The little-known racist origins of the 'pro-life' abortion movement
Fundamentalist Christians and [the KKK] are pretty close, fighting for God and country. Someday we may all be in the trenches together in the fight against the slaughter of unborn children. — John Burt, 1994 New York Times interview
Reversing Roe v. Wade goes against the will of the people. A recent Quinnipiac poll shows that a clear majority support the Supreme Court ruling ensuring a patient’s access to abortion care. That, of course, won’t stop opponents to the measure from ruling by minority; it’s exactly what the so-called “pro-lifers” want.
Rule by minority has increasingly become the Republican’s modus operandi; gerrymandering, voter suppression, and congressional loopholes show they are not shy about staying in power by any means necessary. Now we’re seeing what’s possible when a man like Donald Trump embraces it as the leader of the power. Trump has not hesitated to embrace white nationalists and give racists power—just look at Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Jeff Sessions—which is exactly why it’s prime time for Roe v. Wade to come up on the chopping block.
It’s no coincidence that the biggest national threat to abortion rights since Roe is happening under such a racist government. Have you ever wondered why the “pro-life” movement is so … white? Or perhaps you’ve noticed that they seem incapable of not being racist whenever they pretend to care about Black people to further their extreme agenda.
You’re not alone. It turns out that the pro-life movement has been very good about hiding its racist origins. That’s not just because white people tend to be uncomfortable and avoidant when talking about race. It’s because it also exposes the true goal of the movement, which makes their initially confusing hypocrisy incredibly clear.
Abortion restrictions have always been political—and about race
During much of the 19th century, abortion was unregulated and business was booming. The industry was doing so well that one famous provider, Madame Restell, invested in one of New York City’s first luxury apartment buildings with her husband. The white, middle-class women who could afford abortions were having more control of their bodies and thus having fewer children. This was all happening while the United States was also getting more Catholic and Jewish immigrants.
The fears of white women increasingly turning away from doing their “duty” to bear children coupled with xenophobia compelled powerful white men to spring into action. Under the guise of wanting to require a medical license to perform abortions, the American Medical Association (AMA) ran a successful campaign to ban abortion care and put the decision to make exceptions completely in their hands. How did they succeed? They appealed to the racist little hearts of Anglo-Saxon politicians.
Back then, “pro-life” racism wasn’t as subtle. The authors of “Abortion, Race, and Gender in Nineteenth-Century America” in the American Sociological Review wrote that “physicians argued that middle-class, Anglo-Saxon married women were those obtaining abortions, and that their use of abortion to curtail childbearing threatened the Anglo-Saxon race.” Take this excerpt from a book by Dr. Augustus K. Gardner from 1870, for example:
Infanticide is no new crime. Savages have existed in all times, and abortions and destruction of children at and subsequent to birth have been practiced among all barbarous nations of antiquity … The savages of past ages were not better than the women who commit such infamous murders to-day, to avoid the cares, the expense or the duty of nursing and tending a child.
Here we see how framing abortion as murder came from racist propaganda. Dr. Gardner talked about barbaric peoples—Indians, Greeks, and Chinese, for example—that supposedly partook in infanticide. He uses this in an attempt to shame women from seeking abortions, calling them no better than these “savages.” Political anti-abortion rhetoric began with this message: abortion is for other people. Non-white people.
Yet even back then, there was no consensus among conservatives or Christians about abortion’s morality. However, the disproportionate amount of power that rich white men had in the country—as doctors and politicians—allowed this minority to execute its will on the people (sound familiar?).
The truth about conservative hate of Margaret Sanger—and contraception
While the 19th century racists succeeded in getting a nationwide abortion ban, that pesky desire from women for autonomy kept rearing its head. It’s almost as if you keep oppressing people, they will eventually want more rights—no matter how hard you try!
No wonder they hated Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. She published a feminist magazine in 1914 that advocated for reproductive freedom—exactly what racist white men didn’t want embraced by women. The smears and attacks against her continue today as conservatives try to paint her as the racist. The truth is that she was a proponent of eugenics, but was staunchly against its use for racist means. At the Jewish Woman’s Archive, Open Society Institute fellow Ellen Chasler explains:
She distinguished between individual applications of eugenic principles and cultural ones and spoke out against immigration prohibitions that promoted ethnic or racial stereotypes with a biological rationale. She saw birth control as an instrument of social justice, not of social control.”
In fact, Sanger worked with activists of color like W.E.B. Du Bois and Japanese feminist Shizue Kato—people conservatives today would undoubtedly disparage. Dr. Martin Luther King even once said, “There is a striking kinship between our [civil rights] movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts in “Family Planning—A Special and Urgent Concern.”
While there’s no excuse for Sanger’s support of the eugenics movement, it does show that the fact was distorted by a white racist movement that undoubtedly has people who would agree with her eugenic statements today.
Even in Sanger’s time, white supremacists still couldn’t agree on whether to support birth control or not. Some saw it as a possible means to keep “undesirables” from reproducing, while other had fears that Anglo-Saxon white women would embrace it too much and significantly lower their birth rate.
Tools of white supremacy: from school segregation to abortion
Abortion became a political tool of racist white evangelicals as a response to the Black civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Displeased with forced school integration and other signs of Black people being treated like human beings, the founders of the modern anti-choice movement sought to find an issue to mobilize the conservative base. With enough grassroots support, white evangelical leaders could get people who’d Make America Explicitly Racist again in power and protect its white people as they saw fit.
One of these leaders is preacher Jerry Falwell, the founder of Liberty University: he hated Dr. King and all this civil rights expansion. In response to Brown v. Board of Education, he created private, white-only Christian schools to try and preserve segregation. It worked for a while, but the government started cracking down on the schools explicitly made just for white children.
In hopes of reversing this wave, evangelicals had thrown their weight behind President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat and fellow evangelical Christian, for the 1976 election. Unfortunately for Falwell and friends, Carter wasn’t also a racist. Under Carter’s watch, the crackdown on white schools continued.
Activist Paul Weyrich had long suggested using abortion as their political issue. Now that school segregation had failed, leaders like Falwell and Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson agreed to join forces to usher in a new era in white supremacist political activism: the pro-life movement.
While Roe v. Wade was already years old, they tested using the “pro-life” political stance as a way to get candidates who’d do their racist bidding in office during the midterm elections—and it worked. They won three Senate seats and a governorship thanks, in part, to low turnout from Democrats and high energy from the white evangelicals. They found a winning issue and took it to the national stage next.
How racism brought Republicans and white evangelicals together
Evangelical leaders tried to influence Carter to seek a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. He refused, so they looked to the other party. The Republican Party’s sexism dovetailed nicely with racist anti-abortion policies and support for such an amendment was made a part of the party’s platform. And thus, the GOP officially adopted the language proposed by the power-hungry white evangelicals and officially became the “pro-life” party with candidate Ronald Reagan as the leader.
Reagan was a good bet. He had name recognition with his acting career before entering politics. And, like Falwell and friends, Reagan lamented the advancement of the civil rights for Black people. Reagan had no problem catering to racists, pushing the “welfare queen” myth and calling the Voting Rights Act “humiliating to the South.” Oh, and he was endorsed by the KKK—twice.
At first glance, Reagan seemed to be the least likely ally for the anti-choice movement. When he was California’s governor, he signed the country’s least restrictive abortion access bill in the country. Carter had a documented history of being anti-abortion, both in his personal and political life. However, it’s Carter’s refusal to bend to the political will of the powerful white evangelical men that was seen as the biggest liability.
Reagan’s landslide win solidified the religious right’s political strength. Falwell, Dobson, and Weyrich had succeeded in making their racist political goals viable enough to get millions to vote for their preferred candidate who’d get rid of abortion and keep the brown and Black people from taking over. Since then, the political power of white evangelicals in the United States has only gotten stronger.
Today’s political mess in perspective
There’s a reason why the pro-life advocates and #alllivesmatter crowd has been silent at best about the mistreatment of children at the border at the hands of the administration. They’re not the members of a human rights movement; it’s just what they say to convince clueless white people. The pro-life movement is white nationalist campaign that will use any messaging or backward logic necessary to achieve their genocidal goals.
This puts white evangelicals’ nearly unwavering support of Trump into perspective. They put up with his very un-Christian behavior because he’s a very effective vessel for their racist political goals. It is increasingly clear that the goal of the pro-life leaders is to dominate our politics; they don’t want true democracy. Instead, a few white men want to exploit the system as much as possible until they can once again live in a country where women don’t control their bodies, immigration doesn’t happen, and people of color are not truly citizens.
Originally written for DailyKos.com