Alabama has Offered Us a Chance to be Honest About our Culture

The near total ban on abortion recently passed by the Alabama state senate has triggered a flurry of activity by women’s groups, civil liberties groups, and activists across the nation. But, what does this bill really say about America and its attitudes towards, life, death, women, and religion?

Most Americans will likely get lost in the headlines surrounding this issue, allowing themselves to be enthralled and absorbed in the drama and emotional depth of the battles to come. But, what is really happening underneath all the drama? Is what we’re seeing about the “rights of the unborn,” or is this really a much more convoluted and deceptive debate? Are those opposed to “abortion on demand” really concerned about the rights of embryos, fetuses, or “beating hearts”? Is there perhaps something more deeply-rooted in history being debated in the shadows?

Those who publicly oppose “abortion on demand” most frequently claim that their objections arise out of a desire to “protect the rights of the unborn.” Ironically, the most vocal anti-abortion voices can be found among Christian fundamentalists living in the American south, a place where blacks were lynched, sometimes while pregnant, throughout American history. And while few may recall much of the debate prior to Roe v. Wade, most of the debate at that point centered on white women who wanted “abortions on demand.” Little about women of color and their desire to obtain abortions was mentioned prior to 1973 — presumably because black women ending black pregnancies didn’t trouble racist southern whites all that much.

Why is it important that women of color and their reproductive rights were not often discussed leading up to the Roe V. Wade decision? Well, many of the discussions in the south related to abortion took place in religious settings. As the child of a mixed-race parent who was born and raised in the early 20th century south, I was privy to stories of the challenges of interracial dating, and the taboo of interracial relationships. It’s a history that isn’t widely taught in American schools.

Black men in the south were, to many whites, The Other — a group of people lost somewhere between fear and desire— the objects of curiosity and sometimes hidden desire. It’s now widely known that white slave owners often raped and fathered children with female slaves, but what’s less often talked about are the bored or adventurous wives, daughters, and sisters of white gentry whose curiosity about black men led them to seek out sexual encounters with slaves.

The progeny of such encounters were not generally welcomed in the genteel antebellum south, nor would anyone expect that they would have been. Outrage over interracial births generally led to violence against the black fathers. Talk about white women having black offspring was very much taboo during and after the civil war. The perceptions of acceptability related to interracial relationships has waxed and waned over the years, but open acknowledgment of interracial children was not accepted for most of American history. It’s still not a “point of pride” for many white fundamentalists, even in the 21st century south.

After passage of the Voting Rights Acts, in 1965, the issue of interracial relationships and the rights of African-Americans took on a new sense of urgency among religious fundamentalists. The Catholic church, to its shame, readily went along with the wishes of “racial purists” in the south and across the nation. If the south was at least open about their hostility towards interracial relationships, whites in other parts of the nation were no less opposed to such relationships. Apparently, they were just less vocal in their opposition than their southern counterparts.

Leading up to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, talk about “sexual freedom” and racial integration was in vogue, but remained contentious. After Roe, discussions about racial issues were no less contentious. Between 1974 and 1988, for example, Boston attempted to integrate its schools, triggering widespread protests and related violence. Racial conflict was a raging issue across America. If people had expected changes in voting laws to end racial disharmony, their expectations were clearly premature.

Race relations in the United States are still not ideal. Even after the presidency of Barack Obama, race remains a contentious issue in America. The relationship between southern opposition to interracial births and their opposition to “abortion on demand” is likely a direct one. The attitudes in the south were convoluted in logic, but simple in practice: If white women are allowed access to abortions, they could always abort any unwanted pregnancy resulting from sexual relations with a black man. This would allow them to freely “consort” with black males without consequence. To many powerful southern whites, this was unacceptable. Anyone who believes that attitudes in states like Alabama have changed clearly hasn’t spent much time in Alabama.

For those that wonder how something they’ve likely never heard of could be so powerful a motivator as to transcend the years, it would be useful to recall what president Donald Trump said about the violence in Charlottesville perpetrated by white supremacists in the midst of protests in August of 2017: “ … you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” His comments were a blatant act of pandering to his “base,” which is comprised largely of white nationalists and fundamentalists who, by Donald Trump’s own reckoning, didn’t want statues of Confederate “heroes” removed from public view. Given that the current president largely owes his presidency to the support of such people, the idea that angry white southerners in 1960’s, ‘70’s, ‘80’s, and beyond, might continue to have objections to interracial relationships shouldn’t seem all that implausible.

Were there other factors that contributed to southern fundamentalist opposition to “abortion on demand”? Of course there were. There are certainly people whose genuine religious beliefs drive their opposition to something they see as opposed to the “will of God.” However, the fact that few people who aren’t from the south, or have relatives of color who recall the racist traditions of the south, are aware of this history, doesn’t mean that race isn’t a huge contributing factor to southern fundamentalist opposition to “abortion on demand.” And just to be clear, the idea that many fundamentalist blacks in the south may also oppose abortion doesn’t mean that the origin of that opposition isn’t buried in a racist past that they may also be unfamiliar with.

America has not come anywhere near a real reckoning with its racist past, nor its racist present. It may seem inconceivable to some that much of the fervent opposition to abortion in the south has racist origins, but that’s because Americans know far less about the realities of American history than they would likely want to acknowledge. If Donald Trump has proven nothing else, he’s proven that the appeal of racist ideas to the hateful and ignorant are as strong as ever. As well, the danger of the racism that lies under the surface — bubbling up with new energy from Trump’s racist supporters — is more important to challenge than ever, and the lawmakers of Alabama are just a reminder of how potent and fearsome those racist tendencies are.