Abortion and the Rights of Black Women
ED GORDON, host: I'm Ed Gordon, this is NEWS & NOTES. This week marks the 33rd Anniversary of Roe v. Wade. That 1973 landmark decision made it legal for a woman to have an abortion. It remains one of the nation's most contentious issues. But, where do black women fall in the debate? NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with someone who has written a book on this very question.
FARAI CHIDEYA, Reporting: Dorothy Roberts is a professor at Northwestern University and the author of Killing The Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty. Roberts argues that, African American women are used in abortion and reproductive debates, without politicians or scholars taking into account their views. Professor Roberts joins us from our New York studios, welcome.
Professor DOROTHY ROBERTS, (Professor, Northwestern University; Author): Thank you Farai.
CHIDEYA: So, talk to me about the issues that black women have with abortion that are not being heard and any, sort of figures you have or perspective you have, on black women being pro or anti abortion rights?
Professor ROBERTS: Well, we know that black women have abortions at higher rates than white women. And make up a disproportionate share of those having abortions in this country, so clearly black women do use a abortion services. But we have a different perspective. We don't view abortion as the most important issue involving reproductive rights and we place abortion in a much broader context of reproductive justice that involves not only the legal right to abortion but also access to safe abortion, access to birth control, but just as importantly, freedom from coercive birth control and family planning policies that try to regulate our ability to have children.
CHIDEYA: Tell us just briefly about what you mean by these coercive policies.
Professor ROBERTS: There are a number of policies that have existed for decades including rampant sterilization abuse in the 1960s and 70s where women were given sterilization sometimes without even their knowledge of it but coerced in other ways into being sterilized. And more recently there are welfare policies that deny funding for birth to women who receive welfare and these were promoted with the image of the welfare queen at the forefront. Prosecutions of women who use drugs while they are pregnant and these are mostly targeted at poor black women although black women aren't substance abusers at any greater rate than other women in the country. And there's also the high rates of removal of black women's children into foster care. So abortion is just one of many, many issues that are essential to the reproductive justice of black women in America.
CHIDEYA: Given that, what role are black women playing in the anti-abortion rights and the pro-abortion rights communities? Are there really people who are trying to stake their claim and forge a place for black women in this debate?
Professor ROBERTS: Well, I'm more familiar with the work of black women to promote reproductive justice and a part of that, of course, is the right to legal and safe abortion. But again, the main point of our work in the movement is to expand the vision of reproductive rights and that sees reproductive health as a human right. And black women have been in this struggle from the very beginning. There are organizations like the National Black Women's Health Project, Sister Song, that are increasingly making their voices heard in the mainstream reproductive rights movement.
CHIDEYA: The subtitle of your book includes the phrase The Meaning of Liberty. How does reproduction and how does the abortion debate relate to liberty?
Professor ROBERTS: In America, the Supreme Court has a focused on a very narrow view of liberty that just has to do with freedom from state interference and choices that people already have the resources to make. It can't just mean freedom from restrictions on abortion. It has to mean the access to funding, if necessary and other means needed to get a safe abortion.
CHIDEYA: Dorothy Roberts is a law professor at Northwestern University in Chicago and author of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty. Thanks, Professor Roberts.
Professor ROBERTS: Thank you.
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