Should race be an issue in the abortion debate? Anti-abortion activists are making it one.

WASHINGTON – As I strolled through the crowds of demonstrators in front of the U.S. Supreme Court this month, chants about women and dignity and rights struck a familiar chord.

"Hands off my body!"

"Against abortion? Don't have one."

"My body, my choice." 

What I can't stop thinking about are the signs and one-liners shouted by mostly white anti-abortion activists through their bullhorns and portable microphones.

I heard:

“Abortion is modern-day slavery.”

“Black baby lives matter!”

“Abortion is the No. 1 killer of Black people.”

The chants stopped me in my tracks. Over and over.

Demonstrators gather outside the Supreme Court on Dec. 1, 2021, as justices hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization.

I had traveled to Washington for just this purpose. I wanted to talk to activists who had descended upon our nation's capital to voice their opinions in the abortion debate, as justices listened to oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization

The case stems from a Mississippi law that, if affirmed, would block people more than 15 weeks pregnant from obtaining an abortion – a move reproductive rights advocates say would essentially overturn Roe v. Wade.

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I know the anti-abortion rhetoric, and it was in full swing outside the courthouse. Protesters often punch below the belt by displaying photos of mangled, purportedly aborted babies and other gruesome imagery. They sling slogans meant to disturb and demean pregnant people who make the often difficult decision to seek an abortion.

The blatant race-framing exploitation and appropriation of the civil rights arguments of old – and the newer emphasis on the Black Lives Matter movement – exude white privilege. Black people don't need to be schooled on the premise of body autonomy. We were denied such rights for centuries. Black people don't need to be enlightened on the the realities of reproductive discrimination. We still experience it every day.

Listening to the unacceptable

Statistics from the Kaiser Family Foundation show that African Americans account for 38% of abortions in America, compared with 33% of white people and 21% of Hispanics. Black people experience greater incidences of unwanted pregnancies, often resulting from a lack of access to health care, contraception education and socioeconomic inequality. 

Racial disparities in health care and prenatal care aren't a secret. Maternal mortality rates among Black women, who are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, transcend education or income levels. 

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Black mothers experience the highest premature birth and infant mortality rates among all racial and ethnic groups, particularly in Southern states such as Mississippi. If a child survives, adequate postpartum medical care and insurance coverage remain elusive for Black children and mothers.

On that sunny Wednesday outside our nation's highest court, I continued to listen and observe.

“Planned Parenthood targets Black women.”

“Abortion is Black genocide!”

Then I encountered Katherine Adelaide.

Her sign caught my attention: NO STATE NEEDS TO WAIT. BAN ABORTION NOW.

I needed to talk to her. 

Adelaide, 64, is from Taneytown, Maryland, and is an elected member of the state Republican Party of Carroll County. She used to be a Democrat, she said, but was recruited by Republicans because of her public anti-abortion platform. 

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An anti-abortion protester holds a cross outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1 as justices consider state restrictions on the procedure.

Almost immediately, she told me she believed abortion should be abolished, not regulated. Then she said something so offensive I'm certain I started blinking uncontrollably. 

"Imagine if we were still regulating slavery," Adelaide said. "Every year for 60 years, we've said, 'This year, you can poke your slaves' eyes out, next year, you can't cut their toes off.' Everyone can see how wrong that is. And yet we've been regulating abortion for 60 years. 'You can only kill them up to this point. You can kill them if they're the wrong gender. You can kill them if they're deformed,' you know, one excuse after another. So I'm pro-life from the moment of conception until natural death."

What about rape, I asked? Incest? Poverty? The lack of family paid leave, equitable health care, insurance or affordable housing and child care? What about inadequate education for the child? Or stable employment for their parents?

"My position is that there's no social problem – not racism, not sexism, not poverty – there's no social problem for which murdering preborn babies is the answer," she answered.

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I pushed her on the incidents of rape and incest. I asked if she believed that someone who has endured such trauma should be made to bring that child into the world.

Her answer: We need to end rape and incest.

"That's not real," I countered. "That's not real right now, that won't be real probably in the next 50 years. Rape is not going to end anytime soon."

Her response: "OK, but what if we said that about slavery?"

"Slavery happened for a long time before it ended, and it's not comparable," I said. "At all."

My voice was raised, but I was still attempting to be respectful. I've been a journalist for many years. I can't think of a time when I've challenged a stranger in an interview like that. I talk to people with whom I don't agree every day. I'm certain she felt comfortable saying such despicable things to me because I am a Black woman. I found it unacceptable.

Reproductive rights are civil rights

During slavery, Black women were raped by their owners. During slavery, Black women were forced to breed with other enslaved males to boost their slaveowners' human inventory and free labor opportunities. During slavery, Black women had no claim to their children. During slavery, Black women were denied control over their lives, the lives of their offspring and their bodies.

Wearing a bandana saying, "Bans off our bodies," Bethelehem Yirga of Prince George's County, Md., joins an abortion rights rally outside the Supreme Court on Nov. 1.

Not only is the comparison of abortion to the atrocities of slavery offensive to Black people and our history in this country, but it's also a racist trope that demonizes African Americans for demanding agency over their bodies and access to their constitutional right to seek pregnancy termination.

It's beyond insulting to suggest that Black people are too dumb, uninformed and incapable of knowing what's best for them and their families. It's laughable that some anti-abortion advocates want to inject race into the abortion debate but are unwilling to talk about the social and economic disparities that continue to plague Black families.

Reproductive rights are human rights. Reproductive rights are civil rights. If anything, forced gestation and birth is the modern-day form of slavery.

National columnist/deputy opinion editor Suzette Hackney is a member of USA TODAY’S Editorial Board. Contact her at shackney@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @suzyscribe