The Racialization of Abortion: A Dirty Jedi Mind Trick

By: Julia Ofman, Project Assistant, Women and Health Initiative, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

On March 27, 2017, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Women and Health Initiative and the Women, Gender, & Health interdisciplinary concentration at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health hosted a seminar featuring Dr. Willie Parker, a licensed obstetrician and gynecologist and reproductive justice advocate who works as an abortion provider in the Southern United States (U.S.).

Dr. Parker’s talk, titled “The Racialization of Abortion: A Dirty Jedi Mind Trick,” references an ability that the Jedi from the Star Wars franchise uses to influence the thoughts and actions of another person, usually to their advantage. He pointed out that these tricks are only successful against weak-minded people, likening these strategies to “epidemiologic mischief” – when opponents to abortion access manipulate the discussion of abortion to be racialized.

To set the stage for his lecture, Dr. Parker showed a clip from the Independent Lens documentary, Trapped, about legislation in the U.S. that targets abortion providers and limits women’s access to abortion services. The brief clip shows Dr. Parker approaching an abortion clinic with a few protestors outside holding signs with gruesome photos and preaching to him by name. One woman says, “You’re a black man, having black women go in there and destroying black lives,” expressing her belief that black lives matter, all lives matter. After the clip ended, Dr. Parker pointed out that the central point to this woman’s argument was his own race and the race of women coming to the clinic. She conflated what he has chosen to do in service of women as an attempt to decimate the black population.

At the core of this protestor’s argument is the conspiracy theory that Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers lure black women into abortions they do not want in an effort to commit genocide against the black population in the U.S. This notion is not unique to this one protestor and has been used by legislators, political action committees and other anti-choice groups for decades to undermine and restrict women’s access to abortion services. This is what Dr. Parker referred to as a dirty Jedi mind trick.

Dr. Parker called for a new framework to promote access to abortion services, one that incorporates the intersecting issues of economic justice, environmental justice, immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights and criminal justice. Dr. Parker deemed this new intersectional framework as “reproductive oppression.” Kimberlé Crenshaw, civil rights advocate and leading academic on feminist and critical race theory, first used the term intersectionality to describe the multiplicity of privileges and oppressions one person can occupy simultaneously. For example, Dr. Parker pointed out that he is male, heterosexual, African American and Christian. His gender is a point of privilege, but his race alters that privilege through a racial lens. So, too, is reproductive oppression intersectional. Historically, black women in the U.S. had their reproductive rights oppressed by being forced to have children as slaves; Puerto Rican women were experimented on in pursuit of a contraceptive pill that only became available to wealthy white women. Contemporary examples include the incarceration of substance-addicted mothers for fetal abuse and family caps in welfare policies.

The response to reproductive oppression is reproductive justice. SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, an organization based in the Southern U.S., developed a reproductive justice framework which states that every individual has the right to:

  1. Decide if and when they will have a child and the conditions under which they will give birth.
  2. Decide if they will not have a child and their options for preventing or ending a pregnancy.
  3. Parent the children they already have with the necessary social supports in safe environments and healthy communities, and without fear of violence from individuals or the government.
  4. Bodily autonomy free from all forms of reproductive oppression.

SisterSong’s framework was put to the test in Georgia in 2010 and 2011, when billboards that said “Black Children are an Endangered Species” began appearing across the state. Funded by opponents of abortion access, the billboards were displayed in coordination with a legislative effort in the state to restrict abortion access, HB 1155 and SB 529. The goal of these billboards was to drive a racial wedge in the pro-choice movement and create gender-based friction among African American voters, all to undermine opposition to the bills.

To limit opposition and scare the public, the legislators and political action committees used misleading statistics, misleading testimonies and misleading historical evidence. The pro-choice movement in the state faced many challenges in getting organized in response to these two bills, including a lack of funding, limited capacity and infrastructure in the African American community, competition among reproductive justice groups for visibility and the stigmatization of abortion. However, they found success and defeated these legislative attacks by building a broad coalition of groups, putting women of color at the center and in leadership roles and crafting a media strategy to combat misinformation. Reflecting on his work, Dr. Parker said, “At the end of the day, if a woman doesn’t control her fertility, she doesn’t control much else in her life.”

Check out the MHTF blog series and topics page on maternal health disparities in the United States.

Watch Willie Parker’s TED Talk, “Reproductive justice: A different horizon.”

Read what Willie Parker has written for The New York Times and his new book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice.

Read a summary of Monica Simpson of SisterSong’s seminar from October 2016.