This summer, the white-led anti-abortion movement looked more like a 1960s civil rights rally.
Clasping signs that read #blackwomenmatter, black and white women linked hands and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where Martin Luther King, Jr. once led marches for voting rights.
"If black lives matter, then black women matter … if black lives matter, then black children matter … if black lives matter, then black babies matter," conservative black activist Star Parker told the crowd after it gathered in front of a clinic in June that allegedly performs unlicensed abortions.
The march was a rare moment in the anti-abortion movement, which for decades has been dominated by white conservatives. But activism on abortion may be starting to become more racially integrated, as black activists seek to have their voices heard and leaders of the movement's most powerful groups begin to recognize a need for diversity.
They've got an obvious meeting-place: A black abortion rate that for years has vastly surpassed that of every other racial group. Thirty out of every 1,000 black women obtained an abortion in 2011, which is the most recent data available. That rate is nearly triple that of white women and double that of Hispanic women. While about 13 percent of Americans are black, more than one-third of all abortions are administered to black women.
To abortion rights supporters, the disparity simply reflects more unintended pregnancies among black women due to less access to effective birth control, while helping make their case for expanding Planned Parenthood and other women's health clinics into more poor and minority neighborhoods.
But abortion opponents, in particular those who are black, insist it's evidence that Planned Parenthood is targeting black women for abortion, in an extension of views held by the group's founder, Margaret Sanger.
That messaging has lingered around the edges of the four-decades-old anti-abortion movement. In the 1970s, black activist Mildred Jefferson headed National Right to Life, the oldest and largest anti-abortion group in the country. Activist and minister Jesse Jackson called abortion "genocide." Other black leaders such as Johnny Hunter and Alveda King, niece of the civil rights leader, have spoken against abortion for decades.
But race has loomed larger in the movement recently. Over the past few years, the group Live Action has released a series of undercover interviews in which Planned Parenthood employees agreed to accept donations specifically for performing abortions on black women.
Republican presidential contender Ben Carson has said Sanger tried to eliminate blacks through abortion. Last month, more than two dozen black pastors and activists gathered in front of the National Portrait Gallery to insist museum officials remove a bust of Sanger displayed in its "Struggle for Justice" exhibit.
And then there's an effort by some to co-opt the popular phrase "black lives matter" to refer to the abortion rate among black women by changing it to "black women matter" or "black babies matter."
"We can talk all day about 'black lives matter,' but if we exclude abortion from this discussion, we've excluded the fundamentals of this discussion," Parker said.
New blood for old movement
The black lives matter movement is the best thing that has ever happened to "an anemic black pro-life movement," said Clenard Childress, a New Jersey pastor and founder of BlackGenocide.org, a group that draws attention to how black people are disproportionately affected by abortion.
Childress said the phrase, which he thinks is here to stay, has given him an opening to talk about abortion with black teenagers in a way he's never been able to do before. Everyone's heard of black lives matter. And that's how he begins conversations now.
"Black lives matter will be a mantra that stays around for years," Childress said. "With that, you have begun the conversation I've been trying to have for a long time with the African-American community."
Childress is working with Johnny Hunter, perhaps the oldest and most prominent black voice in the anti-abortion movement, to organize chapters at historically black colleges. The two activists say about two dozen students have signed up at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, and they're looking to establish more chapters over the next few years.
Childress is also recruiting black pastors for activism in mid-October, including participating in the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March and holding another rally against the Sanger bust. Pastors, historically the most influential leaders in African-American communities, are key to bringing black voices to the forefront in the abortion debate, which is why Childress and others say they're working to get clergy involved.
"I made sure black ministers were on the forefront of this," conservative black activist E.W. Jackson said.
"For too long, this very important issue has been dismissed as 'that's just white people trying to stir something up,'" said Jackson, who runs a group called Staying True to America's National Destiny. "We want people to understand this is a vital interest to black people."
High-profile anti-abortion leaders spoke at the anti-Sanger rally last month, but so did some rank-and-file pastors. Iverson Jackson of Zoe Bible Church in Little Rock. Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Maryland. Leon Threatt of Christian Faith Assembly in Charlotte.
War on women
In response to the "war on women" messaging that abortions rights advocates have levied against Republican candidates, some of the major anti-abortion groups have focused in their own war on women by arguing that additional abortion regulations are in their best interest.
But these pastors and other black leaders are trying to bring a new message to the front: Planned Parenthood targets black women for abortions by locating a majority of their health centers in poor and minority neighborhoods.
The proof, they say, is from research done a few years ago by the Life Issues Institute. Using 2010 census data, the group looked at county subdivisions called "census tracts" with a minority population over 50 percent. Then it counted up all the Planned Parenthood surgical centers located within a two-mile radius of those areas.
Based on that analysis, the group found that 79 percent of abortion-offering Planned Parenthood facilities are within walking distance of black or Hispanic neighborhoods. Sixty-two percent are near black neighborhoods, it found.
The proximity to black neighborhoods combined with Sanger's support for the eugenics movement in the early 20th century explains the higher abortion rate among blacks and proves Planned Parenthood is driven by racism, some abortion foes say.
The debate has made it into the race for the Republican nomination for president.
"I know who Margaret Sanger is, and I know that she believed in eugenics, and that she was not particularly enamored with black people," Ben Carson told Fox News last month. "And one of the reasons that you find most of their clinics in black neighborhoods is so that you can find a way to control that population."
Black activists enthusiastically point to Maafa 21, a documentary made six years ago by Mark Crutcher of Life Dynamics. The two-and-a-half hour film seeks to build a case that the higher abortion rate among blacks is rooted in an attempted genocide, or maafa, against African-Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The film has been criticized by some as propaganda, but Hunter said it has given activists their best tool yet to help African Americans understand how, as he sees it, abortion has disproportionately hurt their communities.
"Now what happens when blacks see that movie ... blacks are no longer fooled," Hunter said. "Every black who watched that movie realized 'oh my goodness, we've been duped.'"
There's no proof that Sanger was trying to eliminate the entire black population, as some have alleged. But there's wide agreement that she disparaged blacks, other minorities and the sick and disabled, and did specifically target blacks for birth control education, which she dubbed "The Negro Project."
In general, Sanger believed birth control was for ensuring people who may be perceived as inferior never reproduced, writing that contraception ensured a "weeding out of the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defective." She also addressed the Ku Klux Klan on at least one occasion.
Sanger is controversial to the point that Planned Parenthood has distanced itself from her, calling her statements "harmful" and something the group does not support. But Planned Parenthood has also pushed back against the charges that it targets black women.
It says that just 4 percent of its clinics that offer abortion services are in communities where more than one-third of the population is African-American. Of its nearly 700 health centers, fewer than 5 percent are in areas where that's the case, it says.
The Guttmacher Institute, a research group founded by Planned Parenthood but which later spun off, has also pushed back. Guttmacher found that 25 percent of the highest-volume abortion clinics, or those that perform at least 400 abortions a year, are located within zip codes where blacks or Hispanics are a majority.
It's not a perfect comparison with the research done by the Life Issues Institute, because Guttmacher looked at all 1,700 abortion clinics in the U.S., not just Planned Parenthood's approximately 165 surgical abortion centers, and examined only where clinics were located, not the racial makeup of surrounding neighborhoods.
Reasons behind the numbers
But one fact cannot be disputed: Black women are much more likely than white or Hispanic women to have an abortion.
Last year, New York City reported that black women underwent more abortions than live births in 2012. The black abortion rate is higher than the birthrate in other cities, too. In Richmond, there were 32 percent more abortions than live births in 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
One big reason cited is that black women are more likely than women of other races to live in poverty, which makes it harder for them to get contraception and puts them under greater day-to-day stress.
"We're still at the bottom of the economic table," said Monica Simpson, president of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. "When we look at income inequality, that is a huge factor."
Christine Dehlendorf, a professor at the University of California San Francisco's medical school, wrote a paper in 2013 arguing the abortion rate disparity is related to a higher unintended pregnancy rate, worse access to contraceptives and economic disadvantage.
But Monique Chireau, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Duke University School of Medicine, rejects the idea that poverty is the driving factor, noting that the abortion rate among Hispanic women, who also experience more poverty, is half that of black women.
Chireau thinks a more important factor is that black women are less likely than Hispanics or whites to get married. She notes that unmarried women are more likely than married women to experience an unintended pregnancy.
And she takes a measured approach to the question of whether Planned Parenthood targets black women for abortions. The health provider runs as a business, she said, so the motivation is to locate abortion clinics most strategically. And two major groups who seek abortions are black women and young, unmarried women.
"They're going to locate themselves where their business model is going to thrive," Chireau said.
If Planned Parenthood has tried to reach out to black women, it and other abortion providers have certainly succeeded in gaining their trust. Nearly two-thirds of black people say abortion clinics are somewhat or very safe, compared to fewer than half of Hispanics, according to a 2012 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.
Compared with other minorities, blacks also place more importance on abortion services being available in their communities. They're twice as likely as Hispanics to say that increasing abortion restrictions is a bad thing.
'Awakening the black community'
But the small contingent of black anti-abortion activists is convinced such attitudes could be changed if African-Americans better understood the prevalence of abortion in their communities. That could be especially true if more pastors spoke publicly about the issue, they say.
"The African-American voice has been absent in the pro-life fight," said Catherine Davis, organizer of the Selma march in June. Davis, a founding member of the National Black Pro-Life Coalition, also heads a group called The Restoration Project.
"They just don't know the numbers and they don't know the facts," she said. "But as we explain it to people and begin to talk about the numbers, it is awakening the black community to the horrific impact."
A powerful example for the black community, Davis said, was the 2012 death of Tonya Reaves, a 24-year-old Chicago woman who died from hemorrhaging after a cervical dilation and evacuation abortion procedure.
The death was ruled an accident, and Planned Parenthood expressed condolences to the family. But to activists, the death showed that abortion clinics are unsafe for women, particularly black women. Davis said she held the Selma march to highlight safety problems for black women in the clinic there and in health centers around the country.
Some white anti-abortion leaders, including Americans United for Life President Charmaine Yoest, joined the Selma protesters. Yet Davis readily admits it's been hard to get the white groups on board. The nationwide protest against Planned Parenthood clinics on a Saturday last month was organized and attended mostly by whites. Davis said she wants to organize another day of protest, this one specifically for those who are black, although right now she's focused on collecting signatures from black and Latino pastors for a letter asking Congress to defund Planned Parenthood.
Some white leaders acknowledge the challenge. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said that's one reason she enlisted former Ohio treasurer and abortion opponent Ken Blackwell to act as master of ceremonies for her group's annual gala in March. She invited Blackwell because of her "concern about this really white — beautiful, but really white — room that [the movement] has been for many years."
Dannenfelser also feels that black-led protests, such as the one against the Sanger bust, need to happen more often and get more attention.
"The black pastors who are going after that symbolic bust are a great example of what the pro-life movement can and always should be, which is always inclusive," she said. "It would be great to see an African-American president of a major pro-life organization."
Carson isn't the only presidential contender talking about abortions among black women. Carly Fiorina, who was keynote speaker for the Susan B. Anthony List gala, has also ventured into that territory, expressed frustration that black abortions outnumber births in New York City and accusing Planned Parenthood of targeting poor communities.
But if black leaders are ever going to find their way to the mainstream of the anti-abortion movement, and if it's ever going to be widely viewed as something more than a white cause, most advocates agree there's a long way to go.
Whites dominate at the movement's biggest event of the year, the annual March for Life held every January on the National Mall. For each of the past three years, a rally held before the march has featured just one black speaker among dozens of white speakers.
This year, Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina was the only African-American to speak. Last year, it was Auburn University homecoming queen Molly Anne Dutton. In 2013, it was Radiance Foundation founder Ryan Bomberger.
"We try to include all ethnic populations, but it doesn't always work out as well as planned," said March for Life President Jeanne Mancini, adding that she tries hard to represent a different group among each rally's seven or so speakers, such as a doctor, a woman who regrets her past abortion or a young person.
Money tells a similar story.
The best-funded anti-abortion groups are all white-led, with National Right to Life topping the list with $6.4 million in revenue each year, according to tax filings. The American Life League comes second with $5.4 million, AUL with $4.5 million and Susan B. Anthony List with $4 million.
It's much harder for black activists to raise money in their communities, where support for abortion rights is strong and the overwhelming majority of voters support Democrats. A handful of black-led organizations are registered as 501(c)3 nonprofits, but none raises enough money to be required to disclose their tally. The threshold for filing a regular 990 disclosure form with the IRS is $200,000.
"Very few African American-led organizations have had success in raising the resources needed to really wage this fight," Davis said.
As a result, many white activists just don't view blacks as a demographic that can help them achieve influence in Washington.
"Many of them have more or less surrendered that mission due to the tendency of African-Americans to support the Democratic Party," Childress said. "If you looked at the top five pro-life groups and asked them about their African-American outreach ... I would think you'd find there's not really a true plan."
The prevailing attitudes make it nearly impossible for abortion opponents to build influence in African-American communities, Childress said.
"You have viable African-American groups who are willing, but of course we can't get support from a community where we're demonized as being sellouts," he said.
Another dimension is the wide religious gap between Catholics, who have long been among the most forceful and influential activists, and black Protestants. But while the two groups' faiths overlap, there's a huge divide over their theology and practice.
While Catholics are more organized in their ecclesiastical structures, with a system of parishes and regional leaders, the African-American religious community is more centered on individual churches. That makes it harder to rally the faithful to a single cause.
"There is a huge divide between African-American clergy and Catholics," Chireau said. "You have very, very different faith traditions, very different ideas about practice."
Priests for Life brought Alveda King on staff a number of years ago to head its African-American outreach efforts. Hunter said Life Dynamics, which made the Maafa 21 film, is another group that has tried to involve black people. But he doesn't hesitate to name other groups he sees as less welcoming, including National Right to Life.
"There are organizations that have not worked well with blacks at all," Hunter said. "The pro-life movement really could do a much better job."
And then there's the basic political problem: African-Americans just don't vote for conservative, anti-abortion Republicans. Out of 46 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, just one, Rep. Mia Love of Utah, opposes abortion. In the Senate, Tim Scott is the only black member against legal abortion.
The relationship between Planned Parenthood and minorities hasn't been sunny. Last year, Simpson of SisterSong organized a letter from about four dozen organizations to Planned Parenthood, laying out concerns with how the group interacts with different racial groups. But after Planned Parenthood officials met with her and others, she feels better about the situation.
"I'm not saying [Planned Parenthood's] path isn't a bit challenged," Simpson said. "But I know there are a lot of black women who work for Planned Parenthood and have been working tirelessly for years to make sure Planned Parenthood is in [the] right relationship with the communities they serve."
Simpson noted that many black women who are on Medicaid or otherwise uninsured trust Planned Parenthood and others to provide them with an array of health services including screenings, birth control and abortions.
But according to Parker and other abortion foes, that's because black women are being "preyed upon" to believe that abortion is a good solution to the tough problem of unintended pregnancy. "It's a very vulnerable community," she said.
As she sees it, the task is to educate them, through the Internet, rallies and churches.
"Many are now starting to connect the dots, that it's not just the police that have it out for African-Americans in poor communities," she said. "It's also abortionists."
The writer is related by marriage to a board member of Americans United for Life.
This article appears in the Sept. 28 edition of the Washington Examiner magazine.