On February 5, 2010, 65 billboards were quickly erected in predominantly African American neighborhoods in Atlanta with a sorrowful picture of a black male child proclaiming, “Black Children are an Endangered Species.” Georgia Right to Life and the newly-formed Radiance Foundation spent a mere $20,000 to sponsor the billboards that included the address of a previously unknown anti-abortion website. The billboards themselves were owned by CBS -- the same CBS that ran the anti-abortion ad during the 2010 Super Bowl – sponsored by Focus on the Family, featuring football star Tim Tebow. Interestingly, CBS previously refused pro-choice advertisements on their billboards in Atlanta sponsored by the Feminist Women’s Health Center, claiming that advertising abortion services was “too controversial.”
These stunning billboards attempted to use the history of medical mistrust in the African American community to accuse abortion providers of racism and genocide in a bizarre conspiracy theory. Not so coincidentally, they launched a misogynistic attack to shame-and-blame black women who choose abortion, alleging that we endanger the future of our children. After all, many people in our community already believe that black men are an endangered species because of white supremacy. They used a social responsibility frame to claim that black women have a racial obligation to have more babies – especially black male babies -- despite our individual circumstances. This social responsibility frame challenged the individualistic, privacy-focused frame of the pro-choice movement. At SisterSong, we speculated they chose to use an intersectional approach in this new attack campaign because our transformative reproductive justice framework – that intersects race and reproductive politics within a human rights context – is effectively forcing our opponents to shift tactics to try to racially segment our movements.
The campaign also accused Planned Parenthood, the largest single provider of birth control and abortion services in the black community, of targeting the community for “genocide” because of its “racist founder,” Margaret Sanger. The billboard campaign was quickly followed by a 2009 documentary film with the same theme, Maafa 21, distributed to black churches and organizations.
Because of the conflation of race, gender and abortion in the provocative marketing campaign, the racist billboards very quickly became national news, picked up by CNN, The New York Times, MSNBC, ABC, The Washington Post, The LA Times, many other newspapers, and dozens of national and local radio and television shows. Georgia Right to Life and the Radiance Foundation, working with Priests for Life of Staten Island, NY with their $10 million war chest, also announced plans to spread their campaign to at least 10 other states. Since the Georgia campaign, similar billboards have already appeared in Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, and Tennessee.
These outrageous billboards were the opening salvo in a campaign to introduce a bill into the Georgia Legislature called the Prenatal Non-Discrimination Act (PreNDA), modeled after national legislation introduced by Trent Franks (R-AZ) in Congress, deceptively and disrespectfully called the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2009 (H.R. 1822). Although the national legislation failed in Congress, it provided a model for anti-abortion groups in states to criminalize abortions provided to women of color allegedly because of the “race or sex” of the fetus. Anti-abortion advocates identified Georgia and other Southern states and Midwestern states as fertile ground in which to organize the black community against abortion rights, and split African American voters along a gender fault line. Simultaneously, they could fracture the pro-choice community along a racial fault line. They could also use xenophobia to attack Asian American communities, building on anti-immigrant attitudes.
In Georgia, this outlandish proposal became House Bill 1155, but the companion bill was Senate Bill 529 or the “OB/ GYN Criminalization and Racial Discrimination Act.” Central to their argument is the false claim that most, if not all, abortions are coerced, with the black community and Asian girls as the primary targets for elimination. The proposed legislation targeted abortion providers to drive them out of our state, making it a racketeering crime for them to provide an abortion to women if they have any reason to believe that the abortion is being sought because of the race or sex of the fetus. As a result, this bill would have intruded on patient confidentiality and threatened doctors with criminal sanctions.
Because of SisterSong’s work, our partner organizations, and the intransigence of our opponents, SB 529 was killed in the Rules Committee, the last committee before reaching the floor. Had this bill passed, however, it would have violated our human rights in the following ways:
• It would open the door to racial profiling of women of color, particularly African American and Asian American women, who seek reproductive health services, including abortion.
• It would isolate and stigmatize African American and Asian American women because doctors would be compelled to question our motives for seeking abortions and increase the barriers to reproductive health care.
• Unless the provider has reason to suspect a white woman is carrying an interracial fetus, preexisting biases and stereotypes would subject women of color to intrusive questions that white women would not be asked.
• This bill mandated disclosures about motives, which violates the patient’s right to privacy and confidentiality.
While it is obvious that this bill would have directly affected women of color, SB 529 also targeted doctors, placing them at risk for criminalization:
• This bill would harm doctors by holding them criminally and civilly liable for “alleged” coercion by a third party, such as a parent who urges a young woman to have an abortion.
• This bill would make providers hesitate to offer abortion services to women of color if increased vulnerability to criminal investigations result from providing legal abortions.
• This bill would increase medical malpractice costs, opening medical practices up to lawsuits for the “criminally aborted.” This would mean that fewer doctors would provide abortion services, further limiting the availability of abortion access in the state.
• Doctors would have an additional burden, even beyond the current law, of proving that they are not attempting to “solicit” abortions, like through routine advertising. Not only does this violate the free speech rights of doctors, it would mean invasive questioning of women, and massive amounts of paperwork, further delaying women’s access to services.