The Fall of ‘Roe’ Was Driven by Our Country’s Original Sin: Anti-Blackness

An utter disregard for Black lives has led Mississippi, which has the largest percentage of Black residents, to again seek to criminalize abortion.

Black and white photo of a large crowd sitting and facing a sign that reads International Day of Abortion
In the '60s, pro-choice and "pro-life" advocates whitewashed the actual racist undercurrent of both movements. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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Earlier this month, the Supreme Court quietly, in the dead of night, overturned legal protections for abortion rights in Texas. In the coming months, the justices will have another opportunity when they hear oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case in which the state of Mississippi has asked the Court to essentially overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationally. While many across the nation—and the world—are wondering how we got here, we think the answer is quite simple: anti-Blackness.

The harsh reality is that an utter disregard for the reality of Black women’s lives—and, by extension, all Indigenous people, people of color, queer and trans folks, and disabled people—has led us to this moment, in which Mississippi, a state with the largest percentage of Black residents, is seeking to again criminalize abortion. And because of its own internal racism, the reproductive rights movement is ill-equipped to meet the challenge of this moment.

Compared to the millennia-long history of abortion itself, restrictions on the service are relatively modern. The first criminal laws emerged in the mid-1800s as U.S. medicine needed to distinguish itself from the “quackery” of midwifery and apprentice-trained healers. Specifically, white gynecologists sought to make a name for themselves, in service of a white collective capitalist project, by legitimizing medical control of the Black female body.

Following the country’s ban on importing new enslaved Africans, U.S. medicine became concerned with the health of the existing enslaved population, whose reproduction was the only legal means of obtaining new people to enslave; it was from this concern that modern gynecology was born.

This burgeoning new field would force midwives—many of whom were Black, Indigenous, or immigrants, and who largely cornered the realm of pregnancy and labor medicine—out of the field entirely. Because white gynecologists tended to experiment on Black and brown enslaved women, mutilating their bodies and leaving some to die, white women—and the law—did not concern themselves with their reproductive freedoms and bodily autonomy.

The century between full criminalization and partial legalization differentially impacted Black and brown women, but their stories were deemed inadequate to make a compelling case for legalization. Instead, the professionalized voices of physicians and lawyers were used to argue for a controlled form of abortion access—from doctors and within a specified time frame, as would be concretized in the Roe v. Wade decision. This new legal framework allowed advocates to distinguish themselves from radical activists who wanted abortion “on demand and without apology” and full decriminalization. From this distinction the pro-choice movement was professionalized, institutionalized, and legitimized. The new pro-choice movement did not seek radical transformation of power; it sought to become part of the power, creating new political messaging and frameworks for understanding when, where, and how pregnancies should happen and which are deemed worthy of protection.

The modern anti-abortion movement, by contrast, was conceived in resentment at the Supreme Court for the desegregation of schools via Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and then exacerbated by the elimination of Christian prayer in schools in 1962 and the integration of public schools via busing in 1971. White Christians needed an issue they could exploit for political benefit that maintained the same Jim Crow segregation divide. Roe v. Wade provided an opening.

The desire to control Black bodies and Black liberation is a function of white supremacy and it permeates every strategy and goal—even for well-meaning reproductive freedom advocates.

Couched in concern for “innocent life,” the anti-abortion movement was granted a moral legitimacy in the culture wars they could not obtain by openly advocating for segregationist policies in the shadow of the civil rights fights of the 1960s. Because the global population control movement of the time shared the same fear of the reproduction practices of people of color, white pro-choice advocates never challenged the racist foundation of the anti-abortion movement. Rather, pro-choice and “pro-life” advocates whitewashed the actual racist undercurrent of both movements. As the movements have evolved, both have tried to secure their larger social agendas through disingenuous appeals to caring about racial injustice.

During the height of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, conservatives wailed about the government being the problem not the solution; meanwhile, they enacted policies surveilling and scapegoating Black women and their children, in particular those enrolled in Medicaid and other welfare programs. Rather than defending the right to motherhood and procreation, the pro-choice movement largely stood by because, at the core, they too believed that people should not have children until they’re “ready” and able to financially support them. There was little movement opposition to the gutting of welfare rights and the implementation of “family cap” policies because, while there was support for “the right to choose,” there was no guarantee of support systems for those choices. Equally egregious, the pro-choice movement embraced the Hyde Amendment and its prohibition of federal Medicaid coverage of abortion as an acceptable compromise.

Black women who used drugs, such as crack cocaine, while pregnant saw the government swoop in to remove their children from their homes and place them into the foster care system and jails. Black bodies became the site of the crime putting their personhood in jeopardy, similar to the criminalization of self-managed abortion. But because these pregnancies occurred in Black women who were not deemed fit to parent by white standards and were not politically expedient cases to defend, white-led reproductive rights organizations overlooked them.

As author and law professor Michele Goodwin argues in Policing the Womb, “Because the mainstream reproductive rights advocacy groups framed reproductive rights and choice in a narrow way regarding abortion, they failed to see what was happening in other areas of women’s reproductive health.” That would have been the moment to fiercely defend against the criminalization of pregnancy decisions.

To “prove” their motives weren’t fueled by racism, the anti-abortion movement made a hobby of perverting Black liberation efforts, slogans, and iconography with refrains like “Black unborn lives matter” and the infamous billboards claiming “the most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” They came to see themselves as the new civil rights warriors, fighting for the “most vulnerable”—the innocent Black “unborn child.” This approach allowed them to continue to enact legislation that furthered the destruction of Black life after it was corrupted by birth into a corrupted culture. They believed our culture was tainted by the acceptance of abortion, which corrodes the Black community and makes Black people unfit to parent Black children. This new racist rhetoric connects to legal maneuvers that have systematically separated Black families since 1619. Anti-abortion advocates spend time, money, and energy electing political leaders and employing rhetoric that reinforces white supremacist Christian ideals of family and reproduction that not only curtail reproductive freedoms but criminally punish those who create families outside of the strict confines.

The pro-choice movement has largely avoided confronting the anti-abortion movement’s racism, because that would require it to confront its own. The desire to control Black bodies and Black liberation is a function of white supremacy and it permeates every strategy and goal—even for well-meaning reproductive freedom advocates.

Likewise, white saviorism, whether supportive or opposed to abortion rights, is also a problem. It is no longer adequate to look for “compromise” or to hide our histories. Until the pro-choice movement comes to terms with its own racism, we will always be at the Supreme Court begging for limited legal protections without securing actual liberation.

Alas, hindsight is 20/20. What can we do now? This is our moment to demand full decriminalization of abortion and the abolishment of all abortion laws. Piecemeal legislation will always leave the most marginalized people without full protections and subject to criminalization—that is, unless decriminalization becomes the goal. No one should fear arrest for their pregnancy decisions. No one should have to tiptoe on eggshells to avoid prosecution and obtain an abortion along the narrow edges of a poorly written law. And no one should have to explain anything to anyone. Our humanity is unconditional.