HUNTSVILLE, Ala. ― Last week, the Senate confirmed a judge with a track record of making inflammatory statements to the federal bench. John Bush, newly appointed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, has joked about gagging House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), questioned the existence of climate change, and compared abortion to slavery.
This last stance — that allowing women to control their own bodies is analogous to an economic system that depended on stripping women and men of control of their own bodies — may strike many as an absurd reach that makes Bush an offensive outlier.
In reality, the abortion-is-like-slavery analogy is common among anti-abortion activists.
Outside an abortion clinic in Huntsville, Alabama, last month, protesters held signs reading “Babies are murdered here” and “I stand against Planned Parenthood.” They also held signs featuring a photo of a black toddler they claimed to have helped “save” from an abortion provider by talking the child’s mother out of having an abortion.
Among the protesters at the Huntsville clinic, the abortion-slavery analogy was popular. “It used to be legal for me to own people, but we know that’s wrong now,” one protester told HuffPost. “It’s like slavery but worse,” another said.
“People think it’s okay because it’s legal and because [a fetus] is not a person, but they said that about slaves, too.”
This is a common refrain among abortion opponents. The day before, outside a clinic in Tuscaloosa, another protester made the same argument equating fetuses to slaves. It’s unclear where black women, the ones bearing those fetuses and deciding whether or not to carry them to term, fit into this analogy.
All of the protesters at both clinics were white.
The comparison of abortion to slavery is part of a larger anti-choice project: to convince black communities that legal abortion is a genocidal plot against them, and that true black liberation depends on eliminating abortion rights.
By taking advantage of recent liberal outspokenness about the ills of slavery and persistence of systemic racism and police violence against black people, the anti-choice movement is using a well-worn playbook. Opponents of reproductive justice have previously appropriated rights movements as they became popular and powerful, similarly attempting to frame abortion as violence against women and therefore at odds with feminist goals. In this view, those who seek to deny women abortions are the true feminists.
Bush’s blog post about abortion and slavery was written to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2008; in the post, Bush claims that had King lived until 1973, he would have opposed the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade. “The two greatest tragedies in our country ― slavery and abortion ― relied on similar reasoning and activist justices at the U.S. Supreme Court, first in the Dred Scott decision, and later in Roe,” Bush wrote.
In reality, King was a proponent of family planning. He, too, saw the connection between birth control and slavery: He argued that, being descended from people who were subjected to rape, forced reproduction and destruction of families under slavery, African-Americans were “natural allies of those who seek to inject any form of planning in our society that enriches life and guarantees the right to exist in freedom and dignity.”
To buttress their claims that King would oppose abortion, anti-choicers turn to his niece, Alveda King, a fervent anti-abortion activist who serves as director of civil rights for the unborn at the anti-choice organization Priests for Life. Bush quotes her in his blog post, and the protesters at the Alabama clinics mentioned her often.
At the Tuscaloosa clinic, a devout Catholic protester told HuffPost that abortion providers set up clinics in majority-black neighborhoods as a part of a genocidal effort. She noted that black women are more likely to have abortions than white women are, and claimed that abortion is “in the black culture now. They’re using it as birth control.”
Outside the Huntsville clinic, a protester told HuffPost that black women have been “duped” into thinking that abortion is acceptable. He, too, accused abortion providers of opening clinics in places where black people live to prey on the black population. He acknowledged that black communities in the Huntsville area struggle with joblessness and poverty, but denied that economic constraints are the real reason that black women choose abortions.
The argument that reproductive justice is at odds with racial justice is at the core of the anti-choice push to appropriate the newly energized Movement for Black Lives. In recent years, the anti-abortion movement has targeted black women, arguing that “the most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.”
One billboard, put up in New York City and Atlanta, featured a picture of former President Barack Obama and read, “Every 21 minutes, our next possible leader is aborted.” The Radiance Foundation, an anti-abortion organization that was co-founded by a black man and that targets black communities, claims as one of its “core values” the idea that “Civil Rights matter.”
The appropriation of the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements is widespread and consistent. In a pamphlet distributed to black women by protesters at the Tuscaloosa clinic, Alveda King and others perpetuate the myth that abortion is “genocidal eugenics” and decry “reproductive racism.” King calls on pastors to “set the captives free” and proclaims that “we shall overcome… abortion.” King makes an allusion to the activism of Rosa Parks, arguing that the expansion of abortion rights was a punitive response to civil rights activism: “When we said we would no longer sit on the back of the bus, a place was being reserved for us down at the abortion mill.”
Borrowing from abolitionist language, the literature proclaims that anti-abortion activists must “break the chains of injustice.” Borrowing from Martin Luther King Jr., it calls the effort to roll back abortion rights part of “the fierce urgency of now.” Borrowing from anti-police violence and anti-mass incarceration activists, it claims that the U.S. government is “targeting our children,” with a picture of a black child in gun cross hairs.
Abortion provider Dr. Willie Parker, who is black and performs abortions in the Alabama clinics the protesters were picketing, finds the co-opting of Dr. King and the allusions to slavery deeply objectionable. “The Black genocide movement is a trumped-up play to gain political advantage,” Parker writes in his book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. “Cynically disguised as civil rights, it targets the most vulnerable women and pits their pregnancy against their own self-interest.”
Parker is convinced that the people who advance the “black genocide” argument “do not care about black babies and black women,” arguing that they oppose public housing and state-sponsored child care. “Theirs is a feigned concern,” he writes. “They are using women of color as pawns.”
Renee Bracey Sherman, a black reproductive justice advocate, agrees with Parker’s analysis.
Activism that targets black women, she argues, “means they can say, ‘I’m not racist because I’m trying to save black babies,’ and at the same time deny that black lives matter and doing nothing about the murder of black children that’s actually happening.”
Focusing on preventing black women from having abortions, Bracey Sherman tells HuffPost, “allows anti-choicers to claim that they’re not racist when all the other policies they support are hurting communities of color.”
“They say, ‘Well, I’m saving black babies, so I can’t possibly be racist,’ and in that same breath, they’re denying the humanity of black women,” she added. “They say they care about black babies. At no point do they ever say they care about black women.”
The pamphlet distributed at the Huntsville clinic dismisses concerns about health disparities and homicide rates in black communities and calls abortion “the number one killer in the black community,” claiming that reproductive rights kill more people than HIV/AIDS, homicide, diabetes and heart disease. It calls these abortions “the deaths of black lives.”
Outside the Tuscaloosa clinic, the protesters were adamant that they were on the right side of history. “The KKK would be happy with what’s happening here today,” one protester said. “All these black babies being murdered. Black babies’ lives matter.”