Is abortion a civil rights issue?

That's the argument being put forth by a group of African-American antiabortion activists.

By Catherine Price
January 9, 2008 4:44AM (UTC)
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Earlier today, I wrote about would-be fathers who argue that the language of abortion needs a pronoun shift. But that's not the only weird appropriation of abortions going on this week. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a group of African-American antiabortion activists will be holding three events in the Bay Area this month in support of the idea that "abortion is the Darfur of America." (Or so says Walter Hoye, a Berkeley-based preacher and founder of the Issues4Life Foundation, an African-American-focused antiabortion organization.) The events will all be attended by Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr's niece, and have been timed to coincide with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Martin Luther King day, and black history month.

Abortion? Darfur? Civil rights? What? According to Hoye, abortion is the "leading cause of death in the African-American community," and he thinks that people should be just as concerned about abortion clinics in black neighborhoods as they are about liquor stores, homicides and genocide. Another African-American antiabortion leader who plans to be in attendance, the Rev. Clenard Childress Jr. from New Jersey, "compares abortion to slavery and says the fetus has a right to be protected by the Constitution," reports the Chronicle.


"'It is not the first time a segment of the community has had their rights denied,'" he's quoted as saying. "'It is a civil rights issue because it is dehumanizing and not giving proper status as a citizen. Most people on the opposite side think it is not a person, just like they did during slavery. It is not the first time this country has done something wrong.'"

I have to admit to being a little confused by the logic here. Are we calling abortion genocide? Or are we saying that fetuses are slaves? Can you have civil rights if you don't have fingernails? And do either of these comparisons make any sense? It seems as if they share the same general tactic: Think of something really, really bad, and then say it's like abortion. This could lead to great bumper stickers: "Abortion = Auschwitz." "Osama Bin Laden [hearts] Planned Parenthood." "Your Doctor Raped My Fetus." Attention-grabbers, sure -- but not the most logical arguments on the block.

Groups like Issues4Life like to quote statistics like those produced by Guttmacher, a nonprofit policy and research institution, whose director of domestic research is quoted as saying that black women have abortions at four times the rate of white women. But the same director (who's not affiliated with these organizations) also points out that "black women are more likely than white women to have an unintended pregnancy and that the reason for that is that they are less likely than white women to use contraceptives. He also said poor women are less likely to use birth control, and women of color are disproportionately poor," reports the Chronicle.


Here's what I don't get: I doubt that many people would argue that poor women should have more unintended pregnancies. And it seems like one of the biggest impediments to poor black women's advancement in America is their statistical likelihood to have unwanted pregnancies and unplanned kids. So wouldn't it make more sense for organizations like Issues4Life to stop with the abortion-is-genocide argument and try to fix the root of the problem? These leaders must have charisma -- so why not use it to motivate communities to stand up for things like better access to contraceptives for poor women, better sex education, and more job training? That seems like a better plan than rallying for the supposed rights of fetuses that apparently aren't even wanted by the mothers themselves.

(By the way, according to the Chronicle, the Rev. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco branch of the NAACP, "says that abortion is not a civil rights issue and that he has no plans to take part in the events."

"'San Francisco's top civil rights issues are education, economic empowerment and political engagement,'" he's quoted as saying. "'African American students are behind every ethnic group in this city academically. People who are learned and informed do the right thing. If not, they engage in destructive behavior. These pro-life people are demagogues and ideologues and are not receiving overwhelming support from the black community.'")

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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