Black advocates take different views on what Louisiana’s anti-abortion amendment means for inequity

A video on the Facebook page for nonprofit anti-abortion organization Louisiana Right to Life starts with a pregnant Black woman receiving an ultrasound. The viewer hears, “Here I come world!” before seeing a newborn Black baby girl. The video shows a time-lapse of the girl as she goes from toddler to student to working adult before heading back into a medical facility where a doctor says, “Let’s begin the procedure.” The graphic of a beeping heart monitor appears on screen. The beeping stops. “Life offers endless possibilities. Abortion offers none,” can be seen and heard. “Another Black baby dead,” is implied.

Nationally, Black women have been singled out for having higher rates of abortion than others. And in Louisiana, where Black women are four times more likely to receive abortion care than white women, 62 percent of voters chose to approve Amendment 1 — a vote that would affect the state’s Black women most. The amendment will add language to the state constitution that keeps any securities or protections of a right to abortion or any mention of state funding of abortions, except for in cases of life endangerment, from ever appearing in the document.

According to the CDC, in 2016, Black women received 61 percent of all abortions provided in Louisiana. While Black advocates on both sides of the abortion debate say they consider systemic racism and the deep-rooted socio-economic differences that may lead Black women to choose abortion more than white women, they approached these societal problems in fundamentally different ways.

The debate is age-old, wrapped in new, more socially-conscious packaging. Who ultimately decides how a pregnancy is managed — the government and voters or actual pregnant people?

But for anti-abortion state senator Katrina Jackson, who authored the amendment, the data signifies that the government should concentrate on creating social programs that foster economic opportunities for marginalized people instead of providing access to abortion care.

Katrina Rogers, who ran the Louisiana for Personal Freedoms abortion rights campaign, believes that the state’s most marginalized residents (she includes trans men and gender non-conforming people in this group, as they can become pregnant) should not be further penalized by losing bodily autonomy. That statistic — 61 percent — signifies to Rogers that Black women in Louisiana want access to abortion care.

The abortion rights advocates say abortion restrictions punish poor people in a state where they are suffering

Louisiana for Personal Freedoms is a coalition of organizations that worked to persuade voters to vote “No” on Amendment 1. The organization aimed to “center people most impacted: Black, Brown, and poor people within the state of Louisiana,” its website stated.

“I am making connections between Amendment 1 and all of the ways that people are struggling in the state.” Rogers said, referencing the high maternal mortality rate of 58.1 deaths for every 100,000 births, the maximum weekly unemployment benefits payment of $247 that she said is “barely meeting people’s needs,” and Louisiana’s poverty rate, which last year was 19 percent, second only to Mississippi.

Fill in more detail: The Black maternal mortality rate is four times as high as the rate for white mothers, the poverty rate jumps to 29.4 percent when adjusted for Black Louisianans, and the wage gap between Black women in Louisiana and their white male counterparts is 48 cents. Knowing all that, Rogers has come to the conclusion that “Amendment 1 is an attack on class.”

“Amendment 1 will not end abortions,” Rogers said, “[For] some people of means and extended access it will be an inconvenience, and most people will travel. Amendment 1 will really directly punish people for not being able to travel to get access to abortion care.”

Kathaleen Pittman, administrator for Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport — one of the three clinics that provide abortion care in the state, said the most common reason that women seek abortions at the clinic is a lack of financial resources. 

A yard sign against Amendment 1 on a lawn in Uptown, New Orleans. Nov. 13, 2020. (Patrick Madden/WWNO)

Pittman said that between 70 and 80 percent of the people that Hope Medical serves live below the federal poverty level and that the majority of the clinic’s patients are Black. She said many are “people living in dire circumstances for generations, who are just finishing their education or returning to school and trying to better their circumstances. They are just now beginning to see the light of day.” 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 59 percent of women who receive abortion care are already mothers. Pittman explained that many of the patients who come to Hope Medical from a 200-mile radius are at a crossroads between finally pulling themselves and their families out of poverty or sinking further into it by having another child.

 “And it’s about the child or children that they already have and having another child would take away from those children,” Pittman said. 

Anti-abortion activists say abortion is Black genocide

For Jackson, a Black woman and a Democrat, the percentage of Louisianans who terminate their pregnancies who are Black is less of an indication that Black women want access to abortions and more of a confirmation of the legacy of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, calling abortion “modern-day genocide of the Black community.”

“[Sanger] didn’t believe, among other people, that African Americans were fit to live, and she called us undesirables,” Jackson said.

This is a pillar of Black anti-abortion movements.

Sanger’s history is messy. A product of a large, poor family, Sanger championed birth control and believed that a woman’s “ability to choose whether she will or will not be a mother” was a right. Sanger also supported the inherently racist eugenics movement, which sought to improve society through selective breeding.

In 1939, she launched with prominent Black leaders The Negro Project, which was to establish clinics that offered reproductive health care, including birth control, in Black communities. Sanger planned to enlist Black ministers to influence community members to visit family planning clinics.

In a letter, Sanger wrote, “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”

The meaning of this statement has been widely debated.

In July, the Greater New York Planned Parenthood (PPGNY) announced that it would rename its downtown Manhattan clinic.

“Margaret Sanger’s concerns and advocacy for reproductive health have been clearly documented, but so too has her racist legacy,” Karen Seltzer, board chair at PPGNY, said in a statement.

Jackson said when Black women seek abortion care, “we perpetuate what [Sanger] originally founded [Planned Parenthood] for, which is making African Americans become slowly the minority of the minority in the United States.”

Jackson, who described herself and other anti-abortion Democrats, including Gov. John Bell Edwards, as “pro-life from the womb to the tomb,” said she’d rather improve the quality of life for Louisianans than advocate for their right to terminate their pregnancies.

“There’s a lot of wasted time focusing on whether to kill a child or not,” Jackson said.  

She referenced her efforts toward Medicaid expansion for working Louisianans and her desire to see the statewide expansion of a pilot program she authored that allows mothers receiving benefits to gradually matriculate off of those supportive programs while on the path to self-sufficiency, instead of stripping them of all support once they start earning a livable wage.

“I do recognize as a Black woman that there are so many social ills in America that lead women to believe they need an abortion, whether it be the economic decline of the African American community or [less] access to health care, livable wages, resources and business development [than in] other communities,” Jackson said. “I’d rather focus my efforts on uplifting the community, giving them reasons to love life and choose life.”

Jackson also authored a 2014 law that required doctors who provide abortions to have admitting privileges in nearby hospitals. The Supreme Court struck down that law in June. She supported a 2019 bill (unenforceable under Roe) that bans abortion after a heartbeat can be detected. She spoke at the national March for Life rally in 2020 and in 2019. 

A yard sign in favor of Amendment 1 on a lawn in Bucktown, Metairie. Nov. 16, 2020. (Patrick Madden/WWNO)

The policing of Black women’s bodies

Rogers said Jackson can’t have it both ways.

“Making progress towards eliminating legal and regulated abortion in Louisiana means that people are going to suffer, be criminalized, and die, and you don’t get to do that and say that you are in favor of social programs for people,” Rogers said.

“If Amendment 1 is passed people are going to have to endure forced pregnancies,” Rogers said before the election.

Black women’s bodies — particularly their reproductive systems — have long been scrutinized by the greater society. Enslaved Black women were made to increase the labor force of wealthy plantation owners through childbirth. In Louisiana, a slaveholding surgeon Dr. Francois-Marie Prevost performed experimental cesarean sections on enslaved women until he had perfected the procedure. 

More recently, Louisiana had the second-highest C-section rate in the country in 2017. The eugenics movement In the 20th Century pushed for Black women and girls and other marginalized people to be sterilized. Black women have become the faces of single motherhood and all of its negative connotations. The country’s highways are dotted with billboards that feature chubby-cheeked, curious Black babies next to messages that call them an “endangered species” due to the rate of abortion within the Black community.

“We’re speaking out of a history of being told what we could and could not do with our bodies, where we could go, whether our families could stay together…” said Kathy Allen, Ph.D., director of Louisiana Black Advocates for Life, a Louisiana Right to Life program that seeks the inclusion of the Black community in anti-abortion advocacy.

Allen acknowledged America’s history of control over Black women and their bodies and claimed to know anecdotally of enslaved women in her own ancestry who had been forced into sexual relationships.

“I understand when a woman says, ‘It’s my body, I have the right to choose what to do with it,’ especially in our community. It’s coming from a certain background, and a pro-life movement that doesn’t consider the context that people are coming from is a pro-life movement that isn’t as effective as it should be,” she said.

Like Jackson, Allen says that she is “pro-life for the whole life.” She said the issues that Black communities face have been left out of anti-abortion conversations.

“The traditional pro-life movement has not always included us meaningfully,” Allen said. “So we go to the Black community and we say, ‘What issues for you are pro-life issues that are not being addressed?’ Often it will be financial issues — affordable housing, affordable health care — or criminal justice reform, and those things are intimately tied to life in the womb and what we do with that life, because you gotta consider what’s gonna happen with that life after you choose life.”

This is where anti-abortion advocates like Allen and Jackson may have some common ground with abortion rights advocates like Rogers. All three women have used the term “pro-birth” to refer to the focus on bringing pregnancies to term without any social structures in place to ensure that once a baby is born, that person will have what they need to live a productive life.

“It’s inhumane to disregard people’s experiences and disregard what they need, to push this agenda of being pro-birth and then not having any investment in any care for anyone after that,” Rogers said.

But bodily autonomy — the ability to choose if and how people become pregnant, among other things, a staple in reproductive justice and a term Rogers uses frequently — is where the two groups part ways again.

“People who can get pregnant are being stripped of their humanity, and we’re just being presented as containers and incubators,” Rogers said. “We’re not people who have feelings and needs and hopes and dreams and suffering and struggles. What we’re being told is that our purpose in life is really to just have babies, and they’re stripping our identities beyond that.”

For Jackson, bodily autonomy does not extend to a growing fetus.

“I believe your body is your body, but the body you carry inside of it is somebody else’s body,” she said.

Now the mother of a 14-year-old son, Joshua, with Down syndrome, Allen came to a similar realization years after having an abortion of her own.

“I was one of those women who used to be silent about an abortion in my past,” Allen said. “I would sit in church and say, ‘Nobody’s ever going to know I had an abortion because I will never tell them.”

She admits that she thought she “did what I had to do,” when she had an abortion at 19. It wasn’t until she was pregnant with Joshua that her thinking began to change. She said her doctors spoke to her about the potential for Joshua to be born with Down syndrome in “tragic terms.”

“It just struck me that people would decide that a child had no value or no worth before the child was even out of the womb, and that’s when it occurred to me that that’s the same kind of decision that I had made,” Allen said.

She later had what she called a “personal encounter with the truth — that the value of somebody doesn’t have anything to do with my opinion of whether or not they have value.”

Allen now shares that story in churches around the state because she believes that one of the reasons that abortions are prevalent in the Black community is because it’s not talked about. 

“A lot of abortions happen because of silence that surrounds abortion in our community. We are not a community that speaks about things that are shameful or sinful,” Allen said. “It tends to keep people from healing and from recognizing that the impact from abortion goes beyond that day in the clinic.” 

Rogers said that “culturally there’s so much shame and stigma associated with abortion.” 

At Hope Medical, Pittman said that most women who seek abortions through the clinic have come to terms with the decision, but worry about what their community might think.

“The most common concern expressed is how they will be treated by their friends and family,” Pittman said. “We have patients who say, ‘Am I a bad person because I feel absolutely no guilt about this? Or am I a bad person because I am relieved that this is done?” 

Allen believed that her message could sway voters who normally vote in favor of abortion rights.

“A woman who says she’s pro-choice is not my enemy, she’s not on the opposite side of the fence. She’s somebody who’s at a certain point on a spectrum,” she said.

Amendment 1 is just the latest battle in a long war over abortion in Louisiana

Amendment 1, also called the Love Life Amendment, is just the latest in long line of state policies, including the 2014 bill on admitting privileges that Jackson authored, that restrict abortions. Since the historic 1973 decision on Roe v. Wade protecting the right to abortion, Louisiana has introduced 90 pieces of legislation aimed at restricting abortion access and undermining Roe. In 2006, Louisiana adopted a trigger law, commonly known as the Human Life Protection Act, that would automatically ban abortions in the state if Roe were overturned.

“I don’t believe that an abortion is a constitutional right,” Jackson said. “I believe respectfully that the justices in that case got it wrong by not recognizing the human life that was in the womb and not giving it the same protection.”

Because of Roe, even though Amendment 1 was passed, abortion is still legal in Louisiana. However, the recent confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Metairie native, gave the Supreme Court a 6-3 conservative majority, and abortion rights activists are concerned that were the landmark case revisited, it would be overturned.

This conversation is not over

Shortly after midnight on Nov. 4, Jackson tweeted, “To God be the glory!!! Amendment 1 Passed …”

But the final word on abortion in Louisiana has not been written.

The country’s new President-Elect Joe Biden previously pledged to make the 1973 decision on Roe v. Wade the “law of the land” if it were overturned, keeping the doors of clinics like Hope Medical open, at least for a time. 

Allen said that she supported Amendment 1 because she did not want the courts to have the final say on whether or not abortion would be legal in Louisiana, and her-advocacy is far from over.

“We want this to be the beginning of looking at life in a really comprehensive way,” Allen said. “We understand that as we focus on preventing a right to abortion being found in our constitution that there’s a reason that 60 percent of abortions in our state are occurring in the Black community.”

Rogers said that she is proud of the campaign that the coalition ran and she intends to continue to “develop a statewide infrastructure of people who are willing to fight for a better Louisiana that is going to protect and care for those whose identities are most marginalized.”

While the campaign did not defeat Amendment 1, she believes it did encourage discourse around caring for the state’s most neglected residents.

“I come to this campaign and this work from the movement for Black lives,” Rogers said of her efforts. “Reproductive justice and abortion care is a part of fighting for folk who are the most oppressed. I’m fighting for Black people, and trans people and undocumented people and poor people …”

“I think the only way abortions will go down is by making abortions unnecessary, ” Pittman said. She thinks legislators should focus on that “instead of making abortion more difficult to access.”

A 2019 National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda survey of voting-age Black women in Louisiana revealed that a similar percentage of respondents — 64 percent — were in favor of Roe being upheld. More than 50 percent of the respondents said they considered access to livable wages, affordable health care, racism, food security, and access to child care when making the decision to parent. If Pittman’s prediction is true, then these are big problems for lawmakers to solve in order to eliminate abortions.