The US Supreme Court & the Colonization of the Black Womb

On May 2, 2022, the news outlet Politico released an exclusive story on the US Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization; in particular, a leaked copy of the draft majority opinion in the case. This draft opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, indicates that a deciding majority may rule in favor of the State of Mississippi (Dobbs), upholding the state’s law restricting abortion access after 15 weeks of pregnancy. This stage of pregnancy is prior to the viability of the fetus, which would be in violation of the standard set by landmark abortion rights cases Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). Upholding the constitutionality of the Mississippi abortion restriction would effectively end the precedent set by Roe and Casey, and as the draft opinion reads, that is the intent.

Like an easter egg for the anti-abortion movement, Justice Alito makes mention of the following in a footnote on page 30 of the draft opinion:

“Other amicus briefs present arguments about the motives of proponents of liberal access to abortion. They note that some such supporters have been motivated by a desire to suppress the size of the African American population […] And it is beyond dispute that Roe has had that demographic effect. A highly disproportionate percentage of aborted fetuses are black […] For our part, we do not question the motives of either those who have supported and those who have opposed laws restricting abortions.”

Alito, Samuel. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, p. 30 (footnote 41)

If the motives of those in favor of legalized abortion access are not being questioned, why mention it as part of the opinion document, except as a nod to an argument made by the anti-abortion movement to discredit today’s pro-choice advocates as racist eugenicists?

As for the “highly disproportionate percentage” of aborted fetuses being Black, it is safe to say that the color of the fetuses is being deduced from the race of the pregnant women and girls who obtain abortions, rather than DNA tests of aborted fetuses. Within the draft opinion, Alito is calling as fact that Black women and girls obtaining abortions at a higher rate than other races – “that demographic effect” of suppressing the size of the Black population – is due to the existence of Roe; in other words, legalized abortion access.

Here, Alito echoes the argument of anti-abortion activists that with the legal status of abortion access, the pro-choice movement is suppressing the Black population. As evidence, anti-abortion advocates will often provide two statements as “evidence” for so-called “Black genocide perpetrated by the pro-choice movement”:

Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist.

There is a tendency on the political right to throw out specific historical facts without contextualizing them.

Eugenics is a theory that posits that humanity could be perfected through genetics and heredity. Eugenicists look to methods of perfecting the human race, such as involuntary sterilization, segregation and social exclusion. It was developed in the late 1800s in Britain by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, and expanded to other countries, so that by the 1920s, it became a global movement.

In the United States, eugenics became popular in the early twentieth century. This movement of “racial improvement” dovetailed with the darkest part of the country’s racial history. The early 1900s was a period that included the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan and a rise in intimidation of Black communities through symbolism, race riots, and terror. Eugenics gained popularity against a backdrop of racial tension and violence, only becoming less palatable after World War II and the exposed horrors of the Nazis.

Like many prominent White Americans at the time, Margaret Sanger, a birth control advocate who would found what would become Planned Parenthood of America, believed in eugenics. Sanger initially focused her birth control efforts in impoverished immigrant and Black neighborhoods, later expanding into middle-class White populations. But she was not unique in her time. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and aviator Charles Lindbergh were also eugenics supporters.

Eugenics theory even made its way into conservative Christianity and its views on the family. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson was a student and mentee of eugenicist Paul Popenoe. Dobson took Popenoe’s regressive views regarding patriarchy, anti-miscegenation, and inner-city Black reproduction, and distilled it into a package cloaked in Christian religion.

This is not to excuse Margaret Sanger for supporting eugenics. However, if this is the standard by which the pro-choice position should be condemned, the anti-abortion side is also open to condemnation by the same standard. In short, the use of Sanger’s beliefs to discredit the pro-choice movement is, at best, a red herring.

Most abortion clinics are located in Black neighborhoods or other neighborhoods of color.

This is objectively false, as six of ten abortion clinics are located in White neighborhoods. But beyond this, most clinics offering abortion services offer other health services as well, including contraception, prevention, diagnosis and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV testing and services, gynecological services and more. Eliminating these clinics doesn’t simply have the effect of reducing abortion access, but also reduce access to other public health services, which is a loss to the communities they serve.

In recent years, the anti-abortion movement has used Black people as pawns in their fight to end legalized abortion access, by claiming that the higher abortion rates among Black women equate to the “genocide of Black babies.” This talking point is discussed and shared ad nauseum as if Black women are incapable of making our own decisions regarding reproduction given the same access to information and options. Yet the movement appears incapable, or perhaps unwilling, to address the challenges faced by Black Americans when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth – challenges that lead some Black women and girls to choose abortion.

Black infant mortality in the US is more than twice as high as White, Asian, and Latino infant mortality, and the highest among all racial and ethnic categories in the US. Maternal mortality – pregnancy or childbirth-related death – is three times higher for Black women than it is for White women.  from pregnancy and childbirth is even higher. The racial disparity in maternal mortality persists even controlling for economics, as the increased risk of death for Black women spans income and education levels.

Challenges continue after birth. Black children constitute nearly 14 percent of the US population, but almost 23 percent of children in foster care.  White families seeking to adopt are less likely to adopt Black babies than White or Latino babies, and there are too few Black prospective adopted families for the number of Black children waiting to be adopted. This leads to Black children taking longer to be adopted, which negatively affects placement rates overall, and a greater rate of Black children aging out of the system without a permanent family placement.

And it’s not because Black families don’t want to adopt. Black families adopt at a greater rate than families of other races, and only increases when controlling for economics, family structure, and parental age. The Black community also has a history of “kinship” care – families taking in the children of family members or friends who have fallen on hard times. But the challenge remains that economic disparities persist based on race, which is a major obstacle to adoption for otherwise desiring Black families.

Unfortunately, most conservative anti-abortion politicians oppose increased funding for foster care and social services, or addressing socioeconomic inequality, which would ease the concerns of Black women and girls facing unwanted pregnancies. Addressing these issues is likely to lead to a natural decline in abortion within the Black community, and ending legalized abortion access while failing to address these issues will undoubtedly lead to Black suffering. But of course, in this case, devotion to ideology trumps the lives of Black fetuses.

Anti-abortion activists who are pushing the “save the Black babies” narrative have no interest in keeping Black women alive while giving birth to the Black babies they claim to care so much about. And they don’t really care all that much about Black babies either. What they seem to desire with their actions is control.

When the veneer of respectability is stripped away, the “save the Black babies” narrative in the anti-abortion movement rests on two insidious implications:

  • Black women and girls cannot be trusted with our own bodily autonomy.
  • Abortion access opponents are better advocates for Black lives than actual Black people.

Justice Alito and the four other US Supreme Court justices who signed off on this draft opinion – how magnanimous of you.