Right-to-Life from a Racial Lens: Unraveling Anti-Abortionism and its Racist Roots

Anti-abortion movements, such as those led by Lila Rose from Live Action, seem to be increasingly aware of racial disparities in reproductive health and childcare. Even still, something about the movement doesn’t quite add up.

On April 8, UChicago Students for Life hosted an event featuring Lila Rose, a prominent anti-abortion activist and founder of the pro-life organization Live Action. That evening, the activist gave a solo presentation about her views on abortion, and was later joined in conversation by third-year College student Evita Duffy to answer audience questions.

For those already familiar with the anti-abortion movement, the event did not contain much else other than standard affirmations of regular anti-abortion talking points. Rose began the event by outlining her main points in a succinct syllogism: “It is always wrong to take an innocent life. Abortion takes an innocent life. Therefore, abortion is always wrong.” The presentation took on themes of exploitation and empowerment. Using historical examples like slavery and child labor, Rose claimed that abortion is ‘false empowerment’ that “[dehumanizes] another people group” — ostensibly referring to embryos — and by proxy, “[enacts] violence upon [them]”. The remainder of the presentation was dedicated to discussing what an anti-abortion individual’s responsibility would be in preventing abortion.

Like many politically galvanizing movements, the national discourse around abortion and reproductive rights are often fractured along racial lines, as this study from the National Institutes of Health might indicate. As Rose herself acknowledged during the event, reproductive health outcomes are experienced disparately across socioeconomic classes. In this respect, the atmosphere of the event remained largely uneasy, especially given the themes of exploitation and false empowerment running throughout the presentation. Despite — or perhaps because of — Rose’s attempts at maintaining racially-inclusive language, her indictments of “pro-abortion” stances ultimately fell flat, as a result of both a falsified narrative and her inability to confront the racist history of anti-abortion politics such as her own.

Fact Check: Eugenics, Planned Parenthood, and the Exploitation of Marginalized Individuals

When asked by an audience member about the structural reforms that would be necessary to sustain an anti-abortion future for all racial demographics, Rose lamented the socioeconomic differences amongst different races. Detailing the eugenicist past of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and characterizing the “abortion industry” as one that exploits and “targets minority women,” Rose advocated for increasing federal and local support for services like childcare, maternal healthcare programs, and career programs for working mothers.

What is missing from these indictments of Planned Parenthood and the “abortion industry,” however, is nuance. Although it is true that Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist, her legacy — and Planned Parenthood’s relationship to her — cannot be dismissed quite so easily, especially given the organization’s progressions through time. Planned Parenthood has had a complex relationship with the eugenicist views of its founder, at once trying to condemn her willingness to collaborate with white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan even whilst defending her good intentions. These internal tensions ultimately resulted in a Planned Parenthood statement in July 2020, which condemned Margaret Sanger’s racist, classist, and ableist views, while reaffirming the organization’s commitments to “build[ing] a world in which every person — regardless of race, income, insurance, gender identity, sexual orientation, abilities, or immigration status — can receive expert, compassionate health care, education, and information without shame or judgment.”

Further, the characterization of the “abortion industry” as one that intentionally targets minority women is patently untrue. Rose cited a claim often made by anti-abortion activists, which is that abortion clinics disproportionately position themselves in low-income and minority neighborhoods, as abortion rates amongst the socioeconomically-disadvantaged are higher than those of the white and economically affluent. Independent research organizations, such as the Guttmacher Institute, have thoroughly debunked this claim, pointing out that not only are 60 percent of abortion providers in majority white communities, but fewer than one in ten abortion providers are located in majority Black communities. Additionally, these studies also note that disparities in abortion rates between racial demographics are due to disparities in sexual health services made available to marginalized women, rather than an “exploitative nature” of which proponents of anti-abortion politics accuse abortion providers like Planned Parenthood.

Strange Bedfellows: The Anti-Abortion and White Supremacist Movements

Rose’s criticisms of Planned Parenthood and its founder’s eugenicist pasts are valid concerns. Many life-saving medical technologies — from the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine to chemotherapy — are mired in problematic histories that involve the appalling treatment of people of color, and issues like reproductive rights and birth control are no different. While the production of these medical technologies are undoubtedly beneficial, the ethical implications of their respective histories must be acknowledged.

Now, having investigated the complex relationship between the eugenics movement and the history of reproductive health services like abortion, the anti-abortion movement’s own thriving ties to white supremacy must also be examined.

As executive director of the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism Alex DiBranco writes in an article for The Nation, white supremacy and anti-abortion movements have incredibly intertwined histories. Tracing the history of the anti-abortion movement back to the 1800s, DiBranco roots the movement’s origins in white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) fears that increased Catholic immigration from countries like Italy and Ireland would overtake the demographic significance of WASP citizens. At the time, Italians and Irish people were not considered ‘white’, and were thus subject to hate crimes from white supremacist groups. It was actually this anti-Catholic prejudice that prevented WASPs from overtaking the anti-abortion movement as it is known today. Catholics, who were already opposed to abortion and other contraceptive measures, were seen as ‘wrong’; as Christians for Life founder John Wilder said in 1977, “The assumption was that [anti-abortion] must not be right if Catholics backed it, so [Protestants] haven’t.”

But as anti-Catholic sentiment dissipated in the late 20th century, antisemitism came to replace it within white supremacist movements. As such, anti-abortion movements assumed both antisemitic language and violent action. For instance, anti-abortion activists often equate abortion to a ‘holocaust’, minimizing the tragedy of the Holocaust. As historian Jennifer Holland notes, because American Jews are the most pro-choice religious group, anti-abortionists “often imply and even outwardly state that Jews are participating in a current genocide and were thus ideologically complicit in the Jewish Holocaust.” It might be unsurprising then, that some of the most violently anti-abortion activists — such as abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph — were also notable antisemites.

Other marginalized groups, like Black and Indigenous peoples, were also heavily affected by anti-abortion politics. As Law Professor Michele Goodwin writes for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),

“Prior to the Civil War, abortion and contraceptives were legal in the US, used by Indigenous women as well as those who sailed to these lands from Europe. For the most part, the persons who performed all manner of reproductive health care were women — female midwives. Midwifery was interracial; half of the women who provided reproductive health care were Black women. Other midwives were Indigenous and white. [...]”

In the period after the Civil War, the dynamics in reproductive health care changed. White male gynecologists, calling the reproductive services (e.g., abortion) provided by midwives “barbaric”, monopolized the world of American reproductive healthcare. This also largely came at the cost of mass violence enacted upon Black women in the name of scientific experimentation through gynecological operations, often carried out without pain relief or anaesthesia.

Simultaneously, as the United States experienced immigration influxes from China and Japan, restrictive reproductive law extended to Asian Americans as well. As ‘yellow peril’ swept the nation, Chinese women were banned from entering the United States as a method of controlling the population of Chinese male labor. In fact, Chicago obstetrician Joseph DeLee, among other prominent white gynecologists, urged white women to “spread their loins” to reduce the threat of too many minority races in the US. In words reminiscent of the white supremacist Great Replacement theory, these doctors asked white women, “Shall these regions be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.”

Situated in this context — of antisemitism, racism, and misogyny — it is clearer to see the historical amnesia, or perhaps, willful ignorance, of Lila Rose’s and the anti-abortion movements’ claims about minority exploitation in abortion access. Today, when minority and economically disadvantaged individuals, particularly Black and Hispanic people, are more likely to seek out abortions than their more privileged counterparts, the racist legacy of anti-abortionism becomes ever more apparent. The racially universalist message that anti-abortionism now touts fails to account for the historical oppression these communities have faced, and furthermore serves as a veneer for its own involvement in ensuring white racial dominance in the United States.

Anti-abortionism today — as represented by proponents like Rose — lacks a grasp on reality, both in terms of attainable goals for reproductive health care and its highly racially violent realities. The movement seems unconcerned with preventing people from “enacting violence” onto fetuses, but about policing marginalized individuals into a white supremacist chokehold no matter the medical nor social consequences.