Silent Choices

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Tatyana Fazlalizadeh /

Several years ago, during their “annual argument about abortion,” documentary filmmaker Faith Pennick’s pro-life friend asserted that as African Americans, they shouldn’t be arguing in the first place, since abortion is a “white woman’s issue” and black women have more important things to worry about.

Shocked by this statement, Pennick began extensive research to dispute her friend’s assertion, and the result was Silent Choices, an award-winning documentary that explores black women’s experiences with abortion–a topic Pennick and other black reproductive rights activists say is blanketed in silence.

“White women not only allow themselves to talk about this issue, but willingly own it and take it on as the bellwether of politics, of why they vote,” Pennick says. “But as black women, we feel if we acknowledge we have abortions, or even considered having an abortion, we’re going to be looked down upon not only as women, but as a race.”

A recent Guttmacher Institute study shows that black women obtain abortions at rates three to five times higher than white women–but Pennick discovered a pervasive hush on black abortions in the public sphere and within black families and communities. The reasons for this self-censorship are rooted in the history, mythology, and stereotypes surrounding African American women and their reproductive rights, Pennick says, as well as in a deeply religious culture.

Black women’s childbearing has historically been portrayed as irresponsible and in need of government regulation, notes Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. Practices reflecting these stereotypes have included family caps for welfare recipients, forced sterilization, and the distribution of risky birth-control medicines such as Norplant and Depo-Provera to poor black women. “It’s no wonder black people would think there’s an effort to stop us from having children, and that affects how we think about abortion,” Roberts says.

Byllye Avery, founder of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, says that while it’s true the black community has remained largely hushed on the issue of abortion, leading black women’s reproductive rights activists have been speaking loudly about it for years. The problem, she maintains, is that women’s rights organizations–run largely by white women–have not been receptive to their ideas.

“One of the many fights we had with them . . . is when we said, ‘Expand your agenda to include all reproductive rights issues. Don’t just talk about abortion. What about infant mortality rates, or access to birth control, or sterilization abuse?’ ” Avery says. “But that’s not something they wanted to do.”

Lori Hylton, a married mother in New York who speaks in Silent Choices of having abortions after becoming pregnant twice with the same man while she was on birth control in college, says she too was acutely aware of cultural pressures to keep her experiences secret. “A lot of it stems from this idea of, ‘Why would you put your business in the street so white America can judge you? Don’t they spend enough time judging us as it is?’ “

Even so, Hylton believes it’s important that she continue to share her story. “If I keep my secrets,” she says, “then no one can learn from my experience.”

Excerpted from In These Times (April 2010), a progressive monthly committed to political and economic democracy.

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