Black pro-life leaders spoke during an event on Tuesday about the need for the pro-life movement to become more consistent and less political on the problem of racism in order to advance the cause of life.
The online panel “Racism is a Life Issue” was hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture and cosponsored by the university’s law school, Mendoza College of Business, College of Arts and Letters, and right to life group.
Speaking at the event, Louisiana state senator Katrina Jackson (D), who drafted state abortion legislation which passed with bipartisan support before being struck down by the Supreme Court earlier this month, said that pro-life advocates had alienated potential supports by treating life as a party-political issue.
Women need to be supported if they’re making a tough decision to carry a child, Jackson said, yet “pro-life” legislators often oppose policies that could help these women—such as an expansion of Medicaid.
The Medicaid expansion was supported by Louisiana’s Catholic bishops as a “life” issue, yet was still one of the most “controversial” issues of Jackson’s political career, she said, adding that it didn’t need to be “controversial.”
Opposition to such policies by “pro-life” legislators does not go unnoticed by the African-American community, Jackson said, noting that many people in her district ask her why her pro-life colleagues do not support policies such as Medicaid expansion, or oppose the death penalty.
Former NFL tight end Benjamin Watson said the pro-life cause is seen by many African-Americans as a partisan campainging point, and that many Black people were alienated by the term “pro-life” which they associate with party politics.
“The term ‘pro-life’ immediately brings about ideas of Republican versus Democrat, liberal-conservative, it brings a host of other issues that seem to be anti-black,” said Watson, an outspoken pro-lifer and father of seven.
Recalling his own experiences in local communities and in the NFL, he said that pro-lifers need to take the life issue “out of the political realm” with advocates looking to build support for the cause and not just attract votes for a given candidate or election.
“The black community is overwhelmingly pro-life in the sense of for-life, against-abortion. We are,” said Watson. But, he said, the term “has come to mean something totally different than the essence of what it is, which is something that I believe many of us across ethnic lines all agree with.”
Joining Jackson and Watson on the panel were G. Marcus Cole, the dean of Notre Dame Law School, EWTN radio host Gloria Purvis, and Harvard professor Jacqueline Rivers. Ernest Morrell, director of the Center for Literacy Education at Notre Dame, moderated the discussion.
Consistency of support across life issues – including opposing racism and poverty – is key, all the panellists agreed.
“You cannot ask a person to choose birth but not support that person’s life and their opportunity at the American dream,” Jackson said. “At least give them the same opportunity that others have.”
She noted that Planned Parenthood successfully advertises abortion for young women because they feel they have “no resources” to care for a child.
The connection among abortion, poverty, and racism runs deeper and wider than many in the pro-life movement are aware, panellists said, but it’s a connection that needs to be made.
The poverty rate among black women is almost three times that of non-Hispanic white women, Rivers said, arguing that this is the result of historically racist laws and policies that were crafted to exclude black families from benefits which boosted other white families into the middle class and beyond.
This helped create a generational wealth gap between whites and African-Americans that exists to this day, Rivers said.
If pro-lifers became more acquainted with this history, she said, they could be seen as having an “underlying understanding of the depths of the problems” of racism.
Gloria Purvis said winning broader support for the pro-life cause in the Black community require more “humility” from activists and politicians.
“Stop trying to dictate to black people how they should vote, what should be their number one issue, or that somehow you know better than they do about what real racism is. Do not do that,” Purvis said.
“For goodness’ sake, stop saying things like ‘the real racism is abortion’,” she said, noting that pro-lifers should be able to talk about both racism and abortion without marginalizing either issue.
In line with the event’s title, Purvis said treating racism as a life issue requires first that pro-lifers not deny it is an issue at all.
“For goodness’ sake, please, please, stop with the political talking points of the far-right. You will turn people off faster than you know what,” Purvis said, giving examples of people bringing up “black-on-black crime” or black fathers being absent from their families in conversations about race, to argue that systemic racism doesn’t exist.
Purvis said the “number one pushback” she receives in her outreach is the belief that pro-lifers “only care about black life in the womb when it comes to politics or election time.”