Racism and Abortion: Black Leaders Speak

by Julia Smucker



The abortion industry has often denied its historic ties to the eugenics movement, but many Black leaders have been justly skeptical. Below are a few of those who have spoken out, spanning more than four decades and representing a broad swath of the political spectrum.


Dr. Mildred Jefferson

Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School and a three-term president of the National Right to Life Committee, saw hypocrisy in abortion being offered as a band-aid solution for social disadvantage, telling attendees at a pro-life conference, “Abortionists argue, ‘Let the poor have abortions like the rich can.’ Then abortionists should make a list of the other things rich women have that they’re going to give to poor women.” She also noted the disturbing implications of the Black population being disproportionately aborted, observing in 1978 that “poor women who are dark” represented 18 percent of the population in cities such as Washington, D.C., and New York City, but more than 50 percent of abortions.


Dick Gregory

Dick Gregory, a comedian, once described his own large Black family as his “answer to genocide” in an Ebony magazine article that at first reads like a stand-up routine, joking, for example, about the “maximum of 2 ½ children” suggested by family planning groups: “I know my American history well enough to know what ‘three-fifths’ of a man is, but half-a-kid?” Gregory’s article eventually takes a more somber tone, describing social conditions he viewed as subtly genocidal, including how “government programs designed for poor black folks emphasize birth control and abortion availability, both measures obviously designed to limit the black population.”


Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader in the civil rights movement, was not shy about denouncing various forms of racially targeted violence, including abortion. At a 1969 White House conference, Hamer pushed back against Alan Guttmacher’s promotion of abortion, denouncing it as aimed at the extermination of Black people. A newspaper article reporting on the exchange described Hamer as “a militant black leader from Mississippi and one of the handful of bona-fide poor invited to the conference,” too uneducated and emotional to understand Guttmacher’s “purely humanitarian” motives. Even while defending Guttmacher’s motives and deriding his critics as “black Cassandras” who hadn’t had their own needs properly explained to them, the writer of the article admitted that it was “not without reason” that many in the Black community shared Hamer’s views: “Welfare administrators who require ‘voluntary’ sterilization of welfare mothers after the birth of their second bastard; or judges like the one in California who ordered a young Mexican mother sterilized because she was shacked-up with a known drug user; or the repressive social policies of many Southern (and not a few Northern) states, all lend credence to the genocide charge.”


Rev. Johnny Hunter

Rev. Johnny Hunter, founder of the Black pro-life organization LEARN, once preached a sermon describing abortion as “reproductive racism” in which “our smallest brothers and sisters are being lynched in the womb” and calling out racial dog-whistle claims “that the high rate of abortion keeps the rate of crime down” by those who “know that a vast majority of American abortion clinics are in Black neighborhoods.”


Rev. Jesse Jackson

Rev. Jesse Jackson was once an outspoken opponent of both abortion and racism, before changing his position on abortion to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984. Two months after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the U.S., Jackson bluntly told Jet magazine, “Abortion is genocide.” Jackson later wrote an extensive article explaining why he continued to oppose abortion, in which he drew parallels between the dehumanization needed to justify abortion and that of racism and war:


If something can be dehumanized through the rhetoric used to describe it, then the major battle has been won. So when American soldiers can drop bombs on Vietnam and melt the faces and hands of children into a hunk of rolling protoplasm and in their minds say they have not maimed or killed a fellow human being something terribly wrong and sick has gone on in that mind. That is why the Constitution called us three-fifths human and then whites further dehumanized us by calling us ‘n-----s.’ It was part of the dehumanizing process. The first step was to distort the image of us as human beings in order to justify that which they wanted to do and not even feel like they had done anything wrong. Those advocates of taking life prior to birth do not call it killing or murder; they call it abortion. They further never talk about aborting a baby because that would imply something human. Rather they talk about aborting the fetus. Fetus sounds less than human and therefore can be justified.

To the argument for personal privacy regarding abortion, Jackson responded that the same logic had been used in defense of slaveholders: “You could not protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation because that was private and therefore outside of your right to [be] concerned.”


In this Black History Month and all the months and years that follow, let’s join these leaders in affirming that Black lives do matter and deserve to be free from violence, both before birth and long after.


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