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Sherry F. Colb

Anti-Abortion Billboards Claim "Black Children Are An Endangered Species": A Meaningful Contention?


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Last month, two anti-abortion groups launched a new campaign in which they posted provocative billboards around majority-minority communities within the state of Georgia. The billboards read "Black Children are an Endangered Species" and feature a photograph of an unhappy-looking African-American child. The billboards also direct people to the website

The corresponding website tells visitors that African-American women are disproportionate consumers of abortion services, relative to white women. The site also urges African-American women to be outraged about the racial disparity and to express that outrage by mobilizing against abortion. Included in the message is the accusation that those who originally fought for reproductive rights were eugenicists who wished to reduce the prevalence of African Americans in the population.

The "Endangered Species" billboard provides a useful window into the thinking of (at least part of) the anti-abortion movement with its attempt to use racial themes to energize a racial minority against abortion. This column will consider the manner and legitimacy of what is, fundamentally, an effort to change hearts and minds about reproductive rights.

A Message That Initially Appears Preposterous

At first glance, the message on the billboard appears to make very little sense. First, of course, African-American children are not a distinct "species" at all. They are human beings, distinguished from other human beings only by their race and their age.

Second, the word "endangered" suggests that the group in question might become extinct or cease to exist genetically. Yet the population of African Americans is not shrinking, and there is no evidence to support the proposition that the group is in danger of genetic extinction.

Third, the people who seek to terminate pregnancies in which the fetus is African-American are generally African-American women – an unlikely group to be pursuing a project of racial genocide.

The implicit analogy of the billboard is to the "Endangered Species Act" (ESA), in which distinct species of nonhuman animals whose numbers are dwindling receive temporary protection from hunting and other human predation, so that reproduction can replenish the animals' population. Once the numbers among the particular species begin to rise, protections lift, and hunting and other killing of the animals resumes. The ESA does not protect or even recognize specific animals as individuals (who are in fact "threatened" whenever their individual lives are in danger, just as individual humans are). Instead, it treats individual animals as exemplars of their DNA, threatened or endangered by reference to the existence of others carrying similar genes.

Quite plainly, the ESA does not acknowledge even the most basic inherent value of nonhuman animals. It considers each species to be a human resource to be utilized responsibly to ensure the continuing availability of the resource for human enjoyment. An impoverished world-view regarding the worth and status of nonhuman animals, the ESA hardly provides a helpful model for expressing the value of humans of any race.

The Deeper Content and Context of the Billboard's Message

In sum, the billboard's message seems analytically incoherent.

Appearances can be deceiving, however. The billboard is in reality powerful and emotionally-charged. The African-American community rightly views its members as individually endangered by racism and by the shocking odds that any one child in the community, if he is male, will grow up to spend time incarcerated. The lifetime chances of a black person going to prison are 18.4 percent (as opposed to 3.4 percent for whites), according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Racial disparities in incarceration, and perhaps in abortion as well, understandably trigger anger and discomfort in the African-American community.

As with incarceration among African Americans, moreover, not everyone would conceptualize African-American abortion as a consequence of conduct in which individuals freely choose to engage. Granted, a pure "personal responsibility" approach might attribute the high rates of both incarceration and abortion among African Americans as a reflection of personal choices made by people who are not themselves motivated by race. But there is an alternative way of looking at the numbers.

One could view the high rates of both imprisonment and abortion among African Americans as ultimately arising from things that white people do to black people. Consider first incarceration. Understood as a sociological phenomenon, black crime itself reflects the disproportionate stress and poverty in which African Americans continue to live in our society. Furthermore, incarceration rates result in no small part from discretionary decisions by police and prosecutors about whether and how harshly to pursue different criminal suspects and defendants.

If race plays a role in these decisions, then the resulting disproportion in incarceration rates becomes evidence of racism, rather than of discrete past choices by individuals to commit crimes. Stated differently, a high rate of incarceration may tell us as much, or more, about those in charge of incarcerating as (than) it does about those who reside behind bars.

Similarly, though individual women are the ones who make the decision to visit an abortion provider, they do so in a social context. To the extent that racism creates a universe in which some women lack the resources or the optimism required to bring a new child into the world, it is racism – rather than free choices by individual women – that may best explain the disproportionately high rates of abortion among African Americans. And as with incarceration, it is providers – rather than the individual patients – who actually perform an abortion. Theoretically, if the website's accusations are taken seriously, providers may be targeting African-American women and disproportionately advising them to terminate their pregnancies.

As in the context of incarceration, a decision about how to address a patient seeking an abortion requires the exercise of discretion. One might readily conclude that if a white racist is the one exercising that discretion, then racism will affect the decision itself. The origins of a prominent reproductive rights group as an organization that used to embrace eugenics and racism would only serve to confirm that suspicion.

The charges of racism in abortion may thus resonate with a widely-shared view in the African-American community that the disproportionately-black prison population ultimately represents an indictment of white America. Indeed, the notion that black men comprise an "endangered species" is a familiar one. By subtly connecting the plight of black men destined for incarceration with that of black fetuses destined for abortion, the billboard may thus tap into a deep well of resentment and rage.

Is There Any Clear Solution to the Abortion Disparity?

As described above, the billboards (and the website to which they send their viewers) may inspire legitimate feelings of powerlessness and siege within the black community, despite the surface incoherence of the billboards' claims. If one is looking for solutions, however, it is not clear that opposing abortion does anything to remedy the situation of African-American individuals or of the community as a whole.

In the case of over-incarceration of African Americans, one could take a number of different steps to alleviate the shockingly high rates. One approach would be to decriminalize some of the nonviolent activities that account for a large amount of incarceration across the board (such as for drug offenses). Another would be to reduce the length of sentences so that people caught within the criminal justice system would not be indefinitely lost to their families and communities. A third would be to monitor discretionary decisions by police and prosecutors in an effort to detect and punish racial bias. And a fourth would be to address the underlying concomitants of inner-city crime, including de facto segregation, poverty, and educational inequity, and thereby prevent crime through physical and emotional infrastructure.

But what might one do to address the abortion disparity? The anti-abortion movement seeks to criminalize abortion and to persuade people to work toward criminalization. In the meantime, the movement also tries to discourage individual women from seeking abortions. If the billboard's audiences wish to do something to help the "endangered" black child, however, and accordingly seek to criminalize abortion, this move will not obviously do anything to empower the African-American community.

Criminalizing the termination of pregnancy would not provide a magic solution to the disparities. In the wake of legislation banning abortion, black women seeking abortions would not suddenly want to take their pregnancies to term, nor would they find affordable the prospect of an expanding family. Families that are pessimistic about the lives their potential children would face would not magically become optimistic on this score. Rather, the only thing likely to change with criminalization is that an African-American woman who wanted an abortion would have a more difficult time getting one, and, as a result, might fall prey to the back-alley or might give birth to children she did not want and did not feel equipped to have.

Those who oppose abortion may respond that when women who otherwise would have aborted must carry their pregnancies to term, this results in a benefit to the babies who are born (and would otherwise not have been). If the African-American community remains poor, segregated, and persecuted, however, it is unclear how a larger number of unwanted children would help. Further, if the only "benefit" is to the particular babies who are born as a result of criminalization (assuming that coming into existence is accurately characterized as enjoyment of a "benefit"), then there is no racial uplift. Unlike a reduction in incarceration rates, in other words, the expansion of unchosen reproduction among African Americans would do nothing to mitigate the conditions and inequities of their lives.

The Real Agenda

In the end, it may be no accident that the anti-abortion movement has little concrete to offer African Americans who are suffering the effects of racism. The goal of the movement is to erect obstacles in the paths of women who are pregnant and do not want to remain pregnant. The racial talk of the billboards and the website serves as a rhetorical device for connecting with the suffering of an oppressed minority and then mobilizing that suffering in the service of an unrelated agenda.

In a sense, the billboards and website may be right that the high rate of African-American abortion is a symptom of racism – but not in the way that the anti-abortion movement suggests. White America is not seeking to eliminate black DNA by pressuring African Americans to terminate their pregnancies. Instead, African-American women, faced with the struggles of being both black and female in this country, have fewer options at their disposal than their white counterparts when they experience an unplanned pregnancy. Prohibiting abortion would further reduce the available choices for African-American women and would therefore disproportionately affect a community that is economically less able to navigate around abortion restrictions (by traveling to faraway states or other countries, for example).

If the billboard represents a cynical effort to manipulate the African-American community, then it will likely fail to accomplish its objective. To the billboard reader who asks, "How will opposing abortion help me, my family, or my community?," the answer will prove unsatisfying.

The truth is that those who sincerely oppose the termination of pregnancy at all stages do not believe that white abortions are less objectionable than black abortions. They do not take the view that more evenly distributed rates of abortion would be less disturbing than the current rates. And they do not generally even support the distribution of contraception to poor communities to help reduce the abortion rate without inflicting unwanted pregnancies on women. In sum, the use of race may serve as a distracting pretext for attracting new members to the anti-abortion movement. It does not embody an authentic approach to the issue of racial justice.

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell Law School. Her book, When Sex Counts: Making Babies and Making Law, is available on Amazon.

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