The Soapbox: On Who Is Deserving Of The Benefit Of The Doubt & Why Black Women Choose Abortion

A world without abortion is unsustainable for Black women. The barriers that exist to basic healthcare make it a fundamental necessity to have the constitutional right and unobstructed access to terminate a pregnancy we cannot carry to term. If you hold the belief that a person should not exercise their constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy under any circumstances, I challenge you to read to the last paragraph. Open yourself up to the possibility that there is more room for discussion, more opportunities for compassion, and that a world can exists where allowing Black women to choose for themselves, devoid of judgment, when to be pregnant.

Every day we make dozens of decisions: what to wear, what to eat, and with whom to spend our precious time, among other things. Some of us are privileged to have more decision-making power than others. And all decisions are made in the context of our everyday lives; where we live, what we look like, into which circumstances we were born, etc. One consequence of decision-making is being given the benefit of the doubt by the people around you; that is, being trusted that you are deciding for yourself the best thing to do. Unfortunately, this value isn’t extended to everyone, especially not Black women who still bear the burden of genuine mistrust.

This no more evident than when it comes to making the difficult decision of whether or not to continue a pregnancy. For reasons I later discuss, Black women have abortions at five times the rate of white women and while the reason a woman of any ethnicity chooses to have an abortion varies, there is a pervasive assumption that Black women do so with reckless abandon. And why? Why are we not extended the same level of confidence that we’re making the absolute best decision for ourselves as anyone else? It comes down to one thing: unexamined assumptions. Undergirding the mistrust about reproduction are deeply rooted assumptions about Black women’s life choices, it is part and parcel of respectability. Inherent to our very existence, although few dare say it aloud, is disdain. Assumptions that we are sexually insatiable, that we have babies for money, and that we are not worthy of love or lasting relationships; all contributing to a deep-seated misunderstanding of our reproductive decisions.

Despite propaganda, there was never a time when a Black woman woke up and said, “I think I’ll have an abortion today.” It just doesn’t happen. Even a woman who’s had multiple abortions makes the decision with care and consideration; balancing her accountability to her already existing family, her faith, her own needs, and the future needs of the unborn. After all, 61 percent of women who get abortions already have children. And if all of the decisions we make are made in the context of our everyday lives we can only talk about Black women having abortions by talking about poverty. Abortions do not happen in a vacuum (pun not intended).

Although history would have us believe differently, Black women make decisions about family structure (i.e. when to have children, how many children to have, and with whom to have a family) like everyone else. We are equally as susceptible (if not more because of our deep-seated history in faith-based establishments) to traditional notions of family.

Most women who access abortion care do so because they don’t want to be pregnant, and believe it or not that is the only reason one needs. Nearly every abortion is the consequence of an unintended pregnancy. Other cases are because the fetus is developing abnormally, carrying the pregnancy to term would risk either the life of the mother or the fetus, or rape or incest. But these are the exception, not the rule. Unintended pregnancies occur because:

Sex education fails to teach women how to adequately protect themselves. More than 750,000 girls age 15-19 become pregnant every year. Many schools have inadequate and culturally incompetent sex education, if they have it at all. Many Black women, like others, leave school without the slightest idea of how to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy.

Birth control costs a lot of money. Although three of every four people who don’t support a women’s right to abortion do believe in access to contraception, barriers to access exist. Most women who seek abortion care are poor, working for minimum wage or less. If you’re working a minimum wage job full time, you’re bringing in about $14,500 a year, which leaves a parent of two $3,000 below the poverty line. According to the Guttmacher Institute, most women don’t use contraception consistently because of the cost, and who can blame them? Where do you pull from when you make so little — factoring in housing, food, clothing and other basic necessities? For one of the most effective birth control methods, the IUD, a poor women would be required to spend one month’s income.

Birth control fails. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, give in 100 women who take the pill will become pregnant. In fact, every contraceptive method (patch, condom, calendar), even when used perfectly has a failure rate – even tubal sterilization.

There is limited access to quality health care for poor Black people. Culturally competent, affordable health care rarely exists for poor Blacks. Language barriers, shaming medical professionals, and geography all keep people from accessing contraception and other family planning tools.

Once birth control fails and a person becomes pregnant there are two options: carry a pregnancy to term or terminate the pregnancy. Neither supporters of access to abortion nor those who condemn it do a good job of advocating for sustainable family benefits. America’s poorest families are becoming poorer by the day, rationing food and other basic needs until there is nothing left. And still, a Black woman choosing to access abortion cannot be trusted. The ravages of poverty escape us when all that matters is to convince a woman to make a decision that is ultimately devastating for her but makes us feel good.

So, no access to comprehensive sex education to learn how to protect yourself; no access to affordable and safe contraception; no access to abortion, and no social services to feed and clothe the child you did want but were shamed or forced into having. Knowing this, anti-abortion advocates would still urge women to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. But then what? This isn’t rhetorical. If you carry the belief that a person should not exercise their constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy under any circumstances, share with the Black women of the world, whom you believe can’t be trusted to make their own reproductive decisions, what the answer is.

Organizations like the Issues4Life Foundation use faith-based scare tactics to shame women about their reproductive decisions but provide no strategy for how to care for the unwanted babies they can’t afford. It is not Black women who make the calculated decision to terminate a pregnancy that are acting with reckless abandon but the shaming moral demagogues whose regard for the “sanctity of life” stretches no further than the delivery room. A world without abortion is not sustainable for Black women until every person has the resources they need to make the best decisions for their sexual and reproductive lives. And even then, having an abortion simply because you no longer want to be pregnant should always be an option. It is, after all — like mammograms and pap smears — basic reproductive health care.

This is not an abstract concept. “It’s a blessing in disguise,” they say “It’ll work itself out,” they say. For whom? Black women choose abortion because they know that is the best, and in many cases, the only option. Anyone in opposition to that has two choices: pay very heavily into social programs that help women feed, clothe, and shelter the children you shamed them into having or descend from your moral high ground and at the very least, don’t pass judgment or vote in favor of anti-choice policies.

A world without abortion is unsustainable for Black women. We’re poorer and less likely to have access to comprehensive sex education, access to contraception, or family planning services. It is simply the reality of the world in which we currently exist. That can change. If you’ve read this far perhaps now “eradicating poverty” is on the top of your to-do list. We must start there. If there was ever a time you desperately wanted to be trusted to make a decision that you knew was best for you and couldn’t, empathize, express compassion, and trust Black women. Black women are not given the benefit of the doubt because of deep-seated mistrust in our ability to care for ourselves. Nevertheless our decisions are our own and we own them. So we must do what is necessary to live the best, most authentic, sustainable life possible — and sometimes that includes abortion.

This piece was crossposted with permission from Clutch Magazine.

[Guttmacher (1)]
[For Harriet]
[RH Reality Check]
[Guttmacher (2)]

Shanelle Matthews is a communications strategist and blogger. She is a member of Echoing Ida, a project of Forward Together. Follow her on Twitter.

[Image of a young Black woman via Shutterstock]