Social media recently has been in an uproar over an incident in which noted pro-life spokesperson Abby Johnson, subject of the anti-abortion movie Unplanned, got on Twitter and attacked racial justice activist and Black bishop, Reverend Talbert Swan II of the Church of God in Christ.
Swan had written:
“Calling a Black POTUS married 25 yrs to 1 wife with 2 children, no mistresses, affairs or scandals, ‘the antichrist’ but a white POTUS married thrice, 5 kids by 3 women, mistresses, affairs & scandals, ‘God‘s anointed,’ proves your religion is white supremacy.’
“Let me tell you about real racism. The fact that our country’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood, kills more black children than any other cause of death…and you stay silent about it. Wake up. Trump isn’t your enemy. Your silence is an enemy to your own people.”
Yes, a white woman took it upon herself to school a Black activist and pastor about “real racism.’ Swann had never addressed abortion, and nothing in his statement gave any indication that he looked favorably on abortion, but that was where Johnson chose to take it. This is especially grotesque given that Johnson has zero record of racial justice activism at any point in her varied career, and is even on record as defending a white supremacist in 2017.
The conflict unfolded from there. Yes, both parties spoke insultingly towards each other, but the idea that this was a “both sides” case is false – because, first of all, Johnson provoked the conflict – and secondly, in a contest over race issues the rhetoric and the system are stacked in favor of any white woman over a Black man.
Then Johnson not only refused to apologize, but even went on to attack a Benedictine monk and priest in good standing in the Catholic church – who happens also to be a man of color.
But did her followers decry this? No. They defended her.
It goes without saying that anyone who cares about life ethics should denounce Johnson for her racist and despicably behavior. She makes the pro-life movement look even worse than it already did, and defending her looks, not like taking the side of life, but like taking the side of racism.
But I would like to address her claim, because it opens up a painful and complex historical reality. Yes, it is true that Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a eugenicist. It does not follow from this that Planned Parenthood workers today follow her ideology – organizations change; intentions of founders do not always dictate development – but it is a fact we should not ignore, especially when we consider her beliefs in historical context. Population control concerns did specifically target demographics considered “undesirable” in white racist societies. While fascism fetishizes fertility and breeding in young white families, at the same time it promotes sterilization and termination or even infanticide and murder to curb the growth of non-white populations.
In the Third Reich, abortion was illegal for “Aryan” women. This is a sobering reminder that “more abortion prohibition” does not make a pro-life society.
At the same time, abortion and sterilization were encouraged or even forced on “non-Aryan” women. This is a sobering reminder that emphases on abortion access are not always motivated by an honest belief in women’s choice.
What if abortion really is caused by racism?
Johnson is operating on the basis of a notion that Planned Parenthood, still motivated by Sanger’s eugenicism, is specifically targeting women in Black or non-white communities. In a tiny corner of my brain, I can’t wholly discount this: racism, even if subconscious, is widespread, even among liberals. As a Jewish woman, I have been targeted by anti-semites on the left, on occasion, even if white supremacists on the right are the usual culprits.
But as a generalization it is wildly off-base. It is as though one were to treat the Pledge of Allegiance as a socialist text simply because it was originally written by a socialist. Whatever one’s view of Planned Parenthood today, treating it as an arm of Sanger’s eugenics is anachronistic and inaccurate.
It does make for a great cog in the whataboutism wheel though, doesn’t it? Any protest against racial injustice – the shooting of unarmed and innocent Black boys, racial discrimination in schools and workplaces, the legacy of systemic racism that perpetuates cycles of poverty and disenfranchisement in Black communities – can so easily be shut down with this cry that “abortion is the real racism!”
It doesn’t work, though.
It doesn’t work because if Johnson and others really and truly believed abortion was driven by systemic or institutional racism, they would be throwing their energy into opposing racism instead of furthering it. Imagine if instead of attacking racial justice advocates, sneering at fears about antisemitism, and treating Black Lives Matter as a hate group, they were to say something like this:
“Yes, racism is horrible. It is terrible how the legacy of racism endures in systemic abuses that create poverty and instability, and thus drive up the abortion rate. It is terrible that institutional and personal racism in the medical field means that non-white women get substandard care, leading to a disproportionately high rate of maternal and infant deaths among Black women and babies, as well as increased demand for abortion due to lack of access to acceptable health care. As a white person I can’t begin to understand the terrible pressures Black families face in a society that is rigged against them. As a non-Jewish person I don’t know what it is like to be called vermin and told I would be better off as a lampshade. I shouldn’t excuse anti-semitism in ideological allies. I shouldn’t promote as ‘pro-life’ a president who has advanced racist rhetoric against Hispanics, Latinx, Muslims, Jews and Black persons – while putting into place racist prohibitions intended to target non-white refugees. You are right. White supremacy is a curse that must be opposed in every level of our society, especially if we wish to alleviate the burdens that drive women to seek abortion as the only viable solution.”
Imagine if they were to say: “I truly believe Black lives matter, unborn as well as born. I realize that I have privilege, as a white person in a civilization founded and upheld by the dictates of white supremacy. I realize I may even be operating on the basis of racist prejudice, myself. How can I do better? How can I help?”
That’s what a genuinely anti-racist pro-life person might say.
But that’s not what Johnson said. She called Bishop Swan a “thug,” and thought it was hilarious that she had made him angry.
Moreover, she and her followers continue to promote Trump and his Republican regime that enables racism and gives aid to white supremacists.
If they really believe racism is behind abortion, and really want to stop it – wouldn’t they oppose racism? Instead of exacerbating it, voting for it, and manifesting it in their personal lives.