The Supreme Court's recent ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization and the efforts of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to ban most abortions after 15 weeks nationwide materialized the worst fears of Black reproductive rights activists and maternal health activists. They have long warned that if and when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, it would have an injurious and disproportionate impact on Black women and other Black people who are able to get pregnant, particularly those living in the rural South.
But despite Black reproductive activists' urgent efforts to draw attention to how these laws will disproportionately impact Black communities, Black women note that they often feel invisible in the current public debate over abortion in mainstream media outlets. Black women have long connected civil rights on the basis of race to reproductive rights, foregrounding legal abortion as a major front in the struggle against racism and sexism. Historically, the Black press was a space for Black women to make those arguments about bodily autonomy. While access to this platform did not translate into the Black press's wholesale support for reproductive rights, it did illustrate the political and social stakes of the debate.
Known for its campaigns to end anti-Black racism and discrimination, the "fighting press," as it was called, was much more circumspect in their position on abortion in the years that preceded the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973. Structural racism was so prevalent in the lives of Black people in the 1970s that they often viewed the issue of abortion and birth control through the lens of white supremacy. Rumors circulated within and among African American communities claiming that the U.S. government sought to restrict Black population growth by limiting Black reproduction and controlling Black women's fertility.
These beliefs were rooted in history. White enslavers' brutal practices forced Black women to conceive and give birth to increase their enslaved population. Scientific racism and forced sterilization in the early 20th century also demonstrated to significant numbers of Black people that they could trust neither the medical system nor the government with their reproductive decisions. As a result, suspicions of Black genocide and eugenics occupied the same space with discussions about abortion and reproductive rights.
The Doe v. Scott case in 1971 demonstrated how fearful some Black communities were about Black women becoming the target of government-subsidized abortions. In this case, the Illinois State Supreme Court legalized abortion in Illinois. Shortly after the decision, the Chicago Daily Defender polled its readers, asking: "Do you believe that welfare funds used for abortion on black women is genocide?" A reported 63.7% of the respondents said yes, exposing a deep concern by Black people about the relationship between abortion and genocide.
And yet, Black feminists viewed the issue differently and pushed for the Black press to also include their perspectives about the importance of abortion access. For example, the Michigan Chronicle devoted a full page to the views of Black women in Detroit, ages 16 to 35, on local abortion legislation the year before Roe v. Wade. Women's page editor Marie Teasley reported, "I found their concerns ranged from guilt aspects of Black liberation to moral and religious convictions, to possible genocidal practices to the woman's right to personal choice."
Black women journalists used their papers as platforms to respond to allegations that abortion was genocide. Romanie Branham, Hampton college student and part-time summer employee of the Philadelphia Tribune, the longest running Black newspaper in the United States, noted in 1971 that while she feared that abortion might be used to reduce the Black population, Black women had too much to lose in being forced to give birth. "Black women are just at the point now in history where they are able to get decent jobs and even go into well-paying careers." The radical possibility of reproductive rights mitigated the fears of many young Black women like Branham; legal abortion was a chance for them to control their fertility in a world with new opportunities beyond motherhood.
Black reporters also provided evidence to help readers understand the root of the issue. In 1977, Mattie Trent, a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, pointed out that the Hyde Amendment barred the use of federal Medicaid to fund abortions, which, she argued, undermined "the theory of abortion as a means of Black Indian genocide." The protests of lower-income Black women and their advocates over the disproportionate impact that the legislation would have on Black women's access to abortion, reported Trent, further belied the idea that Black women were targets of reproductive rights groups and the government.
Claudine B. Harper, writing in 1974 for San Francisco's Sun Reporter, challenged the notion among some Black people that Planned Parenthood was "a kind of genocide." While Harper acknowledged her own concerns that communities of color were targets of nefarious campaigns for legal abortion and accessible birth control, she nevertheless emphasized access to birth control as key to Black progress and a way to "ensure a strong nation of Blacks." Rather than viewing birth control as an existential threat to Black life, Harper's comments redefined it as fundamental to Black nationalism.
Black women writing in the Black press also charged that abortion bans were a tool of capitalism and patriarchy. Pamela Haynes, in her Pittsburgh Courier column, "Right On," was unapologetic in 1972 in her criticism of Black men who supported anti-abortion legislation. Highlighting the connection between gender and race, Haynes blasted Black men who were anti-abortion, stating, "These brothers, machismo tripping to theirs, scream that Black woman, already burdened by racism and sexism, should further give up their humanity to become baby making machines for women who economically may not be able to support them." For Haynes, racial solidarity demanded a consideration of women's reproductive rights.
Black women journalists' outlook on abortion, particularly those that rejected it as a plot to destroy Black families, were not without criticism. But women like Elizabeth Hood stood steadfast in their view that abortion rights allowed Black people to have equal opportunities "to develop and live as free, creative people." For Hood and other Black women writing in support of abortion in the Black press, freedom was not only about the elimination of white supremacy, but was equally about self-determination and the right of people to make choices about reproduction.
The Black press in the era of Roe v. Wade created a forum for a rich diversity of Black women's voices on abortion, often overlooked in white news outlets, and demonstrated the significance of their perspectives for the larger battle for reproductive rights in the United States in the late 20th century. As people across the country engage in a new fight for universal access to abortion, Black women's ability to capture the necessary nuance of gender, class and race offers a model in the discussions and struggles to come. Their perspective is unique and essential to discussions. Black people already encounter structural racism in health care that is, partially, responsible for high rates of pregnancy-related death, preterm births and other maternal health complications. Restrictions on abortion will have deadly consequences for them, and that is an important element in the debate ongoing throughout the country.
Kim Gallon is associate professor of Africana Studies at Brown University and director of the Black Press Research Collective. She is the author of "Pleasure in the News: African American Readership and Sexuality in the Black Press."