Downton Abbey & Black History Month

Great piece over the weekend from Talking Points Memo writer Nicole Beisel. Beisel takes a look at a recent storyline on the popular television show “Downton Abbey” when one of the characters Lady Edith Crawley seeks an illegal abortion. The writer points out that ninety-two years later, women of a variety of races and circumstances are still seeking the right to abortion services. But now the “War on Women” is more appropriately characterized as an assault on the poor and women of color. This Black History Month, she acknowledges many of the Black politicians who led the legislative fight to legalize abortion in the 1960s.

We do not typically think of abortion as a civil rights issue. But we should.

Much has been made of the Republican assault on abortion as being a “war on women.” An examination of who has abortions suggests that these restrictions are more accurately characterized as an assault on the poor.

Sixty-nine percent of women receiving abortions have incomes either below or just above the poverty line. Most are already mothers: 61 percent of women who have abortions have one or more children. They are adults: a mere 6.4 percent of women who receive abortions are minors under the age of 18.

And finally, the majority of women receiving abortions are Black or Latina. Only 36 percent of abortion patients are non-Hispanic white women.

The abortion restrictions championed by the Republican Party force poor Black and Hispanic mothers to bear children that, given the circumstances of their lives, they may not want and certainly cannot afford.

During Black History Month this assault on black women is unconscionable. The purpose of this calendar dedication is to acknowledge history that has been ignored or suppressed. A piece of that ignored history is the work of Black politicians, such as New York’s Percy Sutton and Michigan’s Coleman Young, who led the legislative campaign to legalize abortion in the 1960s.

Black politicians (nearly all of them men), introduced legislation to repeal or reform state abortion laws in New York, Illinois, Oklahoma, Michigan, Tennessee and Wisconsin. These men acted, in part, because of the suffering illegal abortion disproportionately inflicted on Black women.

In 1969, when Rep. Charles Chew (D-Ill) introduced legislation to repeal the Illinois abortion law, he recounted a trip to the morgue to identify his niece, who had died from an illegal abortion.

When Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm became the Honorary President of NARAL (then the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws), she cited research which showed that illegal abortion caused 25 percent of deaths of pregnant white women in New York City, but nearly half the deaths of pregnant Black women.

Read the original op-ed posted on Talking Points Memo.