In the age of progressive social media, “social justice” feels a bit like a buzzword: inoffensive and important-sounding enough to compensate for a lack of specific meaning. Still, I think, the lukewarm phrase has its heart in the right place. With conceptual roots in early Christian theology, it has since become a catch-all term for any number of efforts to end oppression in the pursuit of social equality. Given these egalitarian underpinnings, I’d always associated social justice movements with the Left. So when conservative student group Princeton Pro-Life sent out an email advertising a public talk on “The Social Injustice of Abortion,” I was surprised. As a young woman invested in my own and other women’s access to reproductive healthcare, I puzzled over how a movement that aimed to foreclose opportunities to women in need could claim to be more socially just than one that sought to open them.
I wasn’t the only skeptic in attendance. As I surveyed the auditorium, I noticed a clean break between the respectfully dressed male and female students at the front of the room and the handful of women, like me, perched smugly in the back row. While the former group chatted amongst themselves, we waited impatiently, trading wide-eyed glances and anxious chuckles from behind open laptops. I felt uncomfortably aware of being a stranger in a space not meant for me, and the amount of thigh revealed by my cut-off shorts.
I had my stereotypes of Pro-Life evangelizers: beer-bellied white men in cowboy boots who toted rifles while proselytizing to their wives and daughters about the sanctity of a few cells. The event’s speaker, Reverend Eugene Rivers, radically defied this cartoon. A Pentecostal minister, Rivers is best known for his work as a youth leader and advocate against gang violence in Boston. In an impassioned thirty-minute lecture, the pastor preached a Pro-Life doctrine from the standpoint of racial equity, excavating Planned Parenthood’s eugenic past and condemning the historically white Pro-Life movement for its lack of interest in the struggles of black Christians. Co-opting the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, Rivers mourned that “black lives matter—unless they’re in the womb,” and appealed to today’s Pro-Lifers to open their arms and “organize around the most vulnerable, victimized children.”
Rivers’ address was clearly aimed at an audience that, like him, believed life began at conception. Littered with Biblical quotes and opportunities to Amen, the polemic did little to sway my own pro-choice views. Yet the gut of his message: that abortion has been, and continues to be, an instrument of racial oppression—nevertheless troubled me. According to Rivers, black women received abortions in the US at a higher rate than any other racial group. Could this really be conceived, as Rivers claimed, as the consequence of some sort of eugenic conspiracy by White Feminists, which my own white, feminist self was blinding me to?
In order to parse history from theology, I enlisted the help of Gender and Sexualities Studies professor Catherine Clune-Taylor—who specializes in bioethics and the philosophy of race in addition to feminist theory—to fact-check some of Rivers’ more contentious claims.
Much of Rivers’ argument revolved around the legacy of Margaret Sanger, an early twentieth century birth control activist who co-founded Planned Parenthood. Rivers portrayed Sanger as a eugenics enthusiast, her nefarious projects funded by white, Southern, segregationist lawmakers who “shared her views that blacks need to be contained and the race needs to be purified.” Here, Rivers wasn’t wrong—or at least, not entirely. Often lauded as a feminist hero, Sanger was indeed an active proponent of eugenics, who celebrated birth control not only as a means for women’s sexual freedom, but also—according to Ebony magazine—“the socially responsible way to stop the ‘unfit’ from reproducing.” Notably, however, Sanger’s definition of “unfit” included poor whites—as well as criminals, prostitutes, and the disabled—along with blacks. And while the clinics she opened in the South were segregated, Ebony asserts, “there is no proof that these clinics, nor today’s clinics, were designed to eliminate the Black population.”
Moreover, Sanger’s eugenic views were not unique. According to Clune-Taylor, eugenic principles were mainstream throughout the Western medical establishment until World War II. “Most major genetics journals were initially eugenics journals,” she noted. “Many early public health organizations were founded as eugenics organizations. So in a way, even if Planned Parenthood does have eugenics origins, frankly, so do most public health institutions. So did most of medicine.” Disavowing Planned Parenthood on the grounds that it has a eugenic history, then, would also mean disavowing medicine as we know it.
More importantly, however, the organization’s problematic roots do not mean it does not, today, benefit the population it once sought to control. “Even if many white women advocated for birth control because they strongly felt it would help eugenic projects—it also doesn’t mean that access to birth control for women of color wasn’t liberating for them,” she said.
For Rivers, however, Planned Parenthood’s eugenic history is not over. Noting that black women have the highest abortion rate of any racial group—accounting for 38% of all abortions nationwide—he protested that this “crime against humanity” had not come up in national dialogue. If the same figures applied to women of any other race, Rivers speculated, “There would be a national emergency, it would be called an unprecedented national crisis, and every possible measure would be taken…if it were white people, we would be using terms like genocidal.”
According to the most recent data from the Center for Disease Control, black women do indeed have a higher abortion rate than women of any other racial demographic, comprising 36.7% (though not 38%) of all abortions in 2012. Non-Hispanic white women had the lowest rate (that is, number of abortions per women) though they accounted for the highest total number of abortions. Yet while these statistics might merit our concern, Clune-Taylor said, to attribute them to a racist “genocide” is both logically unsound and insulting to the women in question.
“We think of genocide as a directed, targeted killing of a group of people on the basis of something—be it race, national identity, whatever,” she said. “If we’re going to make that analogy, then the assumption is that these abortions are forced upon these women, specifically, to eliminate black lives, in particular.”
This assumption is riddled with logical as well as ethical problems. First, Clune-Taylor explained, it rests on the premise that we all agree with Rivers that a fetus is, in fact, a human life—which Sanger certainly did not. But beyond that, it paints black women as dupes of a racist system, rather than acknowledging that access to abortion services may actually improve their quality of life. “The assumption is either women have no agency, or they’re dupes in some way,” she said. “They’re complicit, in what is clearly a racist system, as though they don’t recognize it.”
Before making this kind of claim, Clune-Taylor thinks Pro-Life activists like Rivers should actually reach out and talk to the women in question. In most cases, she suspects, they’d find that these women’s need to access abortion was not the result of a eugenic conspiracy, but rather a symptom of other issues—such as inadequate access to health insurance and “front end” reproductive health care, like birth control—which disproportionately affect black women. Racial disparities in abortion rates, then, may well be a product of systemic racism—and an indicator of social injustice. But the solution is not to limit access to abortion itself. It’s to address the underlying inequalities that burden so many black women with unwanted pregnancies in the first place.
In closing, Rivers summarized his views in a formal statement. Biblical teaching, he began, was eternal. Abortion was “contrary to both biblical principle and natural law.” And his opposition to abortion was “a logical outgrowth of our view that there must be justice for all.” This all seemed well and good for fetuses. But where was justice for their mothers? And, more importantly, where were their voices?