When the March for Life, the largest annual pro-life event in the country, starts on Friday, don’t be surprised if there are a few Black Lives Matter signs in the crowd.
While anti-abortion activism has attempted to link abortion to racism for decades, the argument that abortion poses a unique threat to black lives has seen an increase in attention in recent years, the result of a collaboration between the conservative black church, black anti-abortion activists, and some white anti-abortion organizations.
These claims speak to real fears about racism in the medical system, calling back to the unethical harms of the Tuskegee study and the days when women of color were forcibly sterilized by state eugenics programs.
It’s an apt comparison in the eyes of black anti-abortion activists, many of whom argue that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was a supporter of eugenics who, some say, worked to intentionally lower the black birth rate. (Sanger’s history isn’t as clear-cut — she certainly did support a form of eugenics, but her work on birth control in the black community was not viewed with alarm by prominent African-American community leaders.)
That black women are far more likely than women of other races to get an abortion (accounting for roughly one-third of those undergoing the procedure according to one commonly cited study) is, to the black anti-abortion movement, proof that something is amiss.
In connecting abortion access in the present to the harms of the past, black pro-choice advocates say the black anti-abortion movement ignores women’s agency. And while polling doesn’t fully capture the complex viewpoints a large segment of the public has about abortion, in polls of the issue, black Americans still overwhelmingly say that abortion should be legal in most cases.
Even so, the black anti-abortion movement has landed on a provocative argument, one that award-winning filmmaker Yoruba Richen says proved ripe for exploration.
Richen was first exposed to the criticisms of Sanger and the abortion-as-black-genocide argument when she stopped by an anti-abortion protest while working on a different project. “I went to [an] abortion center and there was a protest, and there were signs out there that talked about Margaret Sanger being a racist,” she says. Looking further at the protesters themselves, she found “it wasn’t just people from the sort of traditional, mostly white anti-abortion space; it was a sector of black folks from the black anti-abortion movement.”
After researching the issue, she quickly realized not only how potent the argument could be in parts of the black community, but how it had spread much further, becoming a common talking point of anti-abortion politicians. With the backing of PBS Frontline and the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, Richen set out to better understand how the black anti-abortion movement operates, speaking to a number of people on both sides of the issue and releasing a short film on the topic, “Anti-Abortion Crusaders: Inside The African-American Abortion Battle,” in December.
I spoke with Richen about the film and medical racism, how the anti-abortion movement moved faster on racial outreach than some reproductive rights groups, and why black anti-abortion activists embraced the election of Donald Trump.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
What led you to make this film?
I was working on another short piece on reproductive issues, and I was in Indiana with my team. We were looking at full-spectrum reproductive rights — innovative approaches of having information and services around birth and motherhood and abortion all in the same space.
While I was there, I went to the abortion center down the road, and there was a protest out there, as there normally is, and there were signs out there that talked about Margaret Sanger being a racist. They had these quotes from her saying that she had a racist agenda to eliminate black people. This is something I had never heard; I’m a middle-aged person who figures I know my history pretty well, and I had never heard this charge about her.
So I started looking into it, and I found that there was a lot of stuff being written from right-wing, conservative, anti-abortion websites saying that Margaret Sanger had an agenda to eliminate black people and that abortion was part of an agenda of black genocide. I was obviously intrigued by this and who was saying this, and it turned out that it wasn’t just people from the sort of traditional mostly white anti-abortion space; it was a sector of black folks from the black anti-abortion movement. So that’s how I started looking into it.
Through that, I started seeing that mainstream Republican lawmakers were also saying that Margaret Sanger was a racist and pointing to Planned Parenthood as having a genocidal agenda. This is all happening in the past few years, as there has been a ramp up against Planned Parenthood and a push to defund Planned Parenthood. It was not only people at protests saying it but also politicians. To me that was interesting because it had seeped into the larger anti-abortion movement.
This argument is one that [has] gone into the mainstream and deals with race in a way that reproductive justice people haven’t dealt with effectively. And I think it is something that needs to be looked at and followed, because it has grown. We’ve seen it in videos, and billboards, and postcards and [from] politicians. It’s something that people should be aware of.
The black anti-abortion movement is hard to quantify — but it has had an outsize impact on how race and abortion is discussed
I want to talk about how this movement is structured. In the film, one of the main black anti-abortion figures you speak with is Rev. Clenard Childress Jr., who leads a church in New Jersey, and Angela Minter, who leads a group called Sisters for Life. But beyond them, did you get a sense of how big the anti-abortion movement is in the black community?
This is a thing that we tried to quantify, and it’s very hard. It’s a belief, and it’s hard to quantify a belief. There hasn’t been national polling on this issue. However, what I think is interesting is that it’s not really about the number of people; it’s the fact that this has become part of the mainstream argument against abortion. And you do hear, from time to time, prominent black people say this. Nick Cannon [an actor and rapper], for example, said this on a radio station, that Planned Parenthood was against black people. And when you talk to black people on an unofficial basis, this is something that has traction in the black community.
You’ve said it’s hard to really quantify how big this movement is. But I’m wondering, when we talk about this idea of abortion being black genocide, are there certain figures that stand out as power players?
Some of the bigger ones are Alveda King, who is one of the nieces of Martin Luther King Jr., and she is head of Civil Rights for the Unborn and part of Priests for Life. She is also close to the Trump administration.
There is an organization called the Radiance Foundation, that is led by Ryan Bomberger, who is very active on this issue; he was at the March for Life last year. It’s a regional movement as well; one of the people that I have in the film is Angela Minter from Louisville, Kentucky, and she leads Sisters for Life. Johnny Hunter from L.E.A.R.N. (Life Education and Resource Network) is kind of the grandfather of this movement; he came out of the 1980s anti-abortion movement and started looking at the black community on this issue. There are a number of prominent people within the movement. And I actually think the internet has allowed these different groups to interact and amplify their message.
Someone else I profiled in the film is Mark Crutcher from Life Dynamics. He’s white, but he has amplified these black anti-abortion organizations as well and given them resources.
The movement often argues that Planned Parenthood targets black women for abortions
That’s a good transition into talking about the Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood part of this some more. When we’re talking about Sanger and Planned Parenthood and the belief that both play a role in black genocide through abortion, what’s fact and what’s not?
I think Margaret Sanger is a fascinating woman in a lot of ways. She was a woman that was both ahead of her time and of her time. She was a woman of her time in that it was 1920s, 1930s America, and like many whites, she had views that we would look upon as racist. And the whole eugenics movement, which was in the mainstream at the time and was considered by prominent mainstream people, she certainly was a part of that.
But at the same time, she worked in black communities in the South on birth control, and she worked with African-American leaders in the community to do that. And she was working on this in the white community as well.
I think that a lot of the “Negro Project” [what Sanger’s effort was called] has been looked at as something that wasn’t happening in the white community, and it was — it was [about] “how can we get birth control to these communities, what is the most effective way to do that.” That’s definitely been tainted, and Margaret Sanger has been used for [anti-abortion activists’] own agenda. At the same time, Sanger had views that if we looked back we would find some of them egregious now.
I think the anti-abortion movement did earlier work of looking at the racial aspects of this in ways that the mainstream white abortion movement hadn’t done. Planned Parenthood only recently acknowledged that Margaret Sanger has a checkered history, and I think the anti-abortion folks are able to use nuggets of this and exaggerate it and twist it to make it a whole genocidal approach that Margaret Sanger had and that Planned Parenthood has.
Looking at the people in the film, you speak to a mix of black men and women. And while there were women on both sides of the issue, one man in the film, Rev. Childress, was staunchly anti-abortion. Is there a gender divide on this issue?
In terms of black anti-abortion activists, a lot of them are women, and the group is a mix of men and women. So I can’t say that I see a gender divide in terms of that. And on the other side, a lot of the black reproductive rights advocates are also women.
But I will say that a lot of the anti-abortion activism is based in a sort of patriarchal Christianity, and that is where I saw gender playing out.
In your film, and in this black anti-abortion space more broadly, there’s a key statistic that all of this centers around: Black women are roughly 13 percent of the female population, but black women account for some 30 percent of abortions. And in the film, there’s a black woman, a medical care provider, who says if all we take away from that figure is that black women shouldn’t have so many abortions, we’re missing some of the factors that actually lead to that higher number. Can you talk a bit about what some of those factors are?
I think her point was that we shouldn’t focus on these numbers, that if we just look at the numbers, we miss all of the context around why these numbers are what they are. I think that’s one point.
And the other point is that women should be able to make the decisions that they want to and that is best for their lives. And abortion is part of a system of health care. There is this shame and negativity around it, but that isn’t necessarily the case.
When you look at the numbers, there’s also the need to understand why they are what they are. So when you look to access to birth control and health care, the crazy thing is that at the same time that there is a push to stop women from having access to abortion, I would love to see these people advocating for health care for folks, so that they can take care of their children or have access to good prenatal care.
There’s been a recent flurry of articles looking at how black women are dying in higher rates [than other women] in childbirth. It’s a very sort of limited understanding to look at one thing and condemn black women for getting abortions when there are all of these other factors in why that might be the case. And if you address some of them, you might lessen the need for black women to get abortions.
You’ve already mentioned this in our conversation, and the film gets to it a bit, but when we think of the anti-abortion movement broadly, I think many people think of a movement that is largely white. And when you think of an event like the upcoming March for Life, it’s a mostly white space.
Yes, that’s true.
From what you gleaned for putting this film together, why do you think there is such an effort to bring more people of color into the anti-abortion movement?
In my last film, called The New Black, I looked at how African Americans were dealing with LGBT issues. And one of the things it looked at was how white evangelicals were reaching out and working with conservative members of the black church to push against LGBT issues.
Looking at abortion, I think there are a few things going on. First is that there is a religious argument — the African-American community is not monolithic, and there is a conservative black church that is responsive to these types of messages. And I think there was recognition that that was a sort of untapped community that could be worked with. I also think that this sort of “genocidal” argument is very potent because of the history. It is a realization that “these are strategies that work and could increase our numbers,” and help their movement grow and get bigger.
So you just mentioned LGBT issues and how they’ve been used to make inroads with segments of the black community. Do you have a sense of how black pro-lifers fit into the broader conservative landscape? Is this the only issue where there’s a sort of connective tissue that gives these groups common ground?
We have to acknowledge that African Americans, at least politically, tend to support Democrats, and that 92 percent of black voters supported Democrats in the last election.
However, there are figures in the movement — and we see them get press during MLK Day — who defend Donald Trump, or not even just Trump, but to serve as counterpoints on issues like health care, immigration, and things like that. I think there have always been conservative African Americans; I think this is an issue where, religiously, as with LGBT issues, it can be very potent within the black community with the genocide argument. Those are issues where these people have a voice in the larger conservative movement.
The term “Black Lives Matter” has also become a rallying cry for anti-abortion activists
Something else that I saw in the film, and that I’ve heard at protests and in discussions of black people and abortion, is this rhetoric linking the anti-abortion movement to Black Lives Matter [some prominent activists have denounced this]. When you put this film together, did you explore how that line of argument came into existence at all?
It seems like it really started once the Black Lives Matter movement gained prominence. We started seeing this on college campuses, anti-abortion groups using the “Black Lives Matter” phrase in their work. It seems like Black Lives Matter was quickly co-opted and used in the anti-abortion movement.
I show in the film how Mark Crutcher [who leads an anti-abortion group called Life Dynamics], was a part of leading that too. He’s very savvy in terms of media, and he started printing cards and giving them out to organizations to hand out. It all happened pretty soon after the rise of Black Lives Matter.
In the film, you have clips of politicians also connecting abortion to the ideas of Black Lives Matter. Can you talk a bit more about how this particular type of anti-abortion argument has become more potent in political circles?
You have everyone from Ben Carson, who I showed in the film, [to] Ted Cruz, who signed a letter trying to get the Margaret Sanger bust removed from the Smithsonian saying that she was a racist. These aren’t fringe people — these are people in the government. There was a Senate hearing last fall where [Iowa Rep.] Steve King was debating an anti-abortion bill and King said this. These are Republicans in government saying this, and they are saying this publicly. And it’s interesting how this viewpoint went from the fringe to the mainstream conversation.
Since we’re talking about politics, I wanted to ask you about Donald Trump and the role he plays in this. At the end of the film, there’s this excitement from black people around Trump, and there’s a scene with the woman from Sisters for Life talking about how Trump’s election makes her hopeful. But in the past year, a lot of black people supporting Trump have been confronted with the president’s racism. Do you think that Trump being in office affects the racial basis that the black genocide argument hinges on?
Well, Trump being a racist, or not being a racist, isn’t really a factor for them. They just support him. I think this is a fairly narrow view where there is an agenda that they want to achieve and Trump said he would help them achieve that. I think that’s what this is about, the larger picture, just like it seems to be for other anti-abortion supporters.