National conversations about police brutality and reproductive justice collided on Sunday, when Charleena Lyles, a 30 year-old black woman and pregnant mother of four, was killed in her Seattle home by the same police officers she had phoned for assistance.
Detective Mark Jamieson told reporters that two police officers were dispatched to an apartment complex for people transitioning out of homelessness in order to investigate a burglary. Reports surrounding Lyles’ death are murky, but officers say she displayed a knife, at which point she was shot. Lyles’ family members, meanwhile, say she was concerned officers might take one of her children, who has Down syndrome.
Authorities noted that “several” of her children were present at the time she was killed, though none were injured.
While the details of Lyles’ death remain vague, reproductive justice activists, especially activists of color, have been quick to condemn the killing, emphasizing the role that law enforcement and government play in controlling the lives of women of color in both life and death.
“Police violence against Black people may be the worst civil rights abuse in this country. But it is also one of the biggest reproductive justice challenges we face,” said Marcela Howell, founder and executive director of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, who also noted that Seattle police officers are unlikely to face justice. (Both officers have been placed on administrative leave and an investigation is now underway — only the latest controversy for the department, which currently operates under a consent decree following a 2011 investigation by the Justice Department into a pattern of discriminatory policing.)
“Reproductive freedom and justice demand that we have the resources and ability to raise our families with dignity,” Howell said. “Yet each day Black women are forced to raise our children in fear because we know that our sons and daughters can be slain — for any reason or no reason — at any time.”
Howell’s comments reflect an issue that activists of color within the reproductive justice movement have long argued: bodily autonomy and racial justice intersect. It’s a point many reproductive justice advocates have been making in the days since Lyles was killed.
“The reality is, Black pregnant women in particular face many threats: from police violence to maternal mortality, lack of access to abortion care, and environmental racism,” said Monica Simpson, who serves as both executive director of SisterSong, a national women of color reproductive justice organization, and director of the Trust Black Women Partnership. “Black mamas matter, and we need to end all the threats to Black women’s health, safety, and autonomy.”
By contrast, anti-choice activists have remained curiously silent in the wake of Lyles’ death. Neither Personhood USA nor Americans United For Life responded to requests for comment for this story, despite the fact that both groups are typically vocal proponents of harsh punishments for those who commit violence against people resulting in pregnancy loss. Moreover, mainstream organizations working towards “pro-life” agendas have steered away from commenting on Lyles’ death.
That’s to be expected, Heidi Williamson, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress, emphasizing that white leadership within the anti-choice movement is especially unlikely to weigh in on these cases. (Disclosure: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent publication housed at the Center for American Progress.)
“I don’t expect we’ll see a response from them,” Williamson said. “Most white anti-choice activists struggle with the intersection of reproductive rights and race.”
But anti-choice activists haven’t always steered away from racial issues — if anything, the movement has historically honed in on civil rights as a way to further its agenda to restrict abortion.
In 2010, anti-abortion groups mounted a controversial campaign in Atlanta, Georgia, decorating the city with billboards targeting people of color. “Black children are an endangered species,” the signs read. At the time, Ryan Bomberger, who designed the billboard and founded the anti-abortion Radiance Foundation, told the New York Times that the effort was one meant to counter “an industry that we believe targets African-Americans.”
Six years after the billboards were introduced, #UnbornLivesMatter — a take on #BlackLivesMatter — circulated on Twitter following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men killed by police. The hashtag’s appearance came only a few months after Missouri state Representative Mike Moon (R) introduced the “All Lives Matter” act, a bill which attempted to legally define a fertilized egg as a person.
Other efforts by anti-choice activists have worked towards similar ends. Fetal homicide laws, which classify fetuses as separate homicide victims, currently exist in 38 states, something anti-abortion groups have endorsed and sought tirelessly to expand. But these same groups have failed to speak out in the aftermath of Lyles’ death.
While it’s unclear why anti-abortion organizations are staying quiet, Williamson, who has monitored figures in the movement before, noted that instances of police brutality tend to spark different reactions than one might expect. “I would imagine that they would probably blame the victim,” she said, observing that the anti-abortion activists of color she monitored addressed a few deaths, like those of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, speaking to the ways in which police violence has hurt parents of color. But even then, she said, the connection between reproductive justice and abuses from law enforcement was never made.
“They’re pro-birth,” Williamson said. “Not pro-life.”