Why the Planned Parenthood shooting is a racial justice issue

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Photo credit: Debra Sweet
When Robert Dear terrorized Planned Parenthood patients, employees and an entire Colorado community last week, he elevated months of increasingly dangerous rhetoric to a place of violence and tragedy.  Dear’s attack–which killed three people, including a responding police officer, and wounded 11 others–was clearly motivated by the “sting” videos that recently brought Planned Parenthood once again into the national spotlight.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch rightly denounced the shooting as a “crime against women.”  If you look below the surface, It’s also an attack on women of color.  This is not to suggest that the shooting itself was racially motivated.  Rather, it implies that the repeated attempts to discredit and demonize Planned Parenthood have dangerous implications for women of color that make last week’s shooting–and yesterday’s defunding vote, and this summer’s series of misleading videos, and the ongoing attempts to make it harder and harder for women to obtain safe, legal abortions–issues of racial and reproductive justice.

The reality is that if you dig a little deeper on virtually any issue where women as a whole are struggling for equality or agency, women of color are in even more dire straits.  Consider the wage gap, where the widely reported statistic is that women earn 78 cents to a man’s dollar.  For black women, the reality is that they earn 64 cents to a white man’s dollar, and for Latina women, earnings fall to 54 percent.  The dearth in leadership representation in business and politics is a challenge shows similarly stark circumstances for women of color.  Instances of rape and violence against women are a real challenge for white women but a near-crisis for women of color.

When it comes to reproductive health and rights, let’s look at the facts. 

  • One in five women and teens across the country turn to Planned Parenthood at some point in their lives for nonjudgmental care.  Whether that includes getting on the pill when they first become sexually active or having an abortion, they rely on and trust Planned Parenthood to help them map out their futures.
  • Women of color make up a significant portion of Planned Parenthood’s patient base.  Black and Latina patients comprise nearly 40 percent of those served each year.  For women and young women struggling to break generations of poverty, an unplanned pregnancy can be devastating.  Comprehensive family planning, including access to abortion, is not the only step toward a better life, but it is an absolutely crucial one.
  • Economically disadvantaged women make up nearly 70 percent of those obtaining abortions, women of color account for nearly two-thirds of abortions each year, and 75 percent say that being unable to provide financially for a child is a primary reason for their decision.  This means that the many new restrictions put in place across the country that make it harder and more expensive to obtain an abortion have an outsize impact on those already struggling financially.  In Texas, for example, new restrictions have closed the majority of abortion providers’ health centers, and women obtaining an abortion are required to have a sonogram 24 hours before the procedure.  Today, the average Texas woman lives more than 100 miles from a health center where she can have an abortion, and the sonogram requirement means an already arduous round-trip now requires an overnight stay as well.  For poor women, the expense of travel and lodging, the time away from work, and the cost of childcare (61 percent of women obtaining abortions have at least one child) can make the procedure prohibitively expensive and challenging. Additionally, more restrictions have a compound effect: the longer it takes to cobble together the resources needed to access an abortion, the more expensive the procedure becomes.
  • Many women, particularly women of color, turn to Planned Parenthood as their sole healthcare provider, and the cancer and STD screenings the organization provides save lives every year.  In many states, Planned Parenthood has also begun offering basic primary care to ensure that those women who have no other physician can lead healthier lives.
  • Planned Parenthood also plays an important education and community outreach role, countering the ignorance and stigmatization brought about by abstinence-only sex ed programs as well as the misinformation and mystery of sex and the body that is simply a part of growing up.  Whether working in partnership with public schools or through peer education programs, Planned Parenthood promotes healthy sexuality and safe sex practices that go a long way in preventing unplanned pregnancies, not to mention HIV infections and STD.

To be sure, Planned Parenthood has faced its challenges when it comes to issues of race, from questions about founder Margaret Sanger’s attitudes about black and Latina women to the black-led organization SisterSong calling out Planned Parenthood last year for failing to acknowledge the leadership of women of color in shaping and advancing reproductive justice work.  Conservatives have seized on many of the types of statistics cited above to shame black women in particular for “killing black babies,” and misinformation about the placement of health centers providing abortions have stoked the persistent myth that Planned Parenthood’s ulterior motive is population control for communities of color.

But the fact remains that, for many women of color, Planned Parenthood provides a path to a healthier life and a brighter future.  Attempts to control women’s bodies–whether through violent attacks designed to intimidate, rhetoric designed to shame, or restrictions designed to put necessary care out of reach for those most in need–have the most significant and most devastating impact on women and families of color.  Whether or not they are racially motivated, when domestic terrorists and elected officials alike attempt to control women’s choices, their actions have huge ramifications on issues of race.  That’s a fact we can’t ignore.

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