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

The 26th Amendment at 45: Bringing More Voters to the Fight for Reproductive Rights

Image of a button showing support for a lower voting age from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

When the question of same-sex marriage went before the Supreme Court in the summer of 2013, it was clear that millennials, the nation’s youngest adults, had already reached their verdict; 66 percent were in favor of recognizing it, putting them among the most supportive demographic groups in the U.S.

That same year, millennials were in the spotlight in another fight for social justice. Refusing to accept their university’s mishandling of sexual assault reports, two survivor activists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill fought back with federal complaints. Their activism turned up the pressure on their institution and evolved into the founding of the organization End Rape on Campus, or EROC, a networked movement against sexual assault that linked survivor activists and other advocates for change on college campuses throughout the U.S. Following EROC’s founding, supportive faculty formed Faculty Against Rape, or FAR, bringing the movement to more stakeholders in campus communities.


Young voters have the power to shape political futures.


Jennings Randolph, a Democratic member of Congress from 1933 to 1947 (and later a senator from 1958 to 1985), said the nation’s youth “possess a great social conscience, are perplexed by the injustices in the world and are anxious to rectify those ills.” With that faith in the collective power of young Americans, Randolph made it his mission, beginning in 1942, to introduce legislation that would lower the voting age to 18. Historically it had been 21. His hopes, though, would not be realized until decades later, in the 1970s.

The United States entered the 1970s bearing the toll of what became one of the longest and most unpopular wars in its history. By the time the Vietnam War ended in 1975, 2.5 million Americans had served in the conflict, a quarter of them because of the draft. More than 58,000 of them lost their lives. Continue reading

“I Didn’t Want to Believe It”: Lessons from Tuskegee 40 Years Later

Located among longleaf pine and hardwood trees, low ridges, and broad floodplains, Tuskegee, Alabama, is a small town that’s been a big part of American history. Despite a modest population of less than 10,000 people, Tuskegee has been able to boast many notable residents who have made names for themselves in everything from sports to the arts. Among them have been the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American Air Force unit, which served during World War II, and Rosa Parks, the icon of the civil rights movement, who sparked the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.


The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, conducted from 1932 to 1972, examined the natural progression of untreated syphilis in poor, rural black men — without their informed consent.


Tuskegee, though, is also remembered for one of the worst chapters in the history of medical research. Forty years ago, in 1972, newspapers revealed the story of a syphilis study that was callous in its deception of research participants, and damaging, even today, in the distrust it sowed among black Americans. The study had started another 40 years prior, in 1932, when the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) needed to rescue a financially troubled syphilis intervention in Macon County, Alabama. The intervention was first established in partnership with a Chicago-based philanthropic organization, but its future was uncertain when the organization’s funds dried up during the Great Depression.

Syphilis, the sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, was the subject of conflicting scientific hypotheses at the time, including the hypothesis that the disease behaved differently in blacks and whites. Interested in testing those hypotheses and faced with disappearing funds for treatment, the USPHS turned its project into a study of untreated syphilis. Also influencing the decision was the fact that the USPHS was discouraged by the low cure rate of the treatments at the time, mercury and bismuth. But by the mid-1940s, penicillin was in use as a proven treatment for syphilis. In spite of that medical advance, the USPHS withheld treatment from a total of 399 infected patients by the time the study ended in 1972. Continue reading

Minority Health: Its Importance Here and Now

In April 2001, the National Minority Quality Forum, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded to eliminate health disparities, launched National Minority Health Month. The next year, it received Congressional support in House Concurrent Resolution 388, which resolved that National Minority Health Month should be observed “to promote educational efforts on the health problems currently facing minorities and other health disparity populations.”


Income inequality is the most significant cause of racial and ethnic health disparities.


The term health disparity is a broad term that refers to preventable differences in health between segments of society as a result of unequal access to health care, underfunded schools (which result in lower health literacy), discrimination, or other disadvantages. Racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ individuals, and low-income socioeconomic groups are typically the focus of health disparities research. It’s a broad area of study, but to stay within the focus of this blog, a look at reproductive health among Arizona’s racial and ethnic minorities can be a good place to start. Continue reading

Honoring Life: Arizonans Observe National Native American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

Tuesday, March 20, 2012, is National Native American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NNHAAD). Started in 2007, NNHAAD is focused on promoting HIV education, prevention, and testing among Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, a former professor at the University of Arizona who is now director of Indian Health Service, has called NNHAAD a day to “celebrate our successes and plan how to best continue working in partnership to address HIV and AIDS among Native people.”


On March 16, Arizona State University will observe Native American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day with speakers, information, and free HIV testing.


Although HIV affects every segment of society in the United States, Native Americans and Alaska Natives are disproportionately affected, ranking third, after black and Latina/Latino Americans, in the rate of HIV/AIDS diagnosis. Even as high as it is, the documented rate of diagnosis most likely understates the actual rate of HIV among Native Americans and Alaska Natives. This is due to racial misidentification in collected data and poor data reporting between state and federal agencies and the Indian Health Service (IHS). Further deflating the rate of diagnosis is the concern among people from smaller Native communities about anonymity during testing and confidentiality after diagnosis. Those concerns and the stigma associated with HIV lead to a reluctance to get tested, which delays or precludes diagnosis.

To understand the high rate of HIV, it helps to look at risk factors that uniquely affect Native Americans and Alaska Natives. Dr. Anthony Dekker of the Phoenix Indian Medical Center, interviewed for the newspaper Indian Life, commented that Native American patients “have very high rates of … sexually transmitted diseases … We also know that there is a very high rate of alcohol and [substance abuse] in the American Indian/Alaska Native population. There are many reasons for that, but what happens is that when you take a population that has had high rates of substance abuse and high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, [that population] also has high rates of HIV.” A high rate of substance abuse is associated with a high rate of HIV and other STIs, since impairment can lead to risky sexual behavior, such as poorer negotiation of condom use. Continue reading