In the past few years, “black lives matter” — and the subsequent movement around the rallying cry — has elevated criminal justice issues to a dinner-table talking point, in part by simply giving all of America a unified vocabulary. Other groups, however, have taken advantage of that vocabulary to undermine the message of racial justice, spawning spin-off phrases like “All Lives Matter,” “Blue Lives Matter,” and, from anti-abortion groups, “Unborn Lives Matter.”
#UnbornLivesMatter activity spiked last week on Twitter as the rest of the nation grappled with the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five police officers in Dallas, as reported by Amanda Marcotte for Salon.
This phrase has been around for a few years, since almost the beginning of the BLM movement. But last week, activity on the hashtag surged by 1033 percent over the average for the previous four weeks, according to data compiled by the right-wing Patriot Journalist Network.
It’s not the first time the anti-abortion movement has co-opted BLM for its own end.
This same movement is silent when Black children are shot
In January, Missouri state Representative Mike Moon (R) introduced a bill titled the “All Lives Matter” act, which would legally define a fertilized egg as a person with all the ensuing rights (even, for example, when it is just a zygote pre-implantation in the uterine wall). The bill is currently languishing in committee.
Around the same time, former GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson said that BLM should say “all black lives matter” in order to include the black lives “eradicated by abortion.” According to reporting by Vox, clinic escorts have reported protesters targeting black women entering the clinic with phrases such as “black lives matter,” and “hands up, don’t abort.”
Language like this enrages BLM and reproductive rights advocates, because it co-opts black women as pawns using exactly the language that was meant to lift them up.
“Attempts by the pro-life movement to appropriate the language of Black Lives Matter are just the latest example of that movement’s long history of pandering to their conservative and often racist base by insulting Black women and dismissing Black activism,” Pamela Merrit, co-director of St. Louis-based Reproaction, told Ebony Magazine in reference to the Missouri bill. “This same movement is silent when Black children are shot and Black women are raped by police officers.”
If the focus was truly on women’s health or helping the black community, advocates say, then “all lives matter” and “unborn lives matter” proponents ought to be advocating for increasing access to women’s health care, ending poverty, fighting infant mortality and lack of education access, and addressing gun violence. Instead, the focus remains on policing women’s bodies, repackaged in a racial-justice frame.
Anti-abortion’s long history of twisting racial justice
The anti-choice movement is an old offender at this game. Anti-abortion groups are masters of framing, spinning abortion restrictions as efforts to protect women (research shows that they have exactly the opposite effect), and casting the entire movement as speaking for the voiceless unborn. Racial justice movements, then, are a great source to mine for similarly evocative rhetoric.
Conservatives frequently link abortion to slavery and paint abortion as “black genocide.” Some anti-choice groups have even erected billboards proclaiming that “The Most Dangerous Place For An African American Is In The Womb.” A 2010 campaign launched in Georgia went so far as to call abortions “womb lynchings.”
The common thread in all of these assertions is the — true — fact that black women terminate pregnancies at a disproportionate rate. Research shows this is because black women have a higher rate of unintended pregnancy, associated with higher rates of poverty and lack of access to contraception. Anti-abortion groups, however, paint it as a bigger white conspiracy to keep the black population down.
Specifically targeting Planned Parenthood, anti-abortion groups have pushed a misleading narrative that the group’s founder, Margaret Sanger, was a racist who wanted to eliminate black babies. (Though Sanger did have ties to the eugenics movement, which was extremely popular during her time, historians insist that she didn’t support eugenics along racial lines.) The line of argument is that reproductive rights groups like Planned Parenthood are preying on communities of color.
In some parts of the black community, it’s a message that resonates particularly because of lingering distrust of the medical community, the result of revelations of unethical experiments on African Americans in decades past and sometimes, the second-rate care black Americans may receive.
But by hijacking movements focused on combating racism for their own ends, anti-abortion groups actually end up perpetuating racist stereotypes about black women being foolish, unintelligent, or unfit mothers.
“To them, Black women are the poor dupes of the abortion rights movement, lacking agency and decision-making of our own,” Loretta Ross, a leader in the reproductive justice movement and cofounder of SisterSong Women of of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, wrote in an essay on Rewire about the “black genocide” anti-abortion campaign.
Advocates point out that anti-abortion language targeting black women is particularly insidious given that black women have historically had very little control over their reproduction.
“During slavery, they were forced into childbirth. Then, they were forced into methods for sterilization,” Alison Dreith, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, wrote in a column for the St. Louis American. The All Lives Matter bill, she says, “continues the trend in Missouri, that women should not make their own decisions.”
And ultimately, by co-opting “black lives matter,” anti-abortion groups are also derailing the conversation about racially-biased policing and black death by police bullets.
“Black lives matter” provides a resounding answer to an unheard question: In the face of disproportionate policing and black deaths that are often unpunished and ignored, do black lives matter? Yes, they do. When other groups co-opt the phrase, they shift the focus away from this aspect of criminal justice — and thus deemphasize the bigger problem at hand.
“Unborn lives matter” goes one step further: not only does it derail that focus, but it also puts the primary blame on black women for choosing to have abortions. Anti-abortion rhetoric focused on black women argues for them to have that control over their bodies taken away from them — even as black women take to the streets to protest for control of their bodies from the police.