Black women's fight for motherhood

Fact check: What do the Planned Parenthood videos show?
Fact check: What do the Planned Parenthood videos show?

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Fact check: What do the Planned Parenthood videos show? 01:47

Story highlights

  • Charmaine Davis: Threat to Planned Parenthood part of history linking poverty, abortion, attempts to undermine black families
  • Davis says all barriers to motherhood must be removed
  • Every woman should be able to give birth to healthy children whom society values, she says

Charmaine Davis is the state director of the Georgia chapter of 9to5, National Association of Working Women and a public voices fellow of the OpEd Project. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Sparked by controversial and highly viewed videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue, House Republicans voted last week to cut off taxpayer funding for the organization.

And Senate Republicans pushed legislation this week to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but Democrats blocked them -- a signal to conservatives that efforts to defund Planned Parenthood can't pass.
Roe v. Wade may have made abortions legal, but for many the subject remains far from resolved.
    Charmaine Davis
    The debate over all of this has been intense and at times ugly. One anti-abortion group has given the issue a racial cast: It has put up billboards in many cities with large black populations showing images of black babies, pushing the idea that abortions are a major cause of the deaths of black children.
    What you won't see on those billboards is any mention of the long fight of black women for the simple right to be mothers, or the pernicious historical connections among poverty, abortion and longstanding government attempts to undermine and disadvantage black families.
    Historically the right to motherhood has been challenged and in some cases denied to black women in America. They have been forcibly sterilized, their children have been unjustly executed by the state and, as a result of unjust economic policies, some have felt compelled to have an abortion to avoid falling deeper into poverty.
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    Black women have long been the targets of population control and historically have been disproportionately affected by sterilization abuse. For example, in North Carolina, a state noted for its discriminatory sterilization practices in the 20th century, 80% of sterilization procedures ordered between 1955 and 1966 at the request of the Mecklenburg Welfare Department were for black women, even though 25% of the county's female population was black.
    Economic policies that have disproportionately and negatively affected women of color present additional barriers to motherhood. Practices such as paying black women less than whites for the same work, devaluing work historically done by women and maintaining a low federal minimum wage have created poor economic conditions for black women.
    Many elected officials who say they are against abortion oppose policies that would ensure a high quality of life for children. For example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the former presidential candidate, opposed an increase in the minimum wage, rolled back enforcement of equal pay protections and kicked thousands of Wisconsinites off the state's BadgerCare Plus health insurance program.
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    This is bad news for black women, given the reality they are overrepresented in low-wage jobs. The policies Walker upended have the potential to help black women in Wisconsin and their families achieve economic stability.
    But all across the country, financial challenges continue to be a barrier to motherhood for black women and other women of color. Low-income women have abortion rates five times as high as women in higher income brackets. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 69% of women having abortions are economically disadvantaged.
    More than two-thirds of women obtaining abortions say that not being able to afford a child was the reason. Black women -- 13% of the total female population -- make up 30% of women who have abortions, according to Guttmacher.
    In 2010, single black women's median wealth, was just $100, compared with $41,500 for single white women. You read that correctly. Almost 50% of black women had zero or negative wealth, according to one study.
    What's more, black women are more likely than any group in America to work for poverty-level wages.
    Their labor historically has been devalued. The 1935 Social Security Act and minimum wage laws excluded domestic workers and agriculture workers, a compromise to get Southern legislators to vote in favor of both bills, because 60% of both industries were African-Americans.
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    The over-incarceration of black women during childbearing years makes it difficult for mothers to protect and raise their children to adulthood safely. Additionally, according to data stretching from 1999 to 2011, African-Americans have comprised 26% of all police-shooting victims. Overall, young African-Americans are killed by police 4.5 times more often than people of other races and ages.
    Of course, some may argue that black women should take the initiative to improve these conditions, develop better coping mechanisms, be better mothers and work harder to erase the wage gap. And members of my organization, 9to5, are indeed banding together to improve workplace fairness, equal opportunity and economic security. But to require black women to do the extraordinary in order to enjoy motherhood is simply unjust.
    As we continue to discuss reproductive rights in this country, we cannot leave black women's fight for motherhood out of the conversation. It is essential that barriers to motherhood be removed so that every woman regardless of race and socioeconomic status has the option to give birth to healthy children and raise them in a society where their lives are valued. That is reproductive justice that truly expands the meaning of "choice."