It’s a campaign designed to shock: Dozens of newly installed billboards in Atlanta feature the cherubic face of a black baby and a stark claim: “Black children are an endangered species.”
A joint effort of Georgia Right to Life and the pro-adoption, pro-abstinence Radiance Foundation, the campaign ostensibly calls attention to the fact that black women have a disproportionately high number of abortions. But there is a deeper, more disturbing claim at work as well.
An increasingly vocal segment of the antiabortion community has embraced the idea that black women are targeted for abortion in an effort to keep the black population down.
The billboards direct people to a website called toomanyaborted.com, which claims that “Under the false liberty of ‘reproductive freedom’ we are killing our very future.”
Some black antiabortion activists call the phenomenon “womb lynching.” One prominent black cleric, the Rev. Clenard Childress Jr. of New Jersey, often says the most dangerous place for a black child is the womb.
No one disputes that black women have more abortions, proportionately, than women of other races. Nationally, African Americans make up about 13% of the population and have about 37% of all abortions, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But abortion rights advocates say that is because African American women have a disproportionate number of unplanned pregnancies, an enduring problem with complex socioeconomic roots, including inadequate insurance coverage.
“The notion that abortion providers are targeting certain groups of people is absurd,” said Vanessa Cullins, an African American physician who is vice president for medical affairs at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “It’s using race to undermine decisions that responsible black women are making about whether to terminate a pregnancy or not.”
Radiance Foundation founder Ryan Bomberger, a 38-year-old former ad man, came up with the idea for the billboards. Adopted as a baby, he said he was conceived when his white biological mother was raped by a black man.
“I am definitely not a white Southern bigot,” he said, alluding to an accusation hurled his way since the ads went up. “I am as black as President Obama.”
He has also been accused of shaming black women who seek abortions. Not so, Bomberger said: “It’s about exposing an industry that is stealing potential from our community.”
Many African American women who support abortion rights find that message patronizing and offensive.
“Ryan is a young advertising executive who has stepped into a food fight that he doesn’t quite understand,” said Loretta Ross, 56, national coordinator of SisterSong, an Atlanta-based coalition of 80 women’s groups that work on reproductive health issues for minorities.
“To be honest, black women aren’t fooled by zealots or the church or even the individual men in our lives,” Ross said. “We know that the bottom line is you don’t have much control over your life when you don’t control your body. Should a rapist have the right to choose the mother of his child? That’s what Ryan is saying.”
But many abortion foes focus on the sheer numbers involved.
Catherine Davis, minority outreach director for Georgia Right to Life, visits black college campuses, bringing the message that abortion is a destructive force for blacks. She often screens a movie called “Maafa 21,” made by Texas antiabortion group Life Dynamics, alleging that blacks have been targeted for abortions since the end of slavery by white elites fearful of uncontrolled population growth.
“Let me put it this way,” Davis said, “18,870,000 black babies have been aborted since Roe vs. Wade. If those babies hadn’t been aborted, we would be 59 million strong — over 19% of the population.”
While the abortion rate among black women is higher than average, so is the birth rate. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2006 the black birth rate was 16.5 per 1,000 women of childbearing age compared with 14.2 per 1,000 for all women.
Most black women who have abortions are already mothers or plan to have children later, Cullins said.
The statistics are not persuasive for Alveda King, a niece of Martin Luther King Jr.
“I know for sure that the black community is being targeted by abortionists for the purpose of ethnic cleansing,” said King, a Georgia Right to Life board member who had two abortions before a religious conversion in 1983. “How can the dream survive if we are willing to sacrifice the futures of our children?”
In a scenario popularized by abortion foes, the culprit is Planned Parenthood, whose clinics are often located in poor communities where the need for subsidized healthcare is greatest.
The roots of the antipathy toward Planned Parenthood come not just from its role as the nation’s largest provider of abortions and other reproductive healthcare, but from questionable social policies embraced by its founder, Margaret Sanger, the mother of the American birth control movement.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Sanger was an advocate of eugenics, a movement that posited the human species could be improved with selective breeding and the forced sterilization of the poor and “feeble-minded.” That often was believed to include blacks.
She was not alone, however. In 1927 the Supreme Court upheld forced sterilization. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote about the case’s plaintiff, a young white woman who was later found to be of normal intelligence.
Abortion foes use Sanger’s own words (often out of context, say abortion rights supporters) to prove that Sanger founded an organization rooted in racism.
“It’s a very complicated picture,” said Ross of SisterSong. “There was a eugenics movement, and it did target black people. But when Margaret Sanger first started, it was black women who came to her” for help.
Black leaders of the day — including W.E.B. Du Bois and Adam Clayton Powell — supported Sanger. “All these people wanted her to put clinics in African American communities because we then, as now, see fertility control as part of the racial uplift strategy,” Ross said.
Historian Ellen Chesler, a Planned Parenthood board member and Sanger biographer, said that Sanger’s eugenics views were applicable to sterilization, not abortion, which she generally opposed.
In 1920, Sanger wrote, “While there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion is justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization.”
“To say she is racist is counterfactual, it’s inventing history,” said Chesler, a professor at Hunter College.
Also, Chesler noted, eugenics is still with us: “Its most enduring legacy is IQ testing,” she said. “Every woman who has amniocentesis is a eugenicist.”
In Atlanta, the billboards are to remain up through March. “We are really drawing people into the history of abortion and the birth control movement,” Bomberger said. “My hope is that people begin to wake up.”