March 5th, 2010
06:38 PM ET

Thank you very much, but we can think for ourselves: African-American women and choice

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Tanya M. Acker
AC360° Contributor

In an attempt to exploit racial fears and perhaps assume for themselves the broad legitimacy of a civil rights movement, anti-choice activists are now targeting African-Americans – claiming that the exercise of reproductive freedom by African-American women is effecting a “genocide” in the African-American community. According to proponents of this strategy, family planning clinics are disproportionately located in African-American communities so as to facilitate this “genocide.”

While I do not dispute the sincerity of many in the pro-life movement, this attempt is cynical, misguided, and dangerous.

To argue that abortion rates among African-American women are higher because of a “racial conspiracy” is to ignore the reality of health care options (or the lack thereof) in that community. African-American women are less likely than their white counterparts to have access to affordable care – including affordable birth control options. They are also more likely to die of breast cancer, more likely to contract HIV and more likely to be diagnosed with hypertension. Infant mortality rates, too, are higher in the African-American than in the White community. To focus solely on the issue of higher abortion rates is to ignore the broader reality that the problem of inadequate access to health care is particularly acute in communities of color.

While anti-choice activists may condemn the location of family planning clinics, such as Planned Parenthood, in these communities, this condemnation is itself further evidence of their cynicism – and of their indifference to the actual health care needs of low-income women (a disproportionate number of whom are African-American). The majority of health care services provided by Planned Parenthood, for instance, are non-abortion related and include cancer screening, STD testing, and other preventive health services. We may agree to disagree about the morality of abortion but I do hope there is no legitimate disagreement about the need for low-income women to have access to these health resources.

There is yet another element of this campaign that I find particularly unsettling. Implicit in this strategy is the assumption that the womb of an African-American woman is somehow “community property” – and that our family planning and reproductive decisions cannot properly be based upon individual choices and circumstances but must instead take into account the need to “propagate the race.” It seems as if anti-choice strategists are suggesting that African-American women need to be saved from themselves and their own freely made choices – or worse yet, that the African-American community needs to be saved from its women. Forgive me, but the time for that sort of racial paternalism is long since past.

There are real issues of concern affecting African-Americans today – inadequate access to health care, disproportionate incarceration rates, a substandard public education system (which is the only option for many of its children), and numerous others. Cynical attempts to exploit those problems so as to gain advantage in a contentious debate are no substitute for the real attention our community deserves.

Follow Tanya on Twitter @tanyaacker.

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