A Right to Life for the Living
By Melissa Harris-Lacewell

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study employed Eunice Rivers as an outreach coordinator for more than thirty years. Her role, as an African-American nurse, was to gain and maintain the trust of black men targeted by the study. She helped ensure that they did not seek the widely available, highly effective medical care that they critically needed to treat their syphilis, because if they received penicillin they would disrupt the study's goal of observing the disease's devastating course of blindness, madness and physical decay.

Georgia's largest antiabortion group, Georgia Right to Life, is employing a similar strategy. Catherine Davis is its Eunice Rivers. As outreach coordinator for the predominantly white group, this black woman is traveling to black churches and colleges decrying abortion as a genocidal conspiracy against African-Americans and encouraging black women not to exercise their legal right to obtain the healthcare of their choice.

The Tuskegee study was initiated in the rural South during a period of great economic distress. It preyed on vulnerable communities with few medical resources and little political power. It employed a cynical racist strategy of encouraging black compliance by deploying black spokespeople to claim that the study's efforts were in the best interests of African-Americans.

Georgia Right to Life has revived this racial masquerade by portraying its opposition to reproductive rights as a campaign for racial justice. This is a potentially effective strategy because it taps into the troubling legacy of eugenics-inspired efforts to broaden birth control access and legalize abortion. Family planning pioneer Margaret Sanger was a eugenics proponent who sought to reduce birthrates among the poor, the disabled and racial and ethnic minorities. State-enforced involuntary sterilization was a common practice in the United States until the 1960s. Southern doctors routinely performed hysterectomies without consent; civil rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer was the victim of one of these "Mississippi appendectomies." Moreover, black families and children are often labeled deviant, pathological, potentially criminal and burdensome to taxpayers. In a country that glorifies large white families, it feels as though few celebrate or encourage the birth of black children. Given this ugly history, it is easy for many to believe racialized antichoice appeals like the Georgia Right to Life billboards asserting Black Children Are an Endangered Species.

But if black children are endangered, the reasons are far more complicated than those billboards suggest. If these conservative organizations are really concerned about creating and maintaining a robust black birthrate, then they will have to buy space for some additional billboards. They could start with a billboard that says, Poverty Is Genocide. Black babies are more than twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday. Maternal poverty, inadequate nutrition and insufficient prenatal care are the key contributors to black infant mortality.

They need a billboard declaring Inadequate Education Is Genocide. Black children are significantly more likely to live in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty and residential segregation and, therefore, to attend schools with inferior resources, lower-quality instructors and larger class sizes. Children in these schools are vastly more likely to drop out, to be arrested, to be the victims of violent crime and to die prematurely.
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