that they often viewed the issue of abortion and birth control through the lens of white supremacy. Rumors circulated within and among African American communities claiming that the U.S. government sought to restrict Black population growth by limiting Black reproduction and controlling Black women’s fertility.
These beliefs were rooted in history. White enslavers’ brutal practices forced Black women to conceive and give birth to increase their enslaved population. Scientific racism and forced sterilization in the early 20th century also demonstrated to significant numbers of Black people that they could trust neither the medical system nor the government with their reproductive decisions. As a result, suspicions of Black genocide and eugenics occupied the same space with discussions about abortion and reproductive rights.
The Doe v. Scott case in 1971 demonstrated how fearful some Black communities were about Black women becoming the target of government-subsidized abortions. In this case, the Illinois State Supreme Court legalized abortion in Illinois. Shortly after the decision, the Chicago Daily Defender polled its readers, asking: “Do you believe that welfare funds used for abortion on black women is genocide?” A reported 63.7 percent of the respondents said yes, exposing a deep concern by Black people about the relationship between abortion and genocide.
And yet, Black feminists viewed the issue differently and pushed for the Black press to also include their perspectives about the importance of abortion access. For example, the Michigan Chronicle devoted a full page to the views of Black women in Detroit, ages 16 to 35, on local abortion legislation the year before Roe v. Wade. Women’s page editor Marie Teasley reported, “I found their concerns ranged from guilt aspects of Black liberation to moral and religious convictions, to possible genocidal practices to the woman’s right to personal choice.”