Anti-Abortion Movement at Cornell Engages in Distortion, Dishonesty

28 Apr

This article was published by Campus Progress, and is reposted with permission.

The Cornell Coalition for Life (CCFL) screened the anti-abortion documentary “Maafa 21” on March 2. Signs littered the Arts Quad before the event featuring alarming statistics about the rate of abortions among black women. One even said more African Americans have died from abortion than from AIDS, accidents, violent crimes, cancer, and heart disease combined.

The documentary equates abortion with black genocide and claims to shed light on things “the media has been hiding and politicians don’t want you to know.” As the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Unfortunately for the movement, the evidence doesn’t hold up, and “Maafa 21” is but a small piece of a larger political movement that professes to care about black women’s health, but only aims to split the black vote in 2012.

At first glance, the CCFL’s posters seemed ordinary. They advertised the movie screening with a date, time, and location, and announced that Africana Senior Lecturer Mwalimu Abdul Nanji would be speaking at the event. One might presume that Nanji was an expert in the history of black women’s reproductive rights, or that he supported the thesis of the film, or that he had at least watched the film and prepared a talk to accompany the screening. But none of these things was true.

Nanji is a longtime faculty member at Cornell’s Africana Studies and Research Center. He is the director of the African Languages Program and teaches Kiswahili. The Africana Studies website states that his research interests are “central and southern African languages and literature, languages of Africans in the diaspora, and Pan-Africanism.” None of these is relevant to the issues presented in “Maafa 21.”

Nanji also had not seen the documentary. In an interview with the Cornell Progressive, Nanji said the CCFL contacted him and told him the film was about genocide, so he agreed to speak. But he asked to see the documentary and did not receive it. When the event drew closer and Nanji still had not seen the film, he watched a trailer, and he soon decided not to speak at the event.

The reason was simple: He did not agree with its thesis. “I am pro-choice,” he said, adding, “I do not know if they would have wanted my comments, as I do not support their agenda.” He indicated that he would have been happy to debate, but since he had not seen the film, it seemed unwise.

“They could have had a KKK person there,” he joked, saying he would have debated anyway. Nanji also said that he didn’t find out until after the event that his name and picture had been on the posters.

Marisel Salazar, president of the Cornell Coalition for Life, says it was a misunderstanding. “We did not intentionally mislead,” she said. When asked why they chose Nanji to speak when his research was not related to the documentary’s subject matter, Salazar said, “There was a miscommunication where we were under the mistaken impression that he was pro-life.” CCFL proceeded with the showing without Nanji involved.

And the documentary itself? “Maafa 21,” which was written and directed by Mark Crutcher of an organization called Life Dynamics Inc., casts the history of the birth control movement in a disturbing light. Even the use of the word “maafa” is telling: The word derives from a Kiswahili word meaning disaster or tragedy. It has traditionally been used to refer to the suffering of African Americans through slavery, colonialism, and dehumanization throughout history. “Maafa 21” extends this concept of the maafa to include abortion, which it asserts was and is primarily a eugenics movement championed by Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger.

And indeed, it is no secret that Sanger indeed allied herself with eugenicists. She adopted much of the eugenicist rhetoric, speaking about sterilizing those she believed were “unfit.” To drive the point home, the documentary includes an emotional interview with a woman named Elaine RIddick, an incest survivor who was sterilized against her will. The film then equates Margaret Sanger with Adolf Hitler.

But an even uglier truth the film ignores is that many anti-birth control activists at the time also supported eugenics. One Catholic bishop, while debating Sanger in the Connecticut legislature, argued that contraception was immoral since procreative sex preserved not only “natural law,” but also certain superior races of people. He argued that unless each family had at least four children, “the races from Northern Europe, the finest type of people, are doomed to extinction.”

At the Third International Eugenics Conference in New York City, Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn argued that birth selection, not birth control, would lead to the “betterment” of the human race. He argued that birth control could be something of a double-edged sword: “At present [birth control’s] effects are distinctly bad,” he said, “since the ablest and most intelligent are the ones who practice it, while the least fit do not.” The pro-birth control movement did not have a monopoly on eugenicist thought.

The distinction between “fit” and “unfit” did not always fall along racial lines for eugenicists. One of Sanger’s supporters was famous black activist W.E.B. Dubois. Sanger opened a clinic in Harlem in 1930, and the local Amsterdam News cheered her for it. She was subsequently invited to speak at Harlem’s largest Baptist church.

The cherry-picked history presented in “Maafa 21” is part of a larger movement brewing in this country. Anti-abortion groups such as Priests for Life and the Radiance Foundation are starting billboard campaigns and “Freedom Rides” to spread their message. One billboard that recently went up on Chicago’s south side features a picture of Barack Obama and the sentence, “Every 21 seconds our next leader is aborted.” A billboard in Atlanta reads, “Black children are an endangered species.”

One of the groups behind some of the billboard campaigns is Priests for Life, a fairly typical anti-abortion group headed by Father Frank Pavone. Priests for Life has started a campaign that co-opts some of the Civil Rights movement’s most powerful tactic: the Freedom Rides, renamed  “Freedom Rides for Life.” The rides consist of Pavone and his (primarily white) followers driving around and holding rallies in different cities, stopping to sing “We Shall Overcome” together.

Loretta Ross, national coordinator for Sister Song, a reproductive rights group for women of color, witnessed a demonstration during a Freedom Ride for Life in Georgia. She was interviewed for a documentary on GRITtv, an online television station, called “Conspiracy Tactics.” Ross describes how the bus stopped outside the Martin Luther King Center, and she watched a crowd of white people disembark.

“It was an all-white demonstration at the Martin Luther King Center,” she told GRITtv. “It was just surreal.”

The movement is not confined to independent anti-abortion groups: It’s headed to state legislatures, too. Representative Barry Loudermilk and state Senator Chip Pearson (both white Georgia Republicans) brought the issue to the Georgia legislature by introducing the so-called Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act this February. It’s a theme that keeps coming up—white conservatives co-opting language and tactics from the Civil Rights Movement and professing to care about black women’s reproductive health.

Kelly White, President of Vox, Cornell’s branch of student activists for Planned Parenthood, agreed that this was not a new tactic. “In fact it has been around since Margaret Sanger’s time,” she said. “But today it continues to purposely manipulate historical data to support claims that take choice away from minority women.”

Loretta Ross of Sister Song emphasized in an interview with Public Eye magazine that concerns from these groups were not genuine. “These are the same legislators who, when we look at their voting records, when it comes to improving schools or getting guns off the streets, are not people whose votes indicate that they care about children of color once they’re here,” she said.

Conservative movements have found success when they mobilize a deeply religious base. In 2008, Proposition 8 passed after conservative groups exploited this tactic, and they will continue to do so in the future. While it is true that rates of abortion are higher among women of color, restricting access to medical services is not the way to change this.

As Pamela Merrit, a blogger and Planned Parenthood activist, told Public Eye: “From my perspective, not allowing more women of color to have access to medically accurate information and health care is itself part of a mass plot to hold back communities of color.”

Don’t be fooled: the resurgence of the “abortion is black genocide” movement is less about concern for women of color and more about splitting the black vote come 2012.

This post is brought to you by Catherine Lussenhop, who is a student at Cornell University. 

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