A House Judiciary Committee hearing on abortion Friday morning took a bizarre turn when, while discussing women of color who have abortions, Republican Congress members brought up the subjects of slavery, black genocide, and a litter of puppies.
And the response from Kierra Johnson, executive director of URGE (Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity), a black woman and the panel’s only pro-choice witness, made clear how offensive many women of color might find those remarks to be.
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) first asked Genevieve Plaster, a witness from the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute, to confirm that a disproportionate percentage of abortions in the United States have been performed on black women (or “committed” on “black babies,” as King put it). King asked why the black community doesn’t consider that “genocide.” Plaster said that some black pro-life organizations do.
Then King turned to Johnson and asked, without preamble: “If one were to be there at the delivery of a litter of puppies, and as a puppy was partially delivered, took a device and either crushed the skull or sucked the brains out of that baby puppy, would you be committing a crime in most states?”
After a moment, Johnson responded somewhat incredulously: “I couldn’t speak to what’s considered a crime with puppies.”
“If I ask you to research that and come back to this panel with a response … could you do that?” King asked. “Would you do that, I know you could do that.”
“I could,” Johnson said. “And I could also talk to you about the research and the anecdotal information I have about black communities.”
The room erupted into applause. “I would love to talk about black communities, if you’d like me to,” Johnson said.
Later, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) invoked the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision to suggest — as many Republicans and conservatives often do — that abortion is like slavery because women treat fetuses like “property.”
Johnson’s response to that idea, which again sparked applause from the room, was: “It’s interesting that we’re bringing up slavery in this space. When you own somebody’s decision-making, you own them.”
“We are not simple-minded. We are not being duped.” Johnson continued. “The majority of women who have abortions are parents. They care. They care about their families.”
What’s behind these exchanges? Why did this happen?
The committee hearing was called to discuss two anti-abortion measures: the Hyde amendment, which prohibits federal dollars from paying for abortions, and a proposal, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), that would add criminal penalties to the Born Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002.
The latter is probably what inspired King’s remarks; Franks argued that his measure was necessary because we need criminal punishment for unscrupulous providers like Kermit Gosnell who kill infants. (Gosnell is in prison because what he did is already illegal, though, and pro-choice advocates argue that Franks’s proposal is also dangerous to doctors and patients because it’s so medically vague.)
After King repeatedly pressed Johnson on whether she would look up the information about puppies for him, he answered his question for her — that, yes, it’s a crime to crush the skulls of partially delivered puppies, and thus puppies have more protections than unborn babies.
But that’s not true. King’s description appeared to refer to intact dilation and evacuation, or “partial-birth abortion,” a procedure that is now banned in the United States. Before it was banned, the procedure was used in rare circumstances when doctors determined it was the best option to preserve the health of a woman who needed an abortion in the later stages of pregnancy.
Abortion opponents often focus on the lurid details of certain abortion procedures in an attempt to outlaw them. But because they either ignore or don’t understand basic facts about how abortion works, their attempts to explain it are frequently inaccurate, garbled, or just plain strange.
Some advocates said that King’s remarks weren’t just wrong and out of place — that, given the context, King was drawing an offensive comparison between women of color and dogs.
And Johnson’s response on slavery is a reminder that comparing abortion to slavery also means comparing black women to slaveowners — an offensive comparison, many advocates argue, given that enslaved black women were systematically forced to give birth against their will.
The issue of the Hyde amendment is what prompted the discussion about women of color. Pro-choice advocates, along with Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, argue the Hyde disproportionately prevents women of color, low-income women, and young women from exercising their right to choose an abortion.
As Johnson explained in her testimony, the Hyde amendment prevents women who rely on Medicaid for their health insurance from getting coverage for an abortion. More than half of reproductive-aged women who are enrolled in Medicaid, and who live in a state that also has restrictions on abortion coverage, are women of color. Three-fourths of abortion patients overall were low-income as of 2014.
When women can’t get coverage for an abortion and can’t afford it, they face serious financial and other consequences for pursuing one anyway, research shows. Women may forego paying bills, borrow from friends and family, or take out a high-interest payday loan. The time it takes to get together the money could mean a later, more expensive, and more dangerous abortion procedure — and if the woman ends up giving birth, she is more likely to fall into poverty later on.