How did the Black Panther Party’s ideologies surrounding gender and black nationalism influence the Party’s views on abortion?

Written by Emilio Araujo

Less than a year before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he wrote an essay describing how much the Civil Rights Movement had accomplished and how much still needed to be done. He claimed that while the successes were hard fought, they were also “relatively easy to accomplish” compared to the “formidable wall”1 that future movements would come up against. MLK thought that new tactics would be needed to overcome the different forms of racism that continued after the Civil Rights Movement.

One organization that rose to this challenge was the Black Panther Party. It was formed in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and became “one of the leading organizations of the Black Power Movement,”2 The Black Panthers had a different idea of what would help black people than MLK and the Civil Rights Movement. Instead of fighting for more rights under the United States government, the Panthers advocated that black people should form an independent nation, separate from U.S. control.3 The idea that black people should be able to control their own lives without U.S. interference is at the heart of the philosophy of black nationalism.

Police brutality has always been an issue for the Black Freedom Struggle. MLK and the Civil Rights Movement fought police brutality with non-violence, but after seeing that non-violence didn’t stop police brutality, the Black Panthers decided that armed self-defense was the only way to protect the “Black community from racist police oppression and brutality.”4 Police brutality is one of many issues that the Panthers struggled against and highlights the way that black nationalism influenced their actions. The Panthers believed that police officers were closer to an occupying force or foreign invader than protectors of peace in their communities.

The Black Panther Party was initially an organization dominated by men. The use of militancy and firearms is usually attributed to masculinity, however, women “participated in all Party activities, including the more militant ones.”5 Despite this, many women felt they were being treated unfairly and that there was sexism inside the Party. When larger numbers of women began joining the Party a few years after its creation, the “struggle to achieve gender equality intensified,”6 and women of the Party fought for more recognition and support.

The movement for women’s liberation and equal rights occurred at the same time as the Black Power Movement and the two had very “complex but deeply rooted connections.”7 While some women saw the Panthers as “male supremacist,” it didn’t stop them from also using the movement’s “insights and strategies” to fight for women’s rights.8 At the time, popular women’s rights movements were fighting for the right to abortion access. The Black Panthers and other black nationalist organizations did not always agree with this goal.

In 1970, a new abortion law passed in New York to allowed women to receive abortions “up to 2-4 months pregnant.” The Black Panthers released an article claiming that the law was a victory for “the oppressive ruling class who will use this law to kill off Black and other oppressed people before they are born.”9 The Panthers thought that abortion would be used against them to “kill” their potential supporters. While feminist movements were fighting to ensure abortion access, the Black Panthers were fighting against it.

This is based on the way the Panthers analyze abortion differently from popular, mostly white and middle class, feminist groups. While many others believe that abortion will protect women from the difficulties and dangers of an unwanted pregnancy, the Panthers saw it as an attempt at eliminating black people, or “Black genocide.”10

The Panthers fear that it won’t take long for “voluntary abortion to turn into involuntary abortion into compulsory sterilization.”11 Both involuntary abortion and compulsory sterilization have historically been forced on poor women of color.

Poor women often have “little practical ability to exercise their theoretical freedom of choice” because raising a child is expensive and they may not have the resources to do it.12 Even if they wanted to have a child, they are forced involuntarily to have an abortion because they couldn’t afford to raise a child.

Some doctors permanently sterilized women with or without their consent, “sometimes eliciting a woman’s signed consent days after surgery,” sometimes “when patients were under the influence of medication or under duress, most commonly during childbirth.” These forced sterilizations occurred most commonly to women of color. On explanation for this is that black women were seen as “welfare queens,” women who had children for the sole purpose of collecting financial assistance from the government. This led poor women of color to become “targets of physicians who believed that it was their social responsibility to prevent the reproduction of ‘unfit’ populations that they believed ‘drained’ government resources.”14 These doctors attempted to limit black population growth because they thought poor black women were using too many of the country’s resources.

The Panthers understood that it would take a mass movement against the police to create change, even claiming that “our revolutionary strength lies in the fact that we out number the pigs.”15 In this view, the more abortions there are, the fewer black people there are, and the less “revolutionary strength” the Panthers have. The Panthers see legalization of abortions as a tactic used by their enemies to weaken them and “kill” their potential members before they’re even born.

Not all Black Panthers were anti-abortion, some supported its legalization, but the Party itself usually remained firm that legalizing abortion would support a genocide against black people. This mindset resulted from their analysis of historical and contemporary forced abortions and sterilizations as well as their struggle against police brutality. Black nationalism informed the Panthers’ decisions and played a huge role in the way the they analyzed and combated systematic oppression against people of color.

Notes
1 Jr., Martin Luther King. “The Last Steep Ascent.” The Nation. N.p., 29 June 2015. Web.

2 Spencer, Robyn C. The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland. Durham: Duke UP, 2016. Print. The Black Power Movement was a political movement which worked toward equality for black people in the U.S. and around the world after the Civil Rights Movement.

3 VALLS, ANDREW. “A Liberal Defense of Black Nationalism.” The American Political Science Review 104, no. 3 (2010): 467-81. http://www.jstor.org.ccl.idm.oclc.org/stable/40863764.

4“The Black Panther Ten-Point Program”. The North American Review. 253 (4): 16–17. July–August 1968.

5 Bloom, Joshua, and Waldo E Martin. 2013. Black against Empire : The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley: University of California Press; Spencer, Robyn C. The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland. Durham: Duke UP, 2016. Print.

6Ibid.

7 Randolph, Sherie M. Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical. University of North Carolina Press, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469623924_randolph.169

8 Ibid.

9 Hyson, Brenda. “New York City Passed New Abortion Law.” Black Community Information Center (n.d.): n. pag. Web. <http://jfk.hood.edu/Collection/Weisberg%20Subject%20Index%20Files/B%20Disk/Blacks%20Miscellaneous/109.pdf&gt;.

10 Schulder, Diane, and Florence Kennedy. Abortion Rap. New York: McGraw-Hill Book, 1971. Print.; Cates, Willard. “Legal Abortion: Are American Black Women Healthier Because of It?” Phylon (1960-), vol. 38, no. 3, 1977, pp. 267–281., http://www.jstor.org/stable/274589.

11 Hyson, Brenda. “New York City Passed New Abortion Law.” Black Community Information Center.

12Schoen, Johanna. Choice & Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Print. Gender and American culture; Gender & American culture

13 KLUCHIN, REBECCA M. “Locating the Voices of the Sterilized.” The Public Historian, vol. 29, no. 3, 2007, pp. 131–144., http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/tph.2007.29.3.131.

14 Ibid.

15 Hyson, Brenda. “New York City Passed New Abortion Law.” Black Community Information Center. In this case, the word pigs refers to the police.

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