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Alan Keyes, the Republican Party, & the Abortion Debates
S hortly after entering the Illinois Senate race, Republican Keyes called Democratic Senatorial candidate Barack Obama’s pro-choice views on abortion “the slaveholder’s position,” asserting that Obama’s vote against a late- term abortion ban denied unborn children of their equal rights.
Fox News, the Associated Press, the Washington Post , and many more picked up the story, repeating Keyes’s claim that slaveholders were pro-choice. Obama responded by avoiding the question: “As I travel around this state,” he told reporters, “I don’t get asked about gay marriage, I don’t get asked about abortion. I get asked, ‘How can I find a job that allows me to support my family’?”
didn’t challenge the basic premise of Keyes’s statement
and nobody seemed interested in exploring the link Keyes identified
between slavery and abortion.
Black women—their bodies— connect slavery and reproductive rights. “Reproductive control is an incident of slavery,” observes legal scholar Pamela Bridgewater. Bridgewater writes that while the traditional story of U.S. slavery focuses on forced labor—the work slaves were forced to do, “the sexual and reproductive exploitation [of slave women] via forced sex and forced reproduction” has been largely overlooked.
Bridgewater, whose Breeding a Nation: Reproductive Slavery, the 13th Amendment and the Pursuit of Freedom (forthcoming from South End Press), believes that incorporating this aspect of slavery is critical for today’s reproductive rights movement.
“Slavery has instructed the U.S. on reproductive politics,” asserts Bridgewater, who has done extensive research on “slave breeding,” the slaveholders’ policy of forced reproduction as both a method of maintaining their slave populations and as an independent industry.
“Some plantations stopped producing commodities and focused on breeding humans,” she explains. “The law allowed for this, since slaves and slaves born were the property of the owner.” According to Bridgewater, slave breeding became “more prominent than cotton” and was written about in newspapers and farming journals as a type of animal husbandry.
“You’d see a piece in a farming journal that would say, ‘Such and such got a good yield by doing X,’” says Bridgewater, who notes that slaveholders would experiment with such techniques as locking slave women in a room with many slave men. Slave women of “good breeding stock” were highly valued, a point illustrated by one advertisement Bridgewater found for a slave woman who could “breed like a cat.”
U nder these circumstances, eliminating unwanted pregnancies became a form of resistance. “Abstinence was not an option for a slave,” says Bridgewater, “so most resistance methods were very drastic,” ranging from using herbs and poultices to self-imposed abortions to infancticide. “These things were passed from generation to generation,” she adds, “with midwives being critical to that informal method.”
Bridgewater believes that ack- nowledging this history can help today’s reproductive rights advocates navigate complex political terrain. “When we encounter reproductive policies, we can ask, ‘To what extent does this policy build on the legacy of slavery?’” Conversely, one might ask, “To what extent does this policy contribute to reproductive liberation?”
Alan Keyes and the Republican Party claim that anti-abortion laws are descendants of the constitutional amendments designed to abolish and prevent slavery. According to this logic, abortions constitute a violation of the 14th Amendment, which grants all persons in the U.S. equal protection under the law. The 2004 Republican Party Platform endorses legislation “to make it clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protec- tions apply to unborn children.”
Now, as in the era of slavery, Bridgewater says that women are “treated as a vessel” to carry the fetus and a woman’s rights are considered secondary to the protection of the fetus. One of the most striking examples of this was the Bush administration’s 2002 proposal to provide health insurance to “unborn children,” but not pregnant women.
Bridgewater believes that one benefit of incorporating reproductive control into the accepted story of slavery is that comments like Keyes’s would be easily refutable. Moreover, when the history becomes a part of the common discourse, “the slaveholder’s position” on reproductive freedom can be directly connected to the views of today’s “pro-life” advocates.
Broadening The Debate
A ccording to Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty , feminists need to prioritize “the experiences of the most oppressed people. It expands our view of what reproductive liberty is. ” A critical problem for reproductive rights advocates is that the reproductive rights debates have been focused almost exclusively on women’s access to one medical procedure.
For many years, says Roberts, “the mainstream reproductive rights organizations like Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), and the National Organization for Women [have been] predominantly made up of white middle-class or well-to-do women. They have set the mainstream agenda on what reproductive rights mean and they’ve focused on access to abortion.” Roberts asserts that these organizations have historically failed to address “the different issues that black women are concerned with or that affect black women’s repro- ductive decision making.”
Drawing the public’s attention to the particularities of abortion has been a tactical decision of anti- choice advocates. Bills such as the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act and the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act are designed to frame reproductive rights around grisly medical details, rather than women’s rights. By focusing on abortion as the central issue of reproductive rights, mainstream pro-choice groups have played into the Right to Life folks’ hands.
Recently, however, Bridgewater sees signs that these mainstream organizations have begun broadening the debate. At the April 2004 March for Women’s Lives, Bridgewater says she saw evidence that groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood were “very conscious about addressing issues important to poor women and women of color,” such as the availability of contraception, sexual violence, health care, and sex education. She adds that these mainstream groups appear to be growing more “conscious about coalition building” with groups focused on these critical issues.
The March for Women’s Lives, where more than one million people gathered in Washington, DC to voice their support for reproductive rights, illustrated that while political momentum appears to be on the pro-life side, reproductive rights is an issue that can galvanize Left and progressive forces.
Even though Keyes lost to Obama, with Bush’s victory and the Republican hold on the House and Senate reproductive rights advocates should be prepared for a full assault. Already, Republicans in Congress have attached an anti-abortion rights provision to the recently-passed omnibus spending bill.
Keyes and the Republicans have done reproductive rights advocates a favor by injecting slavery’s legacy into the reproductive rights debates. Instead of avoiding the issue of race, advocates of reproductive freedom should seize this opportunity.
William Johnson is a freelance writer based in Detroit.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.