Behind the New Arizona Abortion Ban

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky April 7, 2011
Biopolitical Times
One of the anti-abortion billboards, "corrected."

Last week Arizona became the first U.S. state to ban abortions that are motivated by the race of a fetus, and one of a handful of states that ban sex-selective abortions. Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican with a record of strong opposition to abortion rights, put her signature on the new law that will require doctors to sign affidavits stating that the reason for an abortion was not related to fetal race or sex. Doctors can be sued, stripped of their medical licenses, charged with felonies, and sentenced to prison terms for violations (1, 2, 3).

The Arizona law is part of a much larger strategy that opponents of abortion rights openly promote as a “new front in the abortion wars.” In 2008, Republican Congressmen Trent Franks of Arizona and Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska first introduced the cynically named “Susan B. Anthony Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act,” which prohibits “discrimination against the unborn on the basis of sex or race.” Similar bills have been introduced in other states including Georgia, Mississippi, and New Jersey.

Beyond the obvious, what’s the thinking behind this? Anti-abortion rights leader Steven W. Mosher of the Population Institute argues that “[l]ike the ban on Partial Birth Abortion,” linking abortion to racial and sex discrimination will both chip away at abortion rights and “stimulate public debate on grounds favorable to the pro-life cause.” Translated by abortion rights supporter Kathryn Joyce, this means that “linking abortion with female infanticide and sex-selective abortion…[is] a method of converting moderates who would recoil at the thought of reproductive choice being used as a weapon of gender inequality.”

The same logic underlies the meaning-free notion of “race-selective abortion.” Anti-abortion rights advocates see this as a way to drive a wedge between Americans’ commitments to racial justice and their support for abortion rights. And as SisterSong’s Loretta Ross points out, it’s also a handy way to “shame-and-blame black women who choose abortion.”  

Like many other conservative causes, the “new front” against abortion rights is well funded and multi-faceted. One tactic is the 2009 “shockumentary” Maafa 21: Black Genocide in 21st Century America, which argues that abortion is an attempted genocide of black people. The film has become a cause célèbre of the black anti-abortion movement, which supports the efforts to ban sex-selective and “race-selective” abortions. Reproductive justice legal scholar Dorothy Roberts points to the sad ironies that burgeoning movement represents:

They are essentially blaming black women for their reproductive decisions and then the solution is to restrict and regulate black women’s decisions about their bodies….Ironically, they have that in common with eugenicists.

Another tactic in the “new front” is the placement of dozens of billboards in cities including Atlanta, New York and Chicago that read “Black children are an endangered species” or “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” In the words of writer, blogger and reproductive justice activist Miriam Zoila Pérez, the billboard campaign “is exploiting America’s racist medical history to foster the belief that abortion is black genocide.”

Advocates of reproductive and racial justice and of reproductive rights have, of course, forcefully criticized the billboard campaign and legislative efforts to ban abortion for reasons of race or sex. Some of the billboards have been taken down following protest, and bills in states other than Arizona and at the federal level have so far stalled.  

Here are a few resources for background, insight, and calls to action: