I didn’t believe it until I saw it. I’d heard people talking about things like it before, but didn’t think they actually existed in Connecticut. I was wrong. The billboard was prominently placed in a busy intersection in Hartford’s North End. My eyes were drawn to it because of the chubby, undeniably cute Black toddler that graced its center. But this wasn’t an advertisement for diapers or baby formula. The large yellow and white words were impossible to miss: “Black Children are an Endangered Species”.
It was no mistake that I came across this particular billboard. The North End is a predominately Black community, where thousands of people would see the sign every day. The words are meant to shock, evoke fear, and incite anger. I’ve encountered something similar before. Black anti-choice advocates insist that abortion is “Black genocide”, and Black women who choose abortion are aiding the “destruction of the race”. Phrases like these are chosen intentionally. They prey on a mistrust of the US healthcare system, and rely on our knowledge of our role in medical history. I, like many others, was exposed to the stories of Henrietta Lacks, James Marion Sims, and the Tuskegee experiments (among many others). Three instances in which White “scientists” and “doctors” profited off of the grossly unethical treatment of Black bodies. While a very real aspect of our history, these narratives should not be used to shame Black women for choosing abortion.
As a clinic escort and a social justice advocate I challenge myself and others to acknowledge barriers that impede access to affordable, comprehensive reproductive healthcare. In this instance it means recognizing that Black women’s experiences with racism, sexism, poverty, and restrictive cultural norms, make our fight unique. These barriers limit our access to reproductive health care, which in turn helps proliferate myths about us. As an advocate I work to dispel these myths within my community. Two of these myths in particular encompass a variety of social issues.
“Abortion is a ploy to eradicate the Black race”
This myth stems from the deliberate misinterpretation of Black abortion and health care rates. In the US Black women are more likely than any other group to obtain an abortion. However, highlighting this statistic, while disregarding the disparities that encourage it, is problematic. Black women’s abortion rates are a direct reflection of our rates of unintended pregnancy. One is at risk of unintended pregnancy if they are sexually active, of childbearing age, and do not want to become pregnant. Within this group, Black women are also more likely to practice improper birth control use. In other words, Black women’s abortion rates are high because we lack reliable and accessible contraception, and the education on how to use it properly. In order to combat this issue, we must focus on making birth control, and reproductive health education, accessible at all income levels.
“Black girls are just fast”
From an early age, many Black girls are taught to never be “fast”. “Fast” girls are promiscuous, dress provocatively, and look and act older than they are. The phrase is also used to shame Black girls who use contraception or choose to have an abortion. Being fast is never a good thing—it describes Black girls who stray too far from cultural norms of respectability. This mantra makes engaging in conversations about healthy sexuality, and proper contraceptive use nearly impossible. Without this information, Black girls cannot make informed decisions about their reproductive health care. This of course leads to higher instances of unintended pregnancies and other health issues. We must interrogate our cultural norms. This means actively working to eradicate the stigma of abortion, contraceptive use, and healthy sexuality. It also means normalizing discussions about reproductive health and sex from a young age. Without knowledge there is no power.
The fight for reproductive rights is a complex issue. It’s about much more than a simple choice. The US healthcare system is inherently inequitable, and is designed to neglect the most marginalized. Black women and girls deserve access to a medical system that values our lives. We not only have higher rates of unintended pregnancies, but also STDs/STIs, maternal death, sexual violence, and are more likely to be murdered by our partners. Existing in a world that constantly diminishes our humanity can be exhausting. But that does not mean we are hopeless.
As Black women we can demand equitable reproductive treatment and education, and feel empowered to seek alternative methods when necessary. Allies— include Black women in your advocacy work, and recognize when you need to step back and amplify their voices. We can create policies and communities that ensure marginalized groups have access to comprehensive reproductive care. We can educate our communities about their reproductive rights in the ways most accessible to them. We can rally together to oppose the crisis pregnancy centers and anti-choice protesters that target our communities and local clinics. We can build safe, supportive, and healthy spaces for each other.
Support pro-choice legislation. Volunteer at your local clinic. Value the voices of people different to you. Engage your family and friends in uncomfortable conversations. Most importantly, trust Black women.