Bad Faith Abounds in Our Public Discourse on Abortion | Opinion

As a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young assistant professor, one of the first op-eds I ever published offered tips for civil discourse in an era of polarization. I'm still happy with most of what I wrote back then, but nearly a decade later, I've come to the reluctant conclusion that many of the arguments that dominate our public square are made in bad faith. One of the worst examples is the debate about abortion.

In a recent interview with me, Jon Ward of Yahoo! News referenced a cartoon which he included in his story. It illustrates a classic example of bad faith on the part of the Republican Party: an elephant driving a cart, labeled "corporate interests," drawn by a horse ("Christian voters") enticed with a carrot labeled "overturn Roe v. Wade."

Pro-lifers who have been around the block don't need to be reminded of the ways the national GOP has used us during our largely failed attempt to push the party to prioritize abortion. Time and time again, our goals (including defunding Planned Parenthood—still flush with government cash after four years of the Trump administration) were put on the back burner while other party goals (like tax cuts and immigration policy) got top priority.

When we learned that former Republican representative Tim Murphy, a charter member of the pro-life caucus, pressured his mistress into having an abortion, many of us realized Republicans were not arguing against abortion in good faith. We finally noticed that they always kept the carrot just far enough out of reach that pro-lifers would keep moving the cart in directions the party actually prioritized.

This is not just a problem for Republicans, of course. It is very much a problem of the left as well, especially with the in-breaking of the new political movement for racial justice. Those who held positions of power and privilege on the left now almost universally claim to be listening to the marginalized voices of people of color, allowing them to challenge their prior assumptions and practices.

Since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, now over six years ago, there have rightly been urgent calls for police departments, universities, religious institutions, city monument committees and even the United States itself to reckon with their racist past and the persistence of racist structures and practices. We see Democratic politicians using all the right slogans, running all the right ads, and even dramatically taking a knee under the Capitol Dome for the same amount of time that George Floyd had a murderous knee on his neck.

There are certainly a good number of people associated with these movements who actually believe that we need to combat racism, and are authentically working to overcome their biases and limitations in doing so. But a good number of others apparently see this new political movement as little more than a new, tasty and useful carrot.

For a long time now—decades, in fact—the pro-life movement has been trying to draw attention to the racist eugenics which motivated and continue to underlie the push for reproductive "choice." It was no historical accident that Mildred Jefferson, the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, was a cofounder of the National Right to Life Committee. Racial justice leaders of that time, like Jesse Jackson, were rightly concerned that abortion and population control were being pushed just as people of color were demanding and receiving civil rights. Several contemporary pro-life activists continue to voice that concern for racial justice today, including Gloria Purvis, Ryan Bomberger and Aimee Murphy.

abortion protest
Pro-choice and pro-life activists demonstrate in front of the the US Supreme Court during the 47th annual March for Life on January 24, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Olivier Douliery / AFP/Getty

I work in the Bronx where, among a population dominated by people of color, more than 4 in 10 pregnancies end in abortion. Jason Riley, an African-American columnist for the Wall Street Journal, has highlighted just how bad things are in Black communities when it comes to abortion. In New York City between 2012 and 2016, Black mothers terminated 136,426 pregnancies and gave birth to 118,127 babies. In communities like Cleveland, the abortion industry targets communities of color with billboard campaigns bearing slogans like "Abortion is Necessary" and "Abortion is Good Medicine."

When pro-lifers point out the clear structural racism responsible for making abortion rates in communities of color dramatically higher than they are in white communities, they are either ignored or accused of white supremacy themselves. This despite the fact that actual white supremacists are almost all strongly in favor of abortion—precisely because it disproportionately affects people of color. Indeed, anyone who conducts even the slightest research into the abortion movement, and especially Planned Parenthood, will find a history of racism that created an industry that remains structurally racist.

That history was on full display in African-American New York Times journalist Nikita Stewart's bracing coverage of Planned Parenthood of New York's decision to disavow its founder, Margaret Sanger. Stewart's reporting drove home the point that Sanger's legacy "includes supporting eugenics, a discredited belief in improving the human race through selective breeding, often targeted at poor people, those with disabilities, immigrants and people of color."

Karen Seltzer, the chair of the New York affiliate's board, made it clear that the decision "was both a necessary and overdue step to reckon with our legacy and acknowledge Planned Parenthood's contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color." This, Stewart notes, is a quite different message from the one Planned Parenthood had been selling in the very recent past—when it argued Sanger was "mostly well intentioned" in her policy proposals directed at communities of color. Though the organization had noted that it "disagreed" with Sanger's acceptance of a speaking invitation from the Ku Klux Klan.

To its credit, Planned Parenthood recently conducted an internal audit of its policies toward people of color. Buzzfeed reported on the findings, which weren't pretty: the organization not only had a problem with structural racism—a legacy of a terrible past—but many of its employees currently face explicit anti-Black racism from within the organization. Many such employees "had been experiencing these issues and bringing them to management's attention for years, but felt that little had been done to change the problems."

Will our current moment of racial justice be enough for Democrats and the broader activist and political left to finally heed the arguments of pro-lifers and refuse to support this structurally and explicitly racist organization? Recent signs are not good, with Planned Parenthood seeing a massive fundraising windfall during the last few years. The Washington Post reported, for instance, that the organization took in $591 million in donations in 2018—a whopping 50 percent increase since 2014.

Perhaps we can hold out hope that the racial-justice reckoning of 2020 will yet come for Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry. African Americans, who are significantly more skeptical of abortion than are white Democrats, are nevertheless having abortions at a significantly higher rates than the rest of the population.

This result of structural racism must not stand.

If the Democratic Party moves to match African American skepticism with respect to the abortion industry, it would go a long way toward showing that its public support of racial justice is not merely part of a political calculation, but a good-faith attempt to stamp out structural and explicit anti-Black racism wherever we find it.

Charles Camosy teaches bioethics and theology at Fordham University. His most recent book is Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People and can be found on Twitter @ccamosy.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.