Editorial on Race and Reproductive Health by Carole Joffe and Willie Parker

By Rachel Walden — July 13, 2012

An important and nuanced editorial on U.S. reproductive politics takes issue with “the cynical manipulation of racial themes” by activists who distort the history of reproductive politics to bolster support for restricting access to abortion and birth control.

Writing in the July issue of the journal “Contraception,” Willie J. Parker, a physician who serves on the board of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, and Carole Joffe, a sociologist and professor at UCSF Bixby Center’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, briefly describe the “mixed legacy” of the United States around reproduction and race, including the history of sterilization abuses, racist concerns about being out-populated by minorities, and the testing of contraceptives on women in developing nations that existed alongside the movement for reproductive freedom:

Starting in the early 20th century, doctors and nurses, along with lay allies, fought for the legalization of first, birth control, and, later, abortion, seeing the particular damage done to the most vulnerable women in the absence of such services. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminist health activists raised an outcry about the sterilization abuses mentioned above; indeed, among the most prominent of the reproductive rights organizations to emerge from the “second wave” feminism of that era was CARASA, the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, providing a template for the principle that abortion rights should ideally be considered in a broader context that includes the right to have children. That generation of feminist activists also severely criticized the then-common practice of testing new contraceptive methods on Third World women. Today, there are numerous reproductive rights/reproductive justice groups hard at work in the United States, a number of them specifically concerned with the situation of women of color.

The authors move on to discussing how opponents to abortion access have distorted and manipulated the record of Margaret Sanger, the founder of the organization that eventually became Planned Parenthood, and the current campaigns against Planned Parenthood and abortion that specifically target African-American women (see our previous coverage of responses to a billboard campaign in Atlanta that referred to black children as an “endangered species”).

They argue, in part, that the stigma and secrecy around abortion allows race-focused campaigns seeking to restrict reproductive rights to take hold:

The isolation of abortion, in particular, from the rest of health care has contributed to its stigmatization and has helped the development of conspiracy theories, such as we see in the billboard campaign. We decry the inflammatory, false rhetoric of “black genocide” that has been used in this campaign by anti-abortion extremists, and we are hardly the first to point to the hypocrisy of those who oppose contraception and abortion, yet just as fervently oppose any spending for social services

Parker adds that “as a member of the African American community and as a women’s health provider […] this attempt to manipulate my community is made possible by our unresolved issues regarding gender roles and sexuality in a modern context.” He continues:

The failure of our community to promote the agency of our mothers, sisters and partners, and to deal forthrightly with sexual matters, leaves us treating abortion and HIV-related issues as “open secrets.” This evasion results in exorbitant rates for both. To truly confront these issues, our community desperately needs medically accurate sexuality education, improved health literacy and a constructive engagement of religious and spiritual leaders, given the central importance of religion in the African-American community. This type of empowerment effort towards shared reproductive health responsibility is the only effective rebuttal to the mischief occurring with race and reproduction in our community. To paraphrase Dr. King, just as individual wealth is always a function of the commonwealth, thus it too holds true that compromising the reproductive health and rights of individual black women results in jeopardizing the collective well-being of black communities.

The editorial also includes this call to trust women with their own reproductive decisions:

I join with those in my community who have articulated a vision of reproductive justice, defined as creating a society that enables all women and families to have the children they want, the resources needed to raise them, and the ability to prevent or end the pregnancies that they do not want. I call on my fellow health care providers, of all races, to trust women to make the good and tough decisions about when and whether to expand their families. A fundamental respect for fairness necessitates it, and a respect for human rights demands it.

Plus: Read an interview with Parker from the New Jersey Star-Ledger: “Why I perform abortions: A Christian obstetrician explains his choice.” Parker also recently appeared on “The Melissa Harris-Perry Show” to discuss the possible closure of the last health clinic providing abortion services in Mississippi.

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