How Medical Racism Created A Black Anti-Abortion Movement

Two years ago, filmmaker Yoruba Richen was shooting footage of an anti-abortion protest in Indiana when she saw signs that would later inspire a full-blown documentary. 

“Abortion is killing black people,” one sign read. 

Another declared in big, bold letters that “Margaret Sanger was racist.” 

After doing some research, Richen found there was an entire network of black activists leading an anti-abortion uprising across the U.S. Their main message was bold and terrifying to her: “The most dangerous place for an African-American child is in the womb.”

Richen, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, screenwriter and producer, recently delved into this topic in her short documentary “Anti-Abortion Crusaders: Inside The African-American Abortion Battle,” created in partnership with PBS Frontline and The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. 

The documentary, which was released in December, focuses on the anti-abortion argument that black women are coerced into getting abortions at higher rates than white women. This, in turn, the argument goes, continues the United States’ long history of medical racism by using abortion as a means to black genocide. 

Medical racism is a huge issue and it’s something that we haven’t really reckoned with in this country.Yoruba Richen

“Genocide is a very potent argument in our community because of the history of racism. That’s why this message is able to catch on,” Richen, a black woman herself, told HuffPost in a recent interview. “Medical racism is a huge issue and it’s something that we haven’t really reckoned with in this country.”

Richen spoke to people on both sides of the aisle ― from anti-abortion preachers to pro-choice Planned Parenthood physicians ― to find the disconnect in the argument. 

The messaging, she found, stems from an often-cited and controversial statistic that black women in the U.S. account for 28 percent of reported abortions each year, while making up only 13 percent of the female population. 

“What I think both pro-lifers and reproductive-righters can agree on is that black women have a larger number of abortions than you would expect when thinking about their share of the population,” reproductive rights historian Cynthia Greenlee notes in Richen’s documentary. “Where we differ is the interpretation.”

In addition to this statistic, much of the language used in discussions about racism and anti-abortion ideology originates from the mother of birth control: Margaret Sanger. Sanger created the first birth control clinic in the early 1900s and founded a women’s health organization that would later be known as Planned Parenthood.

For all of her accomplishments, however, Sanger is a problematic historical figure: She was a vocal supporter of eugenics, which is the practice of selective breeding. 

HuffPost sat down with Richen to discuss her documentary and how medical racism and misogyny intersect to create the argument that abortion is black genocide. 

Can you talk to me more about the different ways this 28 percent statistic is interpreted and how it leads to such a polarizing argument? 

Black women are having higher numbers of abortions than their population. Just as similarly, and not to compare it, but there are higher numbers of African Americans in lots of things that you can point to such as incarceration rates. 

The real question that reproductive rights people want to look at is why that’s the case. What is it that is causing those numbers? And it’s everything from lack of sex education, health care access and many, many other causes people have looked into and written about. You can definitely use that statistic in many ways. But as Dr. Raegan [a Planned Parenthood physician interviewed in the documentary] says in the piece, “Let’s not focus on statistics. That’s not the focus. Let’s focus on women getting access to care.” 

What was it like talking to these people on both sides of the argument, and how do you think racism and misogyny play into this debate?

I don’t doubt their sincerity in terms of the fact that they believe what they’re doing is the right thing and it’s the right thing for black people. There is a religion that plays into it, and that religion is patriarchal. 

A lot of protesters will go up to black women and say, “You’re killing your community. You’re killing your people.” That is what happens at a lot of the anti-abortion protests. Who wants to hear that they’re responsible for the genocide of their community? You can imagine when getting an abortion a woman is making a decision ― whether it’s a tough decision or a liberating decision ― it’s still a deep decision. You may feel shameful. You may not have support from your family. Then add this other cultural argument where people say, “Look what you’re doing to your community.” We as black women have held up our communities for so long, we bear a lot of that responsibility. It compounds this personal decision that may already be difficult with the larger conversation of racism in America.  

A lot of protesters will go up to black women and say, ‘You’re killing your community. You’re killing your people.’

Do you believe this anti-abortion rhetoric, specifically in the black community, poses a threat to Planned Parenthood?

Yes, I do. Planned Parenthood hasn’t historically dealt well with this issue well because Margaret Sanger does have a somewhat checkered history in terms of race. But I think one of the most potent arguments that I heard was that she was a woman of her time. Most white people in the 1920s, like most white people of her time, were actively racist. She definitely had some views and opinions that we would look at today as problematic, but she also did a lot of work around birth control in the South, in black communities and worked with black leaders on this issue. Only recently has Planned Parenthood looked at this complexity as opposed to just kind of ignoring it. Planned Parenthood does come under a lot of threat, as we know. This argument has become a lightning rod and this is just another avenue to attack it, and I think it is effective. 

What was your takeaway ― as a black female filmmaker ― about this anti-abortion movement that’s embedded itself into small pockets of the black community? 

This is a movement that is being ignored at our peril. It hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, but I think it actually is potent and effective and it seems to be making inroads within the mainstream abortion movement. Abortion rights are already under attack and this is simply another way to further that cause. [Rapper] Nick Cannon came out recently and said something like “Planned Parenthood is killing black people.” I mean, you have people who believe this stuff, so it’s effective. It’s a movement that should be watched and noted.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Watch “Anti-Abortion Crusaders: Inside The African-American Abortion Battle” in full below.  

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