In their political campaign to outlaw abortion, antiabortion groups have attempted to build alliances with African Americans by trying to evoke rhetoric of racial violence and injustice. These groups have circulated materials that have co-opted the language of African American political movements with slogans such as “Abortion suppresses the Black vote” and “Black lives matter in and out of the womb.” This antiabortion rhetoric attempts to link abortion with anti-Black racism and sometimes even goes so far as to suggest that Planned Parenthood, a major provider of abortions in the United States, is complicit in Black genocide.
Abortion is a contentious issue in the African American community, especially since many religious Black Americans hold the same beliefs about fetal personhood as White evangelicals. But one group has consistently advocated for the importance of abortion rights for Black people: Black feminists. Why? Because they have long seen the right to abortion as part of broader racial and reproductive justice goals.
As abortion rights become an increasingly significant focus for feminists in the 1960s, Black feminists did not place the same emphasis on them as White feminists did. They were more concerned about the ways in which Black women, along with other women of color, poor women and disabled women, were subject to reproductive coercion.
Thirty-one states allowed forcible sterilization at some point during the 20th century. These policies often disproportionately affected people of color, especially Black people. For example, in North Carolina, over about 40 years of state-condoned forcible sterilization, 5,000 of the approximately 7,600 sterilizations were performed on Blacks, who made up only a quarter of the state population. In 1961, civil rights activist Fannie Lee Hamer was sterilized without her consent by a White doctor who was performing surgery to remove a uterine tumor. These forced sterilizations were so common at one time that they were dubbed “Mississippi appendectomies.”
Even in the 1980s and 1990s, birth control, often semi-permanent forms like implants or injections, became a condition to receive public assistance in many states.
But despite this history of abuse, Black feminists still fiercely advocated for the right to abortion because they understood the importance of bodily autonomy, especially when it comes to reproduction.