On the fortieth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, Roe v Wade, we should stop to remember the hundreds of thousands of women who died from illegal abortions as well as the hundreds of thousands of women and men who demonstrated, picketed, lobbied, petitioned, sat in and stood up to legalize abortion. We must remember those who have continued to fight for a woman’s right to abortion – including those men and women who have defended abortion clinics, organized against the endless racist, misogynist restrictive anti-abortion laws and finally pay tribute to those 8 abortion providers who were murdered – 4 doctors, 2 clinic workers, 1 escort and 1 guard and the thousand others targeted for death. See Eleanor Bader, Targets of Hatred.

We should also remember that Shirley Chisholm, working class, daughter of Caribbean immigrants and proud feminist was a supporter of a woman’s right to abortion. One of her most courageous public acts was her public support for legalized abortion, a position which put her at odds with the leadership of both the traditional civil rights as well as the more militant black freedom struggle on the subject of abortion. Most men (and some women) in the black freedom struggle were vehemently anti-birth control and anti-abortion, charging that it was a tool of white America to commit genocide on African Americans. Angela Davis also supported women’s abortion rights and reminded everyone that when abortion was illegal, black women chose to avail themselves of abortion services in disproportionately larger numbers than white women. In turn, they died from illegal abortions in disproportionate numbers. African American anti-birth control and anti-abortion sentiment was by no means monolithic.  African-American women attempted, with varying degrees of success to persuade the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam, to support a reproductive rights agenda. Organized black feminists, such as the Black Women's Group of Mount Vernon, the Black Women's Liberation Committee of SNCC which became the more inclusive Third World Women's Alliance, the National Black Feminist Organization, and the Combahee River Collective,  prominent black feminist theorists such as Cellestine Ware and Toni Cade Bambara, and women within black nationalist  or socialist groups, including Angela Davis, Frances Beal, Florynce Kennedy, Patricia Robinson and Nina Harding supported birth control and woman’s right to abortion.

In Unbought and Unbossed, Chisholm devoted a chapter to “Facing the Abortion Question.” In a most thoughtful essay, she explained how her thinking evolved from partial support for abortion rights to calling for a repeal of all restrictive abortion laws.  Anchored in the reality of the lives of her female constituents, Chisholm explained that abortion, right or wrong, was a fact of life for women. Given that tens of thousands of women terminated pregnancies, abortion should not be criminalized.  For Chisholm, the choice was simple, “what kind of abortions society wants women to have – clean competent ones performed by competent physicians or septic, dangerous ones done by incompetent practitioners.” Furthermore abortion rights and family planning should be an integral component of women’s overall medical care regardless of class, marital status or age.   She also took on the issue of genocide, arguing that “To label family planning and legal abortion programs ‘genocide’ is male rhetoric, for male ears.” reminding her readers that in 1969, “49% of the deaths of pregnant black women and 65 percent of  those Puerto Rican women were due to criminal, amateur abortions.”

In 1969, she was asked and accepted the honorary presidency of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (In 1973 NARAL became the National Abortion Rights Action League, and later the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, Today the organization calls itself NARAL Pro-Choice America).  As the only African American woman in Congress and very aware of her symbolic as well as her political status, she proposed abortion legislation in Congress and supported the New York State legislature’s repeal of its restrictive abortion laws.  She continued her efforts to promote birth control and abortion rights, but with little success. Chisholm got very little support from her colleagues, who would find excuse after excuse not to take a stand. “This is not the time,” one would explain. A few would promise to support legislation but not until it got out of committee and on to the House floor. A few just refused, saying “This kind of trouble, I don’t need.”   In 1973, the Supreme Court settled the issue – temporarily – with the Roe v. Wade decision which gave women the constitutional right to abortion.

The struggle continues.

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