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Film still from Silent Choices (Photo by: Melissa Cliver)

The Hush on Abortion

What the silence surrounding black abortion rates says about race relations in America.

BY Shell Fischer

Black women frequently feel a tension between asking for government support for access to family planning and opposing efforts by policymakers to use birth control to limit family size.

Several years ago, during their “annual argument about abortion,” documentary filmmaker Faith Pennick’s pro-life friend asserted that as African Americans, they shouldn’t be arguing in the first place, since abortion is a “white woman’s issue” and black women have more important things to worry about.

Shocked by this statement, Pennick started doing extensive research to dispute her friend’s assertion, and the result was Silent Choices, an award-winning documentary that explores black women’s experiences with abortion–a topic Pennick and other black reproductive rights activists say is blanketed in silence.

“White women not only allow themselves to talk about this issue, but willingly own it and take it on as the bellwether of politics, of why they vote,” Pennick says. “But as black women, we feel if we acknowledge we have abortions, or even considered having an abortion, we’re going to be looked down upon not only as women, but as a race.”

This silence is significant, Pennick says, when one considers a recent study by the Guttmacher Institute that shows black women obtain abortions at rates three to five times higher than white women.

Through her research, she discovered not only a pervasive hush on black abortions in the public sphere, but, perhaps more surprisingly, within black families and their communities.

This silence, Pennick says, cuts across all class lines. “In my experience, both in researching and making Silent Choices as well as in my personal circles” she says, “middle-class, college-educated black women are just as uncomfortable talking about abortion or acknowledging that they had abortions as poor working-class black women.”

Pennick says the reasons for this self-censorship are complicated, and are rooted in the history, mythology and stereotypes that surround African-American women and their reproductive rights, as well as a deeply religious culture.

According to a 2009 report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, nearly eight in 10 African Americans claim that religion is very important in their lives, compared with just over half of all U.S. adults. And while black churches have historically served as beacons of political activism in this country, most of them have remained mute on the issue of abortion. “Black churches are very left as far as their political views on certain issues,” Pennick notes, “but when it comes to something like abortion, there’s this weird sort of break, like a split personality.”

One of the most pervasive stereotypes attached to this issue, Pennick says, is the image of the black woman as sexually promiscuous. “If we talk about abortion,” says Pennick, “it might make people think we’re freaks who just love sex. Not that there’s anything wrong with loving sex, but we’re giving the racists ammunition to say, ‘See, look at those sluts.’ “

To illustrate how this stereotype continues to thrive in contemporary society, Pennick points to the discovery in 2008 that Bristol Palin–the 17-year-old, unwed daughter of the GOP’s vice-presidential candidate–was pregnant. “Somehow, for conservative whites, it reinforced their traditional family values because she kept the baby and got engaged,” Pennick says. “But if that had been Sasha or Malia Obama, if they had been 16 or 17 and had gotten pregnant, oh my, every conservative in this country would have been saying, ‘[The Obamas] have no family values, they’re horrible parents.’ “

Dorothy Roberts, a law professor at Northwestern University and author of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, traces the promiscuity stereotype directly to the original defenses of slavery that “painted Africans more like animals than human beings, people who were sexually licentious and didn’t have the intellect to control their bodily drive.”

Historically, black women’s childbearing has been portrayed as irresponsible and in need of government regulation, Roberts says. Practices reflecting these stereotypes have included such things as family caps for welfare recipients, forced sterilization, and the distribution of risky birth-control medicines such as Norplant and Depo-Provera to poor black women. “It’s no wonder black people would think there’s an effort to stop us from having children, and that affects how we think about abortion,” Roberts says.

Another reason for the silence may be a lingering belief that grew out of the 1960s black nationalist movements: that abortion and birth control are tools of whites in power to limit the black population. “Even if people aren’t nationalistic,” says Roberts, “there’s a sense that childbearing is a positive thing that contributes to your whole community, and therefore having an abortion violates that.”

Because of this complicated history, Roberts says, black women frequently feel a tension between asking for government support for access to family planning and opposing efforts by policymakers and others to use birth control to limit their fertility. It has also created schisms between black and white reproductive rights activists.

One example, Roberts says, is the battle in the late 1970s over sterilization. “[Prior to regulations] there were cases where doctors would refuse to sterilize white women even if they begged for it, because in the doctor’s view, why would a young white woman not want to have children? Whereas they were sterilizing black women without their consent and sometimes even knowledge,” she says.

In 1978, federal rules put into place to restrict sterilizations included a 30-day waiting period and guaranteed consent. To many white women, these regulations interfered with their constitutional rights, yet women of color wanted assurance they wouldn’t be sterilized without permission.

In recent years, Robers says, anti-abortion groups have been attempting to label abortion as “black genocide.” In 2008, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) proposed the Susan B. Anthony Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, which would “prohibit discrimination against the unborn on the basis of sex or race.” His proposal died in part because women of color organized to opose it.

Byllye Avery, founder of the Avery Institute for Social Change and the National Black Women’s Health Imperative, says that while it’s true the black community has remained largely hushed on the issue of abortion, leading black women’s reproductive rights activists have been speaking loudly about it for years. The problem, she maintains, is that women’s rights organizations–run largely by white women–have not been receptive to their ideas.

“One of the many fights we had with them … is when we said, ‘Expand your agenda to include all reproductive rights issues. Don’t just talk about abortion. What about infant mortality rates, or access to birth control, or sterilization abuse?’ When people hear these things linked together, they have a harder time isolating you as just being pro-choice,” Avery says. “But that’s not something they wanted to do.”

In 1974, Avery cofounded the Gainesville (Fla.) Women’s Health Center, a women’s gynecological center that was also a first-trimester abortion clinic. “It was very important to me for people to understand that abortion doesn’t exist in isolation, that it’s included in the whole reproductive spectrum,” Avery says. “So when people saw [birthing and abortion centers] hooked together, it made it much more acceptable and they were better able to understand.”

Lori Hylton, a married mother in New York who speaks in Silent Choices of having two abortions after becoming pregnant with the same man while on birth control in college, says she too was acutely aware of cultural pressures to keep her experiences secret. “A lot of it stems from this idea of, ‘Why would you put your business in the street so white America can judge you? Don’t they spend enough time judging us as it is?’, ” says Hylton.

Even so, Hylton believes it’s important that she continue to share her story. “Having a choice is something people take for granted in this country, and we need to be able to stand up for it. It doesn’t mean anyone’s pushing anyone to get an abortion,” she says. “f I keep my secrets, then no one can learn from my experience.”

Shell Fischer is a journalist based in Brooklyn. The initial chapter of her first novel, The Joy of Mom, about the Sexual Revolution as seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl, won the 2009 Bronx Center for the Arts Chapter One Award.

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