On Nov. 2, Emory Medical Students For Life (EMSFL) planned to host an event titled “Is Abortion a Black Issue?” According to EMSFL’s announcement of the event via email, Toni McFadden, founder of Relationships Matter and a prominent anti-choice proponent, was invited to “advocate for the protection of all human lives from conception until natural death … and assist vulnerable women who are faced with difficult decisions regarding unplanned pregnancies.” By targeting Black communities in the argument for anti-choice, this misleading statement implies that EMSFL is supporting these vulnerable populations. In reality, they are actively harming Black communities through their anti-choice rhetoric.
Instead of misapplying racial abortion rate disparities to minimize reproductive rights, anti-choice groups should address abortion’s root social causes.
In the days leading up to the discussion, Black students at the Emory School of Medicine voiced their disapproval of the organization’s intentions and urged EMSFL to cancel the event. Black medical students Rosalind Byrd (23M), Jasmin Eatman (23M), Christian Freeman (21M) and Danielle Harlan (23M) stressed the central role Black women play in social movements with a damning question: “How can Medical Students for Life purport to be advocates and protectors of human life when they so egregiously seek to deprive women, especially Black women, of essential health care services?”
The Emory students’ statement, which received resounding support from medical students within and outside the Black community, illustrates the incredibly harmful rhetoric that anti-choice supporters use to undermine minorities’ reproductive rights. When EMSFL claims it supports Black Americans’ maternal and infant health while simultaneously hosting an event implying that these womens’ disproportionately high abortion rates are their own fault, they are neglecting America’s history of severe medical racism.
Instead of labeling abortion a Black issue, EMSFL, other anti-choice organizations and physicians across the nation should address health care inequities that disproportionately harm Black women. By labeling abortion as a “Black issue,” anti-choice organizations are targeting Black women rather than the systemic barriers stacked against them.
Rather than focusing exclusively on disparities in abortion rates, maternal mortality and elsewhere, we must concern ourselves with their causes if we are to effect lasting change in the health care system. While abortion incidence has generally decreased across all racial groups since Roe v. Wade in 1973, Black women are still five times more likely to have them than white women. Economic factors are to blame: white U.S. households’ median wealth is 20 times that of Black households, and low-income women, regardless of race, have higher rates of unintended pregnancy and, thus, abortion.
Low-income women are also less likely to have adequate health insurance or access to birth control. Even those Black women who have access to comprehensive health care receive less education on reproductive health and contraception than white women. Studies have also shown that physicians disproportionately pressure Black women to limit their family size. Anti-choice groups must acknowledge the long-standing social factors that disadvantage Black women before, during and even after their pregnancies.
Most importantly, anti-choice organizations should refocus their attention on Black women’s maternal health during planned pregnancies. Black women are up to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women and 243% more likely to die from childbirth-related causes. Unfortunately, most of those deaths are preventable.
The late Amber Rose Isaac is one such victim; she died of pregnancy-related complications because of the health care system’s inattentiveness to Black women’s needs. In her third trimester, Isaac knew that her platelet levels were dangerously low, but none of her doctors responded to repeated requests for a blood test. She should have been seen by a physician every two weeks.
Unable to discern the cause of her illness, her doctors rushed an emergency C-section, “telling her they wanted to get the baby out before she got sick,” Amber’s partner, Bruce McIntyre, explained. The two-and-a half hour surgery ultimately cost her her life. “The day that they induced her labor was the same day they found out that she had HELLP [hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, low platelet count] syndrome — causing her platelet levels to be so low,” said McIntyre. “What she had was 100% preventable, 100% treatable if caught early on.”
Following her death, McIntyre founded the SaveARose Foundation to highlight the disproportionately high maternal mortality rates among Black, Indigenous and people of color and their roots in medical negligence. Anti-choice organizations, however, disguise their indefensible moral standards as concern for the Black community. Students For Life, for example, characterizes abortion as Black genocide in an attempt to demonize Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of reproductive health services in the U.S.
The real problem surrounding abortion, systemic racism, will require everyone’s assistance to dismantle. We call on EMSFL and groups like it to partner with an organization like the SaveARose Foundation or the Atlanta-based reproductive justice organization, Sister Song. This would both further reproductive justice and enable the Emory community to learn about reproductive issues directly from the Black women they harm.
By offering Black women access to quality health care resources, we can start to resolve the systemic oppression of maternal and reproductive health. We have a real chance to preserve human life so that Isaac’s child, and thousands of others, do not grow up without their mothers.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Sahar Al-Gazzali, Brammhi Balarajan, Viviana Barreto, Rachel Broun, Kemal Budak, Jake Busch, Sara Khan, Demetrios Mammas, Meredith McKelvey, Sara Perez, Ben Thomas, Leah Woldai and Lynnea Zhang.