Brothers in Arms, Part 2: Race and Abortion from Roe to the Reagan Years

This article is our second installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series examined how fears of immigration — and racist notions that associated abortion with the barbarism of so-called “savage” races — fueled the opposition to abortion that led to its prohibition in the late 1800s. This installment examines the social forces that helped racism and opposition to abortion converge again in the first years after Roe v. Wade.

Replica of a banner used at NAACP headquarters from 1920 to 1938

A principle of democracy holds that while majority rule should serve as the guiding force of government, at times it must be reconciled with the rights of individuals and minorities. It was an idea Thomas Jefferson captured in his inaugural speech of 1801:

All … will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail … that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect.

With that understanding, the framers wrote the Constitution to include provisions for a judicial branch, composed of judges whose lifetime appointments would free them from the pressures of elections and afford them greater independence in their decisions. The branch would serve as the nation’s highest judicial body, above state and local courts.


Before his obsession with abortion and Tinky Winky, Jerry Falwell fought civil rights and integration.


For much of U.S. history, local, state, and federal judicial systems existed alongside another judicial system, one far less formal and conceived not in the interest of protecting minorities, but often in meting out the harshest possible punishments for them. It was the vigilante justice of lynching, sometimes known as Lynch law. Named after the Virginia plantation owner Charles Lynch, it was a form of mob justice that took root in the Revolutionary War era, before an official court system was fully established. It came to mean quick trials that ended in public hangings.

Though lynching was initially used against British loyalists, eventually Southern blacks became the overwhelming majority of its victims. Many Native Americans, Asians, Jews, and Mexicans were also lynched. According to the NAACP, between 1882 and 1968, in the period of racial tension in the post-slavery and civil rights years, 4,743 lynchings took place, and 3,446 of its victims were black. Rather than taking place under the cover of night or in countryside seclusion, many lynchings were staged in broad daylight, even in front of courthouses, and they were often advertised beforehand in newspapers — a blunt assertion of their existence as a separate judicial system for people of color. Though associated with the South, they took place in the North as well. In fact, only a few states — Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — had no lynchings between 1882 and 1968. Continue reading

In the Wake of Roe v. Wade: The Helms Amendment

USAID is essential in reducing infant and maternal mortality in the developing world.

This Sunday, December 17, is the 44th anniversary of the Helms Amendment.

What is the Helms Amendment and why should we care about it?

The simple answer to the first part of that question is that it is language added to the 1973 foreign aid bill. It reads:

No foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.


The Helms Amendment was the first federal legislative attack on abortion rights in the post-Roe era.


But of course nothing to do with abortion is ever simple. Think of the Senate in December 1973, just 11 months after the Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal. In the intervening months the war in Vietnam ended; Henry Kissinger visited China; the Watergate hearings and the first trials of the conspirators began; Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned after being convicted of accepting bribes; President Nixon named Gerald Ford to replace Agnew; there were bloody coups in Greece and Chile; the Yom Kippur War was fought in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia led the oil embargo against the United States, raising gasoline prices from 25 cents per gallon to more than a dollar; Nixon tried to stop the Watergate investigation by firing the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox; the top two people in the Justice Department resigned rather than do so, leaving Robert Bork to carry out that order, in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre; eventually Nixon was compelled to turn over his tapes after fighting the order in court.

In other words, 1973 was a turbulent year, a time of great change and political turmoil in Washington. Continue reading

Brothers in Arms, Part 1: Racist Anti-Abortion Rhetoric from the Restell Years to Roe v. Wade

Newspaper illustration of Madame Restell in jail, February 23, 1878

This article is our first installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion, from the fears of immigration that fueled abortion prohibition in the late 1800s to the gender-based hatred rooted in today’s white nationalist resurgence.

In the battle over abortion, Kentucky was this year’s ground zero. In Louisville, the EMW Women’s Surgical Center fought to keep its doors open, as a governor, a legislature, and a base of activists — all hostile to abortion — made it their mission to shut the clinic down. For reproductive justice advocates, the stakes were high, as EMW stands as the only abortion provider in Kentucky, the last one in a state that had more than a dozen such providers in the late 1970s.


In the 19th century, opposition to abortion was fueled by racist paranoia.


The situation in Louisville was emblematic of a national phenomenon. In 2011, state legislatures entered a fever pitch, passing new restrictions on abortion, including ultrasound requirements, waiting periods, state-mandated counseling, and prohibitions against telemedicine care and abortion medications. Within a few years, more than 200 restrictions were enacted, and by early 2016, The Washington Post was reporting that 162 abortion providers had closed in their wake.

Boom Years for Abortion

When Ann Lohman first opened her abortion practice, her experience could not have stood in starker contrast to the battle of attrition against regulations and harassment that shutters many of today’s providers. If there were any challenges to keeping her doors open, it was competing with the many other providers who clamored for attention, with advertisements in newspapers, popular magazines, and even religious publications. Lohman’s own advertising budget, to stand out from the crowd, eventually reached $60,000 a year.

Lohman’s experience, like the EMW Center’s, was a sign of the times — but they were very different times.  Continue reading

Affirming the Autonomy of Indigenous Women

November is National American Indian Heritage Month. As we celebrate the positive sides of Indigenous Nations’ histories, we must acknowledge that the U.S. government has both robbed Native Americans of their land and, through the policies of the Indian Health Service division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, made it difficult for Indigenous people to access quality health care.

Indian Health Service (IHS) was established in 1955 with the stated goal of improving the health care of Native Americans living on reservations. However, Indigenous women who came into IHS clinics for something as common as vaccinations were often sterilized without their consent. During the 1960s and 1970s, 25 to 50 percent of women who visited IHS clinics (approximately 3,406 women) were sterilized without their knowledge. Methods of sterilization included partial or full hysterectomies, and tubal ligations.


Bodily autonomy is about having the power to decide for oneself whether and when to bear children.


The IHS had a clear objective: population control (aka “genocide”). Census data collected during the 1970s showed that Native Americans had birthrates that were much higher than white communities. According to census data, the average American Indian woman had 3.79 children, while white women had 1.79 children. The 1980 census revealed that the average birthrate for white women was 2.14, while the birthrate for Indigenous women was 1.99. You don’t have to be a math whiz to see that this is a drastic contrast.

Myla Vicenti Carpio, a professor of American Indian studies at Arizona State University, explains: Continue reading

The Racial and Reproductive Justice of Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall, 1967. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration

On January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as America’s 45th president, almost half a million people descended on Washington, D.C., in what the Washington Post called “likely the largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history.” The Women’s March was held to protest the election of a highly unpopular president, who had been exposed in the months leading up to the election as someone who insulted the appearance and intelligence of women, boasted of his aggressive sexual advances toward others, and vowed to nominate a Supreme Court judge who would roll back women’s access to abortion. In D.C., and at solidarity marches around the nation and the world, people arrived for a massive show of support for women’s rights and reproductive justice.


Thurgood Marshall was a “great champion of intersecting struggles against racism and sexism.”


Actor Chadwick Boseman, who was on the set of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, a movie based on the first black superhero featured in mainstream comics, took a break from filming that morning to tweet, “Shooting Black Panther on a Saturday. But my heart is at the Women’s March.” It was a fitting sentiment for an actor who had also been cast to star in Marshall, the recently released biopic about the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

While Marshall was known foremost for his role in important civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education, as well as for becoming the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice some 50 years ago this month, he was also an influential figure in the history of reproductive justice. While the biopic focuses on his early career, when he handled a 1941 case involving a black defendant facing racially charged allegations and a prejudiced criminal justice system, it was not until more than three decades after that case — and more than five years after his swearing in to the Supreme Court — that Marshall became a fixture in the history of abortion rights in the U.S. Continue reading

101 Years Ago Today: Sanger’s First Clinic Opens its Doors

Clinic at 46 Amboy Street

“The poor, century-behind-the-times public officials of this country might as well forget their moss-grown statutes and accept birth control as an established fact. My new national plan makes it as inevitable as night and day.” – Margaret Sanger, October 22, 1916

Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, said these words a full century ago, denouncing lawmakers who wished to throw obstacles between women and access to contraception. Her vision for the future was one in which reliable birth control was widely available without controversy. It is frustrating and outright embarrassing that we are still fighting for the right of women to control their own bodies, especially when it comes to reproductive health care.

Different methods of birth control have been used since the ninth century. However, birth control as we know it today was not easily accessible in the United States until the early 1900s.

Sanger helped popularize the term “birth control” because she felt that women had the right to control their own bodies and determine when, and if, they would have children. Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, on October 16, 1916 — 101 years ago today. She and her sister, Ethel Byrne, had spent time researching reproductive health care access in the Netherlands, which inspired them to start their own clinic in the United States. They spent time talking to residents in Brooklyn to ensure that the community would be comfortable having a birth control clinic in their neighborhood. Continue reading

Celebrating Mexico’s Contributions to the Birth Control Pill

September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month. We’re celebrating by shining the spotlight on Mexico’s role in developing the birth control pill, one of the most important medical breakthroughs of the 20th century.


Humanity cannot fully unlock its potential until we release the bonds of oppression from all marginalized groups.


Underneath the surface of a large swath of Southern Mexico’s jungles lay the enormous roots of a wild yam, Dioscorea composita, known locally as barbasco. Mostly it was considered a nuisance, as it could get in the way of subsistence agriculture, but it did have its uses in traditional medicine — and it would change history forever when scientists figured out how to wrest valuable chemical compounds from it, a discovery that led directly to the development of the birth control pill.

Russell Marker. Image: Penn State University ArchivesIn the 1940s, hormones held an untapped potential for research, but there was no cost-effective method of producing large quantities of them — including progesterone, the Pill’s essential ingredient. An American chemist named Russell Marker set out to find a way to synthesize progesterone in abundance, hypothesizing that plants from the genus Dioscorea, which includes yams and agaves, would be a good source for starting material. After some research, he set his sights on wild-growing yams that were found only in Mexico.

Marker’s hunch brought him south of the U.S. border, where locals helped him find and gather these yams, enabling him to develop a method for synthesizing large batches of progesterone — more than had ever been in one place. When pharmaceutical companies would not invest in further research in Mexico, Marker relocated to Mexico City and put his money where his mouth was. In January 1944, he co-founded a lab named Syntex — a portmanteau of “synthesis” and “Mexico” — devoted to finagling hormones from wild Mexican yams. That yam was called barbasco by the indigenous population, and it was the industry’s choice for the raw material in hormone synthesis. Continue reading