Last month, the Alabama State Senate passed a piece of legislation effectively banning abortion in the state of Alabama. House Bill 314, which prohibits abortion even in cases of rape and incest, comes on the heels of Georgia House Bill 481, which prohibits abortions in cases where a fetal heartbeat is detectable—six weeks into a pregnancy, a point at which many people do not even know that they are pregnant. What these two bills have in common is that women—white women, to be precise—are some of their most fervent champions.
When Georgia’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed HB 481, he effectively made it impossible to access abortion in the state of Georgia. It would be easy to dismiss Governor Kemp as just another man trying to control women’s bodies. Yet that characterization misses something crucial: three of HB 481’s six sponsors are women—white women. Similarly, Alabama HB 314’s primary sponsor is a white woman. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, a white Republican woman, signed the bill into law.
That white women are at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement may come as a surprise to some feminists. Influenced by the abortion rights movement of second wave feminism, they may continue to view abortion through the lens of women versus men. But the reality is that women—white women in particular—are among today’s anti-choice movers and shakers. This is not to say that there are not anti-abortion women of color. There are. Indeed, one of the sponsors of Louisiana’s recent Senate Bill 184, which would ban abortion at six weeks, is a black woman. But as scholars of the anti-abortion movement have shown, the anti-abortion movement is overwhelmingly white. According to sociologist Ziad Munson, the data on anti-abortion activists suggests that they are “more often white, more often married, and have more children than the population as a whole.”1 White women are among the most devoted anti-choice activists.
White women are especially active in the anti-choice work of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). CPCs masquerade as health clinics, offering pregnancy testing and ultrasound services. Their goal is to convince pregnant women who are considering abortion not to terminate their pregnancies, often by disseminating false or misleading information about the dangers of abortion. According to historian Karisa Haugeberg, who studies women’s activism in the anti-abortion movement, “By 2009, approximately 40,000 volunteers, most of them white, middle-class, Christian women, encountered an estimated 1,000,000 women who entered one of the country’s 3,200 CPCs annually.”2 White women have also traditionally been active in the anti-abortion extremist violence. As Haugeberg explains, “local and federal law enforcement struggled to see primarily white, Christian women who set fire to clinics and stalked providers as dangerous criminals who participated in a coordinated campaign to end abortion.”3
In the South, the most vehemently anti-choice white women identify as Evangelical Christians. Some analysts believe that these women’s opposition to abortion stems from a hostility toward liberal cultural and social change, and from deeply rooted conservative beliefs about men’s and women’s roles in society and the proper organization of the family. While it is certainly not the case that the majority of pro-life white women identify as white supremacists or white nationalists, neither should the links between white nationalism and anti-choice activism be ignored. Last year, pro-life groups were forced to distance themselves from anti-choice activist Kristen Walker Hatten, a white woman, when Hatten was outed as a white nationalist. Fearful of ‘white genocide’ and concerned about declining white birthrates, white supremacists align themselves with the anti-abortion cause. The interconnectedness of the contemporary white nationalism movement and anti-choice activism is a topic that deserves further exploration. Regardless of whether they identify as white supremacists, anti-choice white women advocate for policies that hurt women of color the most.
HB 481 is a profoundly cruel piece of legislation. It opens the door to criminalization of people for obtaining abortions, potentially subjecting them to life imprisonment or even the death penalty. It also renders people who miscarry susceptible to criminal investigation and prosecution. Black women, who experience higher rates of miscarriage than do white women, and who are already disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system, are made especially vulnerable under this law. Similarly, if HB 314 goes into effect, poor women and women of color are likely to be hardest hit.
HB 481 and HB 314’s pernicious consequences for people of color speak to the need for abortion advocates to work within a reproductive justice framework. Reproductive justice is a concept developed by women of color feminists. According to legal scholar Dorothy Roberts, it includes advocating for “not only a woman’s right not to have a child, but also the right to have children and to raise them with dignity in safe, healthy, and supportive environments.” In lieu of a ‘color-blind’ approach to abortion advocacy, a reproductive justice framework urges us to consider how race, class, immigration status, and other social factors yield unequal access to reproductive healthcare. Examples of reproductive justice organizations include SisterSong and SPARK Reproductive Justice Now.
Last month, the same week that anti-choice fanatics were celebrating their victory in Georgia, an organization called the National Bail Out collective was busy organizing its third annual Black Mamas Bail Out Day, coordinating efforts to post bail for incarcerated black women so that they could spend Mother’s Day with their children. Black Mamas Bail Out Day is an excellent example of a reproductive justice-oriented endeavor. The contrast between these two events was striking. On the one hand, we have a law that degrades, humiliates, and punishes, subjecting women—especially women of color, and black women in particular—to criminalization, stripping them of control over their bodies. On the other, we can promote a profoundly life-giving movement that seeks to dismantle the hold of the criminal justice system on black women’s lives and bodies, affirming black women’s (and by extension, all people’s) claim to their bodies and ability to mother their children, on their own terms.
“It seems obvious that men are still trying to control women’s bodies,” wrote the editors of the independent lesbian feminist newsletter Echo of Sappho in 1972. “Just look through the ranks and leadership of the anti-abortion movement.”
More than 50 years later, it’s clear that men alone aren’t to blame for the anti-choice movement. Pro-choice white women must own up to the fact that white women are the vanguard of today’s anti-choice movement, just as much as white men. And we must work to change that, taking our cue from reproductive justice organizations.
As assaults on abortion access continue to be waged, pro-choice white women need to put our money where our mouths are, donating money (when possible) to these critical organizations when we can and organizing alongside the women of color who are leading the movement for reproductive justice. This is a matter of life or death.
- Ziad W. Munson, The Making of Pro-Life Activists: How Social Movement Mobilization Works (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 24. Return to text.
- Karissa Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 9. Return to text.
- Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion, 134. Return to text.