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In the months since the police killing of George Floyd, activists in cities across the United States have covered the streets with one message: “Black Lives Matter.” Two weeks ago in Baltimore, police stood by as activists once again started painting 10-foot-long letters.
But their message, plastered in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic, was a little bit different. The bright yellow letters read, “Black Preborn Lives Matter.”
As the national debate over racism in the United States explodes and Black Lives Matter surges with unprecedented support, the anti-abortion movement has started adopting its own versions of the powerful rallying cry. Many abortion opponents, including those in the White House, are now championing slogans like “Black Preborn Lives Matter” and “Baby Lives Matter.”
The initiative ties anti-abortion crusaders’ cause to one of the biggest social movements to sweep the United States in years. And it’s the latest twist in a decades-long history of intertwining anti-abortion ideology with the fight for racial equality—a history that, according to Black supporters of abortion rights, has largely lacked Black people.
“They use this, to co-opt this messaging, so that they can sound like they are the social justice warriors,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, executive director of We Testify, which fights for better representation of people who’ve had abortions. “They are just trying to copy whatever it is that the Black Lives Matter are doing, what Black people are doing, and perverting it and gentrifying it to focus on their issue.”
In early September, Students for Life of America, the nation’s preeminent student group for anti-abortion activism, formed a coalition with a handful of Black-led organizations to put up six billboards in what spokesperson Kristi Hamrick described as “predominantly Black communities” in Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Charlotte, North Carolina. The billboards, which feature a clenched baby fist, declare, “Black Preborn Lives Matter.” The coalition was also behind the mural in Baltimore, as well as a similar one in Washington, D.C.
“It is a national tragedy, the loss of life within the Black community from abortion,” said Hamrick, who identifies as “European American.” “If we’re gonna talk about how Black Lives Matter and how Black lives are being impacted by current social constructs and organizations and policies, abortion is among those things.”
Hamrick didn’t return a VICE News request for clarity on the demographics of Students for Life’s top staffers by press time, but said, “We have team members of every race, creed, and color.”
The billboards and murals have certainly attracted attention, which is, after all, part of the point of enormous billboards and murals. Last month, Washington, D.C., police arrested two activists who wrote the “Black Preborn Lives Matter” mural in chalk; they were charged with defacing public or private property, the Washington Post reported.
Afterward, four Republican congressmen sent letters to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the head of the Department of Justice’s civil rights division. The congressmen, including Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, accused Washington, D.C., of “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination” because the district had left a “Defund the Police” mural intact for more than two months.
There will be legal action, Hamrick promised VICE News.
An unrelated GoFundMe to raise money for 10 “Baby Lives Matter” murals in front of Planned Parenthood clinics across the country has also garnered more than $19,000. Tayler Hansen, the fundraiser’s organizer, has so far painted murals in Salt Lake City; Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Virginia; and Charlotte, North Carolina. Hansen, who didn’t reply to an interview request, supports President Donald Trump and recently tweeted, “BLACK LIVES MATTER IS RACIST!”
“I support all life, but the ones that have no voice at all need to be heard,” commented one donor, who handed over $150.
“What a great idea! Proclaiming baby lives matter goes hand in hand with the Black Lives Matter movement since so many Black lives are lost due to abortion,” another wrote, adding a frown-faced emoticon. That donor gave $100.
Even Trump—who condemned New York City’s decision to paint “Black Lives Matter” in front of Trump Tower as a “symbol of hate”—has tried to spin the movement’s popularity into an anti-abortion message and profit from it. In June, at the height of the initial wave of protests, the Trump campaign sold limited-edition onesies with “Baby Lives Matter” stamped on them.
Anti-abortion billboards aren’t a new idea. Over the last decade, activists have run several bearing messages like “The Most Dangerous Place for an African American Is in the Womb” and “Black Children Are An Endangered Species.” These campaigns often rely on statistics that show that Black women are overrepresented among abortion patients.
A study of abortion rates between 2008 and 2014, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that non-Hispanic Black women had the highest abortion rate—27.1 abortions per every 1,000 women—out of all studied groups. Non-Hispanic white women accounted for the most abortions in total but had the lowest rate, at 10 abortions per every 1,000. Hispanic women made up 18.1 abortions per every 1,000, while non-Hispanic women who didn’t identify as white or Black had a rate of 16.3 abortions per every 1,000.
Anti-abortion activist Catherine Davis helped spearhead the campaign to erect billboards that called Black children an “endangered species” in Georgia in 2010. The group she leads, the Restoration Project, is now listed as a partner in the effort to spread the message that “Black Preborn Lives Matter.”
“As long as I’ve gotten you to stop what you’re doing and think about that message, then I’ve achieved the purpose of the messaging, because you’re now thinking about it,” said Davis, who is Black. “Before they painted ‘Black Preborn Lives Matter’ in front of that Planned Parenthood, that wasn’t something that people were thinking about.”
The idea that abortion is part of a “Black genocide” continues to persist. In 2019, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas—who would likely play a key role in any forthcoming effort to overturn Roe v. Wade—raised its ghost in an opinion. He called abortion “an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation” and implored his fellow justices to redefine the scope of legal abortion.
Public health experts say the overrepresentation of Black women among abortion patients isn’t proof of a vast racist conspiracy. Instead, they point to the innumerable ways that U.S. society disadvantages people of color and low-income communities; Black people in those demographics often have less access to health care as well as jobs and educational opportunities, to name just a few.
For Bracey Sherman, these types of billboards perpetuate racist, sexist stereotypes against Black women.
“Especially the one [where] they said the most dangerous place for a Black child is in the womb. If you think about that, whose womb? It’s inherently saying that Black women are inherently dangerous to their own children, which is playing off of so many tropes, like the welfare queen, that Black women talk back, they’re violent,” she said.
“None of this is new,” she continued. “I mean, after I had my abortion, when Obama was elected, they set up billboards on the south side of Chicago that said, ‘Every 21 seconds our next leader is aborted.’”
Black adults in the U.S. overwhelmingly support abortion rights—or at least they vote like they do. More than 80% of Black voters identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, according to the Pew Research Center. Nearly 60% of Black voters also believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, the Public Religion Research Institute found. (Overall, seven in 10 Americans do not support completely overturning Roe v. Wade.)
Pamela Merritt, who co-founded the abortion rights-supporting organization Reproaction, believes the variations on the “Baby Lives Matter” theme aren’t really meant to appeal to Black people but to white conservatives who may be feeling conflicted over their party’s devotion to a president with a record of downplaying violent white supremacy. She’s seen a few anti-abortion activists appear at the “outskirts” of Black Lives Matter protests in her hometown of St. Louis. That heartens her.
“Any time the opposition is developing messaging to try and keep their people from feeling guilty about the policies—and the lack of policy—to address Black lives, then you are winning,” said Merritt, who is Black.
“They can be justice warriors”
The anti-abortion movement has previously used progressive rhetoric to make its point. As the modern movement took shape in the 1960s and ’70s—and after the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide in its landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade—abortion opponents cast themselves as part of the civil rights movement.
The framing made sense to many within the movement at the time, according to Jennifer Holland, an assistant professor in the history department at the University of Oklahoma who wrote “Tiny You: A Western History of the Anti-Abortion Movement.” Not only were many of the anti-abortion movement’s biggest proponents Democratic, working-class Catholics who may have sympathized with the civil rights movement, but the idea that a fetus is a person who deserves full rights and protections also lies at the heart of pro-life logic.
“From 1973 into the 21st century, basically what it is you have an almost entirely white movement that is co-opting Black struggles in order to put the fetus into—to cast it in this light of this oppressed, murdered minorities. This entity that we care less about, just like we cared less about Black people, just like people devalued Jews in Germany,” Holland said. (Finding parallels between abortion and the Nazi Holocaust remains a popular activity among anti-abortion activists.)
“They are just trying to copy whatever it is that the Black Lives Matter are doing, what Black people are doing, and perverting it and gentrifying it to focus on their issue.”
In hitching themselves to the civil rights movement, anti-abortion activists harnessed deeply powerful messaging and aligned themselves with the fight to realize the promise of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which was ratified in the years following the Civil War and prevents discrimination on the basis of race. At the time, anti-abortion activists wanted the 14th Amendment to apply to fetuses, according to Mary Ziegler, a professor at the Florida State University College of Law who specializes in the legal history of reproduction.
By portraying abortion as a civil rights issue, white activists could also avoid reckoning with their own role in oppression, according to Holland.
“They wanted to feel grounded as moral human beings who were a part of a justice movement,” she said. “Once you co-opt these sorts of struggles and you make abortion akin to slavery, then white people can be abolitionists, they can be justice warriors.”
Although many speakers at the Republican National Convention in August spent much of their time railing about the need for “law and order”—a coded rebuttal to the Black Lives Matter protests—evidence suggests that white Republicans are supportive of the movement: 37% say they support Black Lives Matter to some degree, the Pew Research Center found. And as many anti-abortion activists turn to the task of reelecting Trump, some appear to believe spotlighting race is a path to victory.
This year, given just five minutes to make her case for Trump at the RNC, anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson accused abortion-rights supporters of championing racism. She called Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood’s founder, “a racist who believed in eugenics” and said that most Planned Parenthood abortion clinics are “strategically located in minority neighborhoods.”
The Guttmacher Institute, which studies abortion restrictions, has found that six in 10 abortion providers are in neighborhoods where most residents are white.
Scholars still debate Sanger’s exact views on race, but shedid support eugenics and courted its backers to her birth control movement. Planned Parenthood of Greater New York—whose CEO was recently ousted after allegations of unequal treatment of Black staffers—recently announced its plan to remove Sanger’s name from its Manhattan health center.
The U.S. feminist movement, with its longtime emphasis on middle-class and wealthy white women, has a legacy of shutting out people of color and their needs. In the 1990s, a group of Black women coined the term “reproductive justice” to describe a movement fought for by activists from marginalized groups. Bracey Sherman and Merritt both align themselves with the reproductive justice framework, which conceptualizes bodily autonomy and parenting—or not parenting—as a human right.
Now some of the most prominent anti-abortion organizations in the United States are named after people—including feminists—“who stepped on and over Black women,” as Bracey Sherman put it.
Stanton International, a chain of anti-abortion centers listed as one of the supporters of the “Black Preborn Lives Matter” initiative, takes its name from suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Both Stanton and Susan B. Anthony—the namesake of the Susan B. Anthony List, which has pledged to donate millions to backing anti-abortion candidates this year—leveraged racist rhetoric to try to fight off the 14th and 15th Amendments, which helped enfranchise Black men but did not allow white women to vote.
“I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman,” Anthony once announced.
A few weeks before the Republicans’ convention, Johnson expressed her own support for a “Baby Lives Matter”-type campaign. “I think maybe it’s time for me to lead a campaign to paint ‘Unborn Lives Matter’ outside of every abortion clinic in the country. I’m not much for getting arrested, but I’m feeling like maybe this would show the blatant hypocrisy running rampant in our society today,” she tweeted.
The day Johnson, who is white, spoke at the RNC, VICE News reported that she had recorded a video where she said police would be “smart” to profile her biracial son.