Following the shooting deaths of two black men -- Alton Sterling and Philando Castile -- and the targeting of police officers in several U.S. cities, anti-choice groups have attempted to hijack the vocabulary of Black Lives Matter to attack access to reproductive care.
Since the movement’s inception, the phrase “black lives matter” has been a grass-roots response to issues of race, policing, and structural violence against non-white bodies. In reaction, anti-choice groups have attempted to co-opt Black Lives Matter activists’ rhetoric by promoting their own phrase, #UnbornLivesMatter, to spread misinformation about abortion and its accessibility for women of color.
Salon’s Amanda Marcotte described the discrepancies between those on social media “talking about the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile” and those tweeting with the hashtag #UnbornLivesMatter, many of which “focused on shaming liberals for believing there are more important things to worry about than women terminating unwanted pregnancies.” Marcotte traced the development of #UnbornLivesMatter and concluded that “while the hashtag surge was organized by a bunch of right wing fringe sorts, the grim fact of the matter is that this undermining, race-baiting language has trickled up to the more mainstream anti-choice movement.”
Indeed, even before #UnbornLivesMatter’s recent prominence, anti-choice groups have long alleged that higher abortion rates among black women reflect an attempt by Planned Parenthood to explicitly target black communities.
Clinic escort Pearl Brady told Vox that protesters “often target young women of color,” and patient advocate Amanda Patton said they shout things like: “‘Black babies’ lives matter!’” In a longer essay, clinic escort Lauren Rankin described the moment when two regular clinic protestors began using the language of Black Lives Matter to harass patients:
But about a month ago, something changed. Two of our regular protesters—both men, neither of whom are Black—turned up at the clinic, megaphone, Bible, and camera in tow. Nothing unusual about that. But from the back of their crossover vehicle, they pulled out two new signs, both featuring a Black infant. The signs read:
“Black life matters.”
“Hands Up, Don’t Abort!”
I felt paralyzed for a moment, genuinely stunned. My mind raced. Did they really just go there?
These two men have spent the better part of the last two years of their lives screaming at women who enter an abortion clinic. They and their hate-group (and I use that phrase deliberately) have filmed patients and companions as they enter the clinic, without their consent, and plastered those videos across the internet. These men associate with known anti-abortion terrorists, who have threatened violence against abortion providers.
And yet, they feel perfectly comfortable appropriating a grassroots, progressive movement for racial justice in order to further shame Black patients and their partners. These men parade these signs specifically to target and harm Black women who have abortions. These men are accusing Black women who have abortions of perpetrating racial genocide, of inflicting systemic violence against their own children.
These men are despicable, and they’re not alone.
Right-wing media figures have amplified and repeated claims of a racist rationale behind the provision of access to abortion care. For example, frequent Fox News commentator and former GOP presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson told ABC’s Martha Raddatz that Planned Parenthood engages in racist population control by placing “most of their clinics in black neighborhoods.” Beyond this, Carson has also criticized Black Lives Matter for supposedly excluding the black lives “eradicated by abortion.”
Rush Limbaugh has made similar arguments on numerous occasions, alleging that “Planned Parenthood [is] doing the job the [Klu Klux] Klan could never finish” and that supporters of the reproductive health organization endorse the abortion of “60 percent of black babies.” Limbaugh has even stated that “the original goal of Planned Parenthood was to abort various minorities out of existence.”
Right-wing media have also frequently attacked the Black Lives Matter movement itself. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly has labeled Black Lives Matter “a hate group” that wants police officers dead. Similarly, Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera referred to Black Lives Matter activists as “a bunch of troublemakers” who were “attracting a lot of attention to themselves.”
According to a March 2016 fact sheet from the Guttmacher Institute, women of color do experience higher rates of unintended pregnancy and more frequently elect to abort. Think Progress’ Kira Lerner explained that these numbers actually reflect “the difficulties that many women in minority communities face in accessing high-quality contraceptive services and in using their chosen method of birth control consistently and effectively. A similar racial disparity exists for other health measures including rates of diabetes, breast and cervical cancer and sexually transmitted infections.”
Women of color are particularly vulnerable to the loss of a provider safety net when Planned Parenthood clinics are forced out of communities. According to Planned Parenthood’s associate director of global communications, Lori Adelman, “Planned Parenthood is often the primary health care provider for Latinos and African Americans in this country.”
Black women are among the most adversely affected when access to Planned Parenthood and similar reproductive health care providers is denied. The National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda reported that “black women have more than double the unintended pregnancy rate of white women,” which is particularly concerning given “the risk of death from pregnancy complications was nearly three and a half times higher for Black women than for white women.”
Renee Bracey Sherman wrote after the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby -- which enabled certain classes of employers to deny contraception benefits to their employees -- that because of these higher rates of unintended pregnancy and maternal mortality, “when employers deny access to birth control, they are actually putting Black women’s lives in danger.”
In June 2016, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt that Texas’ anti-choice law HB 2 was an “undue burden on abortion access.” In an amicus brief filed during the case, advocates outlined the disparate impact of anti-choice restrictions on women of color. They explained that “African-American women have been denied access to necessary reproductive healthcare services disproportionately” and this has impacted them “in numerous, measurable, and profound ways.”
Despite this disparity, anti-choice legislators have frequently invoked the language of racial equality to push their own agendas.
For example, in a speech demanding greater abortion restrictions, Rep. Sean Duffy (R-KS) attacked members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) for condoning higher rates of abortion in black communities. He said: “There is no one more hopeless and voiceless than an unborn baby, but [the CBC’s] silence is deafening. I can’t hear them. Where are they standing up for their communities, advocating and fighting for their right to life?”
In Missouri, Rep. Mike Moon (R-MO) stole language from Black Lives Matter to promote his All Lives Matter Act -- a fetal personhood law which would enforce the scientifically unfounded belief that life begins at conception. Meanwhile, women have already been prosecuted for having miscarriages and stillborn births and for making attempts to self-abort, using laws that make actions taken by a pregnant person on her own body a criminal offense. For women of color, however, such laws also perpetuate harmful racial stereotypes.
As Christine Assefa wrote for Feminist Wire, Moon’s bill “suggests that the state of Missouri codify into law the assertion that Black women are killing their own children, are incapable of making decisions about their own bodies, and cannot control their sexual desires.” She continued that these codifications “perpetuate historical, violent, and harmful stereotypes of Black women that reveal the deeply-rooted relationship between race and sexual politics."
Beyond criticizing Moon’s bill, other reproductive justice advocates echoed these concerns about the hijacking of Black Lives Matter rhetoric to attack access to reproductive care.
Planned Parenthood's director of constituency communications, Alencia Johnson, told Salon, “To appropriate the Black Lives Matter movement in the midst of the brutal tragedies too many in the black community face from state violence is repulsive.”
Pamela Merritt, a co-director of the direct advocacy group Repoaction, argued that efforts by anti-choice groups to “to appropriate the language of Black Lives Matter are just the latest example of that movement's long history of pandering to their conservative and often racist base by insulting Black women and dismissing Black activism.” She concluded that this was particularly reprehensible when the “same movement is silent when Black children are shot and Black women are raped by police officers.”
In a July 12 article Think Progress’ Laurel Raymond summarized the concerns of reproductive justice advocates about the rising popularity of phrases like “unborn lives matter”:
“Black lives matter” provides a resounding answer to an unheard question: In the face of disproportionate policing and black deaths that are often unpunished and ignored, do black lives matter? Yes, they do. When other groups co-opt the phrase, they shift the focus away from this aspect of criminal justice -- and thus deemphasize the bigger problem at hand.
“Unborn lives matter” goes one step further: not only does it derail that focus, but it also puts the primary blame on black women for choosing to have abortions. Anti-abortion rhetoric focused on black women argues for them to have that control over their bodies taken away from them -- even as black women take to the streets to protest for control of their bodies from the police.