Twenty-four-year-old Tonya Reaves was a mother of one with a fiance when she walked into a Planned Parenthood in Chicago’s South Loop to have an abortion. This decision ultimately cost Reaves her life because she hemorrhaged after “cervical dilation and evacuation.” We don’t know the reasons why she chose to have an abortion, but it can be said without doubt, no woman makes the decision to terminate her pregnancy lightly. A black woman in her 20s with one child, Reaves fit the highest percentile of women most likely to have an abortion. When the story broke, I was horrified to read comments sections that turned Reaves’ death into a call to ban abortion, suggesting that it is an unsafe medical procedure or claiming the loss of the fetus as the death of a child.
Reaves’ death is absolutely tragic, but to politicize her death in the hopes of calling into question a woman’s right to choose is unconscionable. Carole Brite, the CEO and president of Planned Parenthood Illinois, released the following statement:
“While legal abortion services in the United States have a very high safety record, a tragedy such as this is devastating to loved ones and we offer our deepest sympathies. Planned Parenthood of Illinois cares deeply about the health and safety of each and every patient.”
According to the Guttmacher Institute, “less than 0.3 percent of abortion patients experience serious complications.” The issue is clearly not about safety, but about a woman’s right to reproductive freedom.
In recent years, we have seen numerous attacks on Planned Parenthood, including campaigns specifically targeting black women. In 2011, pro-life group Always Life placed more than 30 billboards in the Chicago area with an image of Obama and a tagline that read: “Every 21 minutes our next possible leader is aborted.” During Black History Month, this same organization was behind billboards with a picture of a young black girl and the following statement: “The most dangerous place for a black child is in the womb.”
As much as the right to choose is a woman’s issue, race cannot be erased from the conversation, because of the high rate of abortion in the black community. The facts are startling:
· 67 percent of black pregnancies are unplanned;
· Non-Hispanic black women account for 36 percent of all abortions, despite only making up 12 percent of the population; and
· 8 percent of women who have abortions have never used a method of birth control; non use of contraceptives is greatest among those who are young, poor, black, Hispanic, or less educated.
This fight is essentially about who will control our reproduction and, conversely, our lives. Black women’s reproduction is shamed at every level. The shaming and attacks for having abortions is equally as horrific as the shame and attacks black women face when they reproduce.
Angel Adams, the 37-year-old Tampa mother of 15 children, has come to represent the epitome of the bad mother. When she was evicted from her two-bedroom apartment with her 12 children, she demanded the state be held accountable. Adams was at one point held in contempt of court for refusing to tell a judge whether she was pregnant. The question was asked supposedly to determine whether or not Adams had sex in the presence of her children.
After new housing was provided for Adams, Nick Cox, DCF’s regional director, stated, “Everyone has bent over backward. The mother has been less than gracious.” Adams has become the face of the welfare queen President Reagan fallaciously railed against in the ’80s. Adams’ case has served to embolden those who seek to attack the idea of state funding for single parents, under the guise that each person should be responsible for their own reproduction. Even Glenn Beck weighed in:
“Have you thought about birth control? Here’s an idea. Have you thought about marrying a man? Have you thought about marrying a man or not having kids with a man who isn’t going to jail? Have you thought about, you know, maybe we should slow down on the sex thing? Accountable? I’m not accountable for your life. I am accountable for my life. I have been working my ass off, lady. What have you been doing?”
The only time black pregnancies were deemed valuable was during slavery, when pregnancy would serve to enrich the planter class. Today, the black womb symbolizes surplus population and a fear of reversing racial demographics.
Ironically, questioning the right to have an abortion denies women the ability to be accountable for their reproductive choices. Due to the intersection of race and gender, black women’s bodies have always been on the front line of women’s rights debates. We are spoken at, rather than spoken to, with our pregnancies often coming to symbolize licentiousness, a lack of control, and poverty, while our choices to control our reproduction are held up as a supposed black genocide. Both of these issues hold black women solely accountable, as though there are not serious social issues at play.
Failing to support or demonizing women who are dependent upon social assistance benefits increases the rate of abortion. The fact that 67 percent of women who have an abortion already have one child and that “42 percent of women obtaining abortions have incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty level,” tells us that economics is a crucial factor in the decision to abort. The right wing have funded multiple campaigns to chip away at Roe v. Wade, while at the same time attempted to eliminate sex education and run a war on the poor. Black women are in the dead center of this battle because it is our lives that have been the most heavily impacted.
Both Adams and Reaves have been held up as cautionary tales about the irresponsibility of black womanhood. When we have our children, we are overtly sexualized, accused of wanting something for nothing, and holding others accountable for our reproductive choices. When we choose to have an abortion, we are accused of spearheading the genocide of our race. In each instance, black women are attacked, demonized, and determined unfit.
The reduction or elimination of abortion clinics is specifically a war on black women, and it is a war we are losing because our experiences have been used as an admonition to all women on why their reproductive freedom should be strictly controlled. To have a conversation about abortion without considering race and economics is to ignore crucial elements of this social issue.
Casting black women as the monolithic representation of womanhood (but only when we can be used to justify the loss of rights and freedoms) speaks to the ongoing racism, sexism, and classicism that has been normalized in society.