OK, Abby Johnson. Let's Talk About Abortion and Racism | Opinion

For a long time, movements for racial justice and for reproductive health seemed like two different fronts of the culture wars. Not so much anymore: Anti-abortion forces are succeeding in making arguments about racism central to strategies to hollow out Roe v. Wade or overturn it outright. Those arguments surfaced again in the remarks of anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson on the second night of the Republican National Convention. Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee, accused the organization of inhumane and racist practices.

Johnson's speech on Tuesday night was not made in a vacuum. This year, abortion foes won recent victories for so-called "reason bans," like the one the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals viewed favorably a few weeks ago. These laws prohibit abortions for reasons of race, sex or disability—and pave the way for further restrictions. In 2019, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas praised one such law in a blistering concurrence.

No matter what you make of Johnson's speech, a deeper public conversation about reproduction and racial justice is overdue.

Thomas and Johnson have a good idea of how they would like to steer that dialogue. Both point to the early history of Planned Parenthood. In the early 20th century, the organization's founder, Margaret Sanger, embraced eugenics as a way to expand support for the legalization of birth control. Sanger was hardly unique in endorsing eugenics. Racial hatred and junk science had an appeal that crossed party lines.

Around the 1970s, some abortion rights supporters also signed on to a movement to curb global population growth. Some leaders of that movement helped shape earlier eugenic policies or held racist views about the dignity and value of people of color. Like eugenics, population control was extremely popular. Republicans, as well as Democrats, lined up to defuse what then-best-selling author Paul Ehrlich called the "population bomb."

Activists like Johnson and Thomas wield selective parts of this history as a weapon against the contemporary reproductive rights movement—and against pregnant people who seek abortion. But the history is not nearly as simple as abortion foes would like. Not all early supporters of abortion rights in the 1970s believed in population control. And not all population controllers were eugenicists or racists; some saw themselves as environmentalists or feminists. Anti-abortion strategies hardly demonstrate that Planned Parenthood leaders are racist today, much less that individual patients have been duped into unwitting participation in a racist population control strategy.

Moreover, reason-based bans are not new. For nearly a decade, states have passed these laws and seen them blocked by the courts. But what may be changing is the willingness of the Supreme Court to jettison Roe. As institutions get renamed and statutes come down, the public is also increasingly concerned about racial justice. Supporters of reason bans suggest that there is no tension between banning abortion and caring about equality. According to these activists, overturning Roe would advance the cause of racial justice.

Dismissing race-based bans as a ploy leaves the reproductive rights movement vulnerable. Supporters of legal abortion historically have treated Sanger as a hero. Until recently, her name was on Planned Parenthood's flagship clinic. And burying the influence of population control thinking obscures how some feminists fought for a very different vision of reproductive rights—one grounded in gender equality and bodily autonomy. Worse, ignoring history neglects the work of Black, Asian and Latinx activists who fundamentally changed the priorities and rhetoric of the pro-choice movement, cementing a shift from reproductive rights to reproductive justice.

Anti-Abortion Activist Abby Johnson
In this screenshot from the RNC’s live stream of the 2020 Republican National Convention, anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson addresses the virtual convention on August 25. Courtesy of the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee/Getty

Saying nothing about this history else will make it that much easier for anti-abortion leaders to roll back abortion rights entirely. This summer, in June Medical Services v. Russo, Chief Justice John Roberts softened the rules that apply to abortion restrictions, giving states more leeway to regulate abortion. Reason bans seem to be a go-to strategy for those looking for a way to dismantle Roe. These laws rely on the idea that that the right to abortion applies only to people who are justified in ending their pregnancies. If the court buys that, legislators will argue for narrower and narrower definitions of a "good reason" for abortion.

Eventually, some will insist that there is never a reason for abortion. And there will not be much left of Roe to overrule.

But the importance of grappling with the history of racism and abortion go beyond anything having to do with Roe. Without a nuanced and substantive response from abortion rights advocates, the only account that Americans will hear will be the one offered by those who oppose abortion. Downplaying the past sends the message that people of color are pawns in a broader political fight rather than leaders who have transformed the struggle over reproduction in America. For anyone who seeks to confront the deep legacies of racial injustice, that's bad news.

Rachel Rebouché is the associate dean and a professor of law at Temple University School of Law.

Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University College of Law, is the author of Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.