Harassment at Abortion Clinics Is Already Bad. It’s Worse When You’re Black.

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Culture & Conversation Race

Harassment at Abortion Clinics Is Already Bad. It’s Worse When You’re Black.

MiQuel Davies

We need to explicitly name white supremacy and racism as the core drivers of abortion bans and restrictions, as well as violence and harassment.

Abortion providers and people accessing abortion care are at high risk of violence and harassment. We know this from the well-documented history of providers being murdered, clinics dealing with arson and regular hate mail, and protesters stationed daily outside many abortion clinics, where they harass providers and patients.

What we don’t always talk about—or name explicitly—is that the violence and harassment faced by patients and providers who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color is often heightened and racialized. At Physicians for Reproductive Health, we know this is true from the countless experiences of physicians in our network as well as those working day to day on the ground, especially in hostile states. Unfortunately, this reality is often dismissed or minimized in an attempt to disassociate racism and white supremacy from attacks on abortion rights.

It is critical to understand that the anti-abortion movement has historically strong ties to white supremacist movements in the United States. Consider, for example, how efforts to criminalize abortion and contraception were only sporadic until the United States saw an influx of Black and brown folks, after which white people started referring to the falling birth rate among their demographic as “race suicide.” Subsequently, abortion bans were introduced across the nation.

Also consider the United States’ long history of reproductive coercion and eugenics; everything it did to stop Black, Indigenous, and people of color from having children (for example, through forced sterilization); and everything it did to force white women to give birth (such as active denial of contraception, sterilization, and abortion restrictions).

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More recently, it has been nearly impossible to tell the anti-abortion movement and white supremacist movements apart. For example, in recent years, white nationalist groups have been highly visible at the so-called March for Life rally, where they actively recruit new members. And at the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, which was led by many white supremacist groups, some of the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol were familiar faces we know well—as protesters outside abortion clinics. As a Prism reporter put it, “Overwhelmingly, these were white men who—when not trying to overthrow the government—spend a great deal of their time harassing people outside of abortion clinics.” And those are but a few among many examples of the link between abortion opponents and white supremacists.

Given this long history, it is important to state it plainly: White supremacy and racism are core drivers of abortion bans and restrictions, as well as violence and harassment, and this is both directly connected to and evidenced by the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and people of color when they provide or seek abortion care. Below is just a sampling of stories that those involved in abortion care and access have voiced over the past several years.

Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of We Testify, has shared multiple examples of the racialized harassment and violence directed toward her and other abortion storytellers. “This extra-racist anti-abortion harassment is why we have to support storytellers of color because it’s vile and non-stop,” Bracey Sherman tweeted in February 2021. “They truly hate that we speak out advocating for care for ourselves and our communities.”

Missouri Democratic Rep. Cori Bush told her abortion story for the first time last year at a House Oversight Committee hearing. “At the clinic, she said she heard white patients her same age say they were told they should give up their babies for adoption,” NPR reported at the time, “but Bush said she was told she would end up on food stamps and welfare if she had hers.”

“It worsened my shame,” Bush continued. During her testimony, she spoke directly to Black women and girls, telling them, “We have nothing to be ashamed of, we live in a society that has failed to legislate love and justice for us, so we deserve better, we demand better, we are worthy of better.”

Kelsey Rhodes, an advocate and my PRH colleague, also shared:

My partner is a queer, Arab abortion provider. Her identities are constantly observed and commented on by protesters when she walks into work. She’s often misgendered [and] misidentified racially, and is thought to be a patient when she enters the clinic. Today when I dropped her off, a white male protester standing beside a white female protester told my partner, “Please don’t kill your baby, my wife and I will adopt your baby, we will save your baby, have mercy.”

They then turned to me and said that by taking her to the clinic, I was “driving the train to Auschwitz.” The confluence of race and ethnicity-based harassment and the usage of comparisons to historical tragedies focused on the targeting of ethnic minorities is a perfect display of the white supremacist bones of anti-abortion actions. Could it be a more obvious display of white saviorism than a white man telling a brown person he can save her?

These experiences are supported by excellent research from law professors like David Cohen of Drexel University. As Cohen and co-author Krysten Connon note in their 2015 book, Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, anti-abortion protesters often target abortion providers with “identity-based comments,” and race is a “common [element] of general clinic protest.” An increasingly frequent line of racialized harassment—that those who work on abortion access will be familiar with—is that “abortion is a form of eugenics against the Black community,” they write.

Cohen and Connon also note that these types of comments are often targeted directly at Black abortion providers and patients. One abortion provider they interviewed for Living in the Crosshairs explained how a protester regularly called him racist expletives. Another shared how frequently a protester made comments to him about his race. “She says, ’You’re killing the black race,’” the provider told them. “She says, ’Why are you killing all these Black people?’”

And it’s not only abortion providers but also patients and those providing support for them (such as clinic escorts) who face specific and heightened racialized harassment. At Mississippi’s Jackson Women’s Health Organization—the clinic at the center of the Supreme Court case that could undo Roe v. Wade—protesters “gather … to yell at clients and distribute pamphlets to them as they walk to the clinic,” the Daily Beast’s Samantha Allen reported in 2017. One clinic escort showed Allen “booklets that refer to abortion as ’child sacrifice’ and warn that it will bring about ’black genocide.’”

As another clinic escort at the Jackson clinic told HuffPost in 2014, Protesters “literally just go up to every car that comes up the street. They automatically assume that every African American driver is coming to the clinic. They say some of the most disgusting, degrading and racist comments to them about killing the dream, killing the next Barack Obama, the next Martin Luther King.”

It’s clear from the research and the many experiences of Black abortion providers, clinic workers, and patients that the violence and harassment they encounter is “more racialized and intense,” Ebony wrote in 2015. “They’re often accused of being ‘race traitors’ or ‘killing the Black race’ simply for providing health care.”

Dr. Monica McLemore, an associate professor in the Family Health Care Nursing Department at the University of California, San Francisco, told Ebony, “When I worked for Planned Parenthood, I had several protesters ask me ‘how as a Black woman can I participate in the murder of Black children.’”

History has shown us that Black women have been at the forefront of reproductive and abortion health care for hundreds of years,” Ebony continued, “however anti-abortion protesters, often White, are quick to erase their contributions and autonomy.”

McLemore, also an affiliated scientist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health whose research focuses on reproductive health and justice, told Ebony that nurses who provide abortion care feel “upset, angry, and disappointed” that race and ethnicity is used “to shame them for their work and to belittle the contributions they make.”

Given these experiences, it is essential to grapple with how the many relationships among the white supremacist, eugenics, and anti-abortion movements all impact how Black, Indigenous, and people of color who are pregnant navigate their reproductive decisions. And this continues to show up in every facet of our lives—including law and policy. “When you get a birth rate less than 2 percent, that society is disappearing,” Florida state Sen. Dennis Baxley said in 2019, referencing Western Europe. “And it’s being replaced by folks that come behind them and immigrate, don’t wish to assimilate into that society and they do believe in having children. So you see that there are long range impacts to your society when the answer [is] to exterminate.”

Unfortunately, as time passes, the harassment and violence directed at abortion providers and patients has not decreased. The National Abortion Federation’s statistics on violence and disruption against abortion providers in 2020 showed that there was, yet again, an increase in intimidation tactics, vandalism, and other activities aimed at disrupting services, harassing providers, and blocking patients’ access to abortion care. In a press release, NAF Chief Program Officer Melissa Fowler also said:

Unfortunately, in 2021, our members continue to report an escalation in aggressive anti-abortion activity. Members report an increase in harassment and intimidation outside of clinics by people emboldened by the Texas abortion ban and the recent Supreme Court activity concerning abortion cases. The people who threaten clinic workers and harass individuals seeking abortion care are often the same people who participate in other violence and extremist activities that are rooted in racism, white supremacy, and misogyny, and are deeply harmful.

If we ever hope to address the ongoing attacks on access to abortion care, including the intimidation, violence, and harassment targeting providers and patients who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color, we must call the root of the problem by its name: white supremacy. And we cannot shove it under the rug, or dismiss the blatant racism experienced by providers and people getting abortions.

It is essential that our movement confronts and names white supremacy as a core driver of anti-abortion harassment and violence—and we need our lawmakers and abortion rights supporters to do the same.