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Dr. Ben Carson’s tall tales about abortion and black women

Let’s dispel the myth that health clinics in black neighborhoods exist to push abortions on unwitting black women

September 1, 2015 2:00AM ET

As the election season drags on, some presidential candidates are spewing comments that aren’t just political fodder for their base, but also dangerous myths detrimental to how we understand important social issues.

I’m not just talking about Donald Trump. In a FOX interview on Aug. 12, retired pediatric neurosurgeon and GOP presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson, whom polls show as tied for the lead among Iowa Republicans, took it upon himself to repeat debunked myths about Planned Parenthood’s health care mission. “One of the reasons you find most of the clinics in black neighborhoods is so you can find a way to control that population,” Carson said.

Unfortunately, he isn’t alone. Republican presidential hopefuls repeat these myths ad nauseam and will continue to do so to avoid talking about their own lack of women’s health policy platforms.

As a biracial black woman who has had an abortion, I find any implication that health clinics in black neighborhoods exist in order to push abortions on unwitting black women wildly offensive. To use factually incorrect rhetoric to render our healthcare needs and experiences irrelevant is an affront to our dignity.

It’s particularly frustrating that Carson, a man of science, would repeat myths that aren’t based in history or research. He erroneously believes that abortion is the number one cause of death of black people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it’s heart disease. His claim that abortion clinics are more likely to be in black communities also couldn’t be further from the truth. A 2014 study by the sexual and reproductive health research organization, Guttmacher Institute, found that 60 percent of abortion clinics were located in neighborhoods in which a majority of the residents were white. Fewer than 1 in 10 abortion clinics are located in communities in which more than half of the residents are black. In an interview with ABC, Carson was fact-checked on air, yet he continues to ignore the data.

Because black women tend to experience higher rates of unintended pregnancy — due to lack of consistent access to birth control — it would be beneficial for reproductive health care providers such as Planned Parenthood to be located in low-income neighborhoods. But they aren’t. More than 80 percent (PDF) of black Americans believe abortion should remain legal, and more than 70 percent believe that some healthcare professionals in our communities should provide them. We also know that two-thirds of those who have an abortion are already parents, meaning the decision to have an abortion isn’t a flippant one to avoid parenthood; it’s often a decision to ensure families can afford the children they’re already caring for.

Like many anti-choice advocates, Carson also claims that Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, “was not particularly enamored with black people.” But it’s clear from his statements that he has a simplistic view of history. Sanger was a birth-control advocate who had complex views that matched the time she was living in. She held somewhat confusing beliefs: She donated her money and time to the Anti-Nazi Committee, but also spoke with Ku Klux Klan members about the benefits of birth control. She watched large immigrant families struggle with poverty and wanted to ensure women entered into motherhood on a voluntary basis. According to legal scholar Dorothy Roberts, author of “Killing the Black Body,” Sanger worked with civil rights activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois to ensure black families received contraception at a time when segregated clinics wouldn’t serve them. The two worked so closely together that anti-choice activists readily and incorrectly attribute a quote about “breed[ing] carelessly and disastrously” to Sanger, which was borrowed from Du Bois. (As Roberts notes, Du Bois’ comments were extremely classist and inappropriate.)

If GOP candidates really want to show off their ‘pro-life’ values, they could discuss how the lack of health care access is devastating to the black community’s health.

Civil Rights legends such as Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, Jr., also heralded Sanger’s work in ensuring the black community had access to birth control because they knew the ability to control family size was key to economic success.

At RH Reality Check, legal analyst Imani Gandy illustrates how several of Sanger’s quotes have been taken out of context. For example, anti-choice activists often quote Sanger claiming that she wants to “exterminate the Negro population.” However, in context, Sanger and birth control advocate Clarence J. Gamble were discussing building trust between black doctors and ministers and their community, and how they don’t want their work to be misinterpreted by the black community. Unfortunately, many have misapplied her quote for political gain.

Lastly, and most importantly, Sanger, Carson and most of the GOP presidential field hold the same opinion about abortion: They don’t support it except for very rare cases involving health, rape or incest. Sanger wrote, “Although abortion may be resorted to in order to save the life of the mother, the practice of it merely for limitation of offspring is dangerous and vicious.” Carson holds the same position, even referring patients whose fetuses had genetic defects to providers who were willing to perform an abortion. His communications director Doug Watts told Politico that Carson “believes in quality medical care” and “in people making their own decisions based on facts and information.” Carson has supported a 20-week ban on abortion, but believes that cases of health endangerment should be evaluated on an individual basis.

Sanger is a confusing individual, and I don’t agree with a lot of her views. But today, Planned Parenthood’s legacy stretches far beyond her. Like Fanta or Volkswagen, both companies that were created by Nazis, some companies have troubling pasts, and we know that Planned Parenthood’s no longer informs the work it does in the present. I’ve seen it first-hand as a patient who received kind and professional care there.

History tells us that black women created their own forms of contraception and abortion inducing teas with cotton root and other herbs while enslaved, to keep their owners from profiting off their bodies. The ability to plan pregnancies has always been essential to black women. For example, SisterReach, a nonprofit in Memphis, is using billboard campaigns to fight for access to shame-free reproductive healthcare, including abortion.

If GOP candidates really want to show off their “pro-life” values, they could discuss how the lack of health care access is devastating to the black community’s health. They could decry St. Louis police’s recent use of tear gas against Black Lives Matter protesters, which has been found to cause spontaneous miscarriages. But Carson believes that our First Amendment right to march for the lives of black youth is “silly,” and unfortunately, he’s not alone on the campaign trail in thinking that. And so we’ll keep seeing the GOP field bolster their conservative credentials using debunked myths, hypocrisy and baseless claims — and in the process, continue to deny women like me access to safe abortion care.

Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive-justice activist working to increase the visibility of people who have abortions. She is a writer with Echoing Ida, a black women’s writing project of Forward Together, and sits on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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