Reproductive Racism

As a pastor’s daughter, I knew little about abortion but believed that every woman had a “right to choose.” When abortion became legal in 1973, many felt that women had finally been granted a certain freedom. Yet how many of us knew exactly how abortions were performed?

I became involved with Planned Parenthood (PP) through a group called the Coalition of 100 Black Women. When a speech I made at an international conference received media coverage, I was invited to join the Planned Parenthood board.

After attending a number of board meetings, I noticed that several board members arrived in chauffeured limousines. I wondered why these men of wealth were so interested in people who lived in the inner-city.

The majority of the board members were male, and the handful of women appeared to be much older than my twenty-seven years. I was the only person of color on the board.

During the course of my five-year tenure, we received a lot of literature discussing population control and concern for the growing number of poor people in the United States and developing countries. As a black woman, I wondered why abortion was more necessary for my ethnic group and why this organization fought so hard to give us this particular ”right“ when the rights for better education, better jobs, and better housing seemed paramount to me.

Continuing on the board, I learned about the biggest challenge that PP of New York City faced. For every abortion that was performed, the Department of Health had to issue a death certificate. Death certif icates? Did that mean the babies were alive? As board members, we were required to understand abortion procedures. The viability debate ended for me when I read documents detailing how abortions were performed (see abortion methods).

I came to the next meeting horrified, shaking with disbelief, and filled with protestations. Holding up the papers, I said that these procedures were traumatic for both the mother and her baby. An older woman sitting across from me looked me coldly in the eye and said, “It is not traumatic!” I was stunned by her insensitivity and chilled by her icy stare. I was on the verge of resigning from the board but thought, “Who will speak up if I leave?” I remained until 1980, determined to be a thorn in their side and often cast the lone opposing vote.

LaVerne Tolbert, Ph.D., has 37 years experience in the field of teen pregnancy prevention. An author and curriculum writer, Dr. Tolbert teaches in the graduate school at Azusa Pacific University, CA . To contact her, email ltolbert@apu.edu.