Against the tide
Abortion still devastates the African-American community at an alarming and disproportionate rate, but black pro-life activists are fighting for lives
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Ryan Bomberger isn’t unaccustomed to criticism when it comes to talking about race or abortion. As president of the pro-life Radiance Foundation, he meets hard pushback against his blunt media campaigns spotlighting the tragically high abortion rate in the African-American community.
It’s not that abortion is a minority problem: A Pew Research Center survey in 2018 reported that 60 percent of black adults and 61 percent of white adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Forty-nine percent of Hispanics agreed.
Support remains high across the spectrum, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports abortion rates fell 24 percent over the last decade.
Still, abortion numbers remain tragically high, and they remain particularly steep among African-Americans: The CDC reported black women had an abortion rate of 25.1 abortions per 1,000 women. (White women had a rate of 6.8 per 1,000.)
In New York City, hundreds more black babies died from abortion than were born alive in 2016. In years past, that number has been in the thousands.
That makes pro-abortion propaganda in minority communities even more alarming. In 2017, Planned Parenthood tweeted, “If you’re a Black woman in America, it’s statistically safer to have an abortion than to carry a pregnancy to term or give birth.”
While it’s true that rates of infant and maternal mortality are much higher in the African-American community, it’s also insidious to imply abortion is a safe alternative for vulnerable women.
In his presentation at Wheaton College (see sidebar), Bomberger noted former Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards tweeted outrage about violence against African-Americans in U.S. cities when she said, “There are no words adequate to express the outrage and grief—stop killing Black people.”
Bomberger agreed the loss of any life is tragic, but he noted the irony of Richards’ dismay: “She is the abortion mogul of the nation, leading the organization that is the leading killer of black people.”
Outrage is understandable, but Tami Dalger, an African-American pro-life supporter in Montclair, N.J., also tells vulnerable women about sorrow. Dalger, 53, is now a married mother of six, but decades ago she had multiple abortions.
During her last abortion, the realization she was taking a life nearly crushed her. “I was almost in hysterics on the table,” she says. “The doctor assured me it would be OK. And I went ahead.”
Now she thinks about her unborn children the way King David spoke about losing his own son shortly after birth. “The child cannot come back to me,” Dalger says. “But I will go to him.”
Many African-American leaders were once solidly pro-life. Today, black pro-lifers swim against a tide of pro-abortion activism and entrenched difficulties in some of their communities, but they’re also finding truth and compassion can make headway.
THE MESSAGES ON BILLBOARDS AND SIGNS that popped up around Cleveland in early 2018 purported to offer compassion and truth from Preterm, Ohio’s largest abortion center, but instead announced tragic messages:
“Abortion is sacred.” “Abortion is a family value.” “Abortion is a blessing.”
They also proclaimed: “Abortion saved my career.” “Abortion saved my future.” “Abortion saved my children.”
Pro-lifers noticed the signs.
They also noticed something else: Many of the billboards popped up in predominantly black neighborhoods. Preterm’s own website declares: “Because of racial injustice, women of color are more likely to need abortions. … For us, reproductive justice includes racial justice.”
Ryan Bomberger’s group, the Radiance Foundation, joined local pastors and pro-life groups around Ohio to respond to the signs. They set up their own billboards:
“Abortion is big business.” “Abortion is regret.” “Abortion is systemic racism.”
Pro-abortion groups reject the idea of abortion as a form of racism, but pro-life advocates have noted a high percentage of Planned Parenthood centers operate within walking distance of black or Hispanic communities. Planned Parenthood disputes how high that percentage reaches, but no one disputes African-American mothers obtain abortions at a higher rate than other groups of women.
Whatever the motives, abortion centers cultivate a substantial customer base in African-American communities and raise funds to make abortions cheap or free for women who can’t afford them.
Groups like Preterm say some black women can’t afford to parent children. Pro-lifers know women need material help to care for children both before and after birth, and a network of pregnancy care centers and maternity homes help meet many such material needs each year.
Roland Warren, an African-American and the president of Care Net, a network of 1,100 pregnancy care centers around the United States, says communities with high abortion rates also have deeper needs.
“I never talk about the sanctity of life issue without talking about the sanctity of marriage,” he says. “Those two things are linked together, and you can’t have one without the other.”
Noting the high rate of unmarried mothers in African-American and other communities, Warren says a key to helping women decide to keep their children is helping couples pursue marriage, so a mother and a father can be in the home. In the cases where that doesn’t happen, mothers need to know they have a network of relational support beyond childbirth.
That takes discipleship, Warren says, and Care Net has launched a program (called Making Life Disciples) to train small groups in churches to mentor and support women and families facing unplanned pregnancies. The goal: to more intentionally partner local churches with local pregnancy centers to offer help beyond the center’s walls.
Warren thinks this is an area where pro-life Christians need to grow: “Christians have been viewing the life issue as a material issue or a political issue. The church hasn’t been viewing the life issue as a discipleship issue.”
Back in Ohio, Preterm continues with its campaign to disciple women toward abortions, despite the loss involved. Those losses include at least one mother: In 2014, Lakisha Wilson, a 22-year-old black woman, died of medical complications related to her abortion at Preterm. A county medical examiner ruled the abortion center wasn’t at fault.
A year later the group Physicians for Reproductive Choice gave Preterm abortionist Lisa Perriera its “George Tiller, MD, Abortion Provider Award”—which recognizes abortionists who have “overcome opposition” and taken “courageous action to protect and expand abortion in their state.”
IN THE 1970s, African-Americans were among the first courageous voices decrying legalized abortion. Mildred Jefferson, a surgeon and the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, helped start the National Right to Life Committee in the 1970s.
In a Jet magazine article about black abortion in 1973, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson (who is now pro-abortion) called abortion “genocide.”
African-American Pastor Clenard Childress came to pro-life activism in the 1990s, and also calls abortion “black genocide.”
Childress, the New Jersey director for the Life Education and Resource Network, was one of several black pastors who called for the Smithsonian Institution to remove a bust of Margaret Sanger in 2015.
The pastors noted Sanger’s founding of Planned Parenthood and her eugenic views, as well as her Negro Project that focused on birth control for African-Americans.
In 2016, some pro-life activists began using the phrase “all lives matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. BLM leaders responded by announcing solidarity with pro-abortion groups.
At New Calvary Baptist Church in Montclair, N.J., where Childress has served as pastor for 40 years, member Tami Dalger, the woman who talks about regretting her abortions, says she shares the hope of Christ’s forgiveness with other women who have already obtained abortions. But she also focuses on helping expectant mothers to know: “This is a life and life is precious.”
Alicia Chambers, 43, has also joined Childress’ work, and she tells women about the sorrow of undergoing four abortions in the past. After one abortion for a baby due during the month of May, she didn’t recover for years.
“Every May would come and I would be so depressed the whole month,” she says. “I would think: ‘This would be my child’s first birthday, this would be my child’s third birthday. … It just tore me up emotionally.”
Chambers says she understands from experience the reasons many women in the African-American community pursue abortion, and says she received little counseling or encouragement about parenting options before aborting. When she asked for a pregnancy test from a Planned Parenthood center, she says, workers gave her the positive result—and a list of places to seek an abortion.
She says if a woman doesn’t have a support system, abortion is very tempting. “You go to the clinic and you may see a few people protesting outside, but you’re thinking: OK, what other options do I have?” she says. Chambers doesn’t tell women raising a child will be easy, but she does tell them, “You’ve got to think of that child’s life as well as your own.”
TWO STATES OVER, in Connecticut, Christina Bennett has spent years sharing the same message with women.
Bennett grew up in the church, but says she never thought much about abortion until meeting pro-life leaders in college. She was also compelled by a story she learned about her own birth: When Bennett was in her 20s, her mother told her she nearly aborted her.
Her mother says she was weeping in a hospital hallway when a kind janitor encouraged her to keep her child. She canceled the abortion.
Bennett went on to work at the Justice House of Prayer in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, praying and working for an end to abortion. Later, she moved to Connecticut and worked for a local pregnancy center, and now serves as communications director for the Family Institute of Connecticut. She says it’s critical to speak with compassion and care about abortion and the high rate in African-American communities.
“I’m not the person that if we’re talking about police brutality, I’m always going to pivot to abortion,” she says. “I’m not that person when you’re talking about gun control, I’m going to say: How about the black babies who are dying?”
Instead, Bennett says she tries to build bridges and show concern for all the issues affecting the community, including abortion. For predominantly white pro-life groups, she says, it’s important to connect with African-Americans and build relationships as a foundation for expressing concern about black abortion.
“It’s not like African-Americans are like ‘Save the Pandas,’” she says. “We’re human beings with dignity.”
A few years ago, Bennett cultivated a relationship with Joy Adedokun, a student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
Adedokun is now a senior and the leader of a pro-life group on the predominantly white and liberal campus. She says most of the members of the group (including her) are women of color—something she says is an advantage when trying to talk to others about abortion: “They can’t say we’re white Republican men who want to take away their choice.”
Though she grew up in a Christian home, Adedokun says she didn’t have a clear pro-life understanding until she went to college. She reached out to Bennett and visited the pregnancy care center: “I absolutely fell in love with the place.”
Today, her pro-life group, Wesleyan Women and Children, is a chapter of Students for Life and encourages pro-life dialogue on campus. She attends some of a pro-abortion group’s events to hear what they discuss and to ask questions.
One of those groups, the Wesleyan Doula Project, sends student volunteers to local abortion centers to support women through the process of having abortions. They might watch children mothers brought along or hold their hand through an abortion. “It’s very sad,” says Adedokun.
Adedokun says students in her group volunteer at the local pregnancy center, and they show pro-life films on campus. When a health center email last year welcomed students who obtain an abortion to drop by the health center for a post-abortion kit of tea, cookies, and other items, Adedokun and other students objected. Workers in the health center wrote another email, clarifying they weren’t trying to trivialize abortion.
Working in such an environment isn’t easy. “It took a leap of faith,” she says. “But my faith in Christ has grown.”
Wheaton student leaders deem a talk by a black pro-life activist ‘offensive’ and ‘unsafe’
When pro-life advocate Ryan Bomberger opened his email on Nov. 20, he discovered a message accusing him of using “offensive rhetoric” about race and making “many students, faculty, and staff of color” feel “unsafe” during his visit to Wheaton College on Nov. 14.
Bomberger was stunned.
He remembered the atmosphere had grown emotionally charged after about 20 students stayed behind for an informal discussion with him after his 90-minute presentation called “Black Lives Matter In and Out of the Womb.”
But Bomberger didn’t know that a few days later an email would land in the inboxes of all 2,400 undergraduate students at Wheaton, accusing him of compromising the school’s mission to promote programming that “pursues unity, embraces ethnic diversity, and practices racial reconciliation.”
The student leaders writing the email didn’t offer examples of the comments they considered racially offensive. And they didn’t mention Bomberger is a biracial man who was adopted after he was conceived in rape.
Bomberger’s talk largely focused on the disproportionately high abortion rate among African-Americans, and decried leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement for declaring solidarity with pro-abortion groups—especially considering abortion’s particularly devastating effects on the black community.
His recorded presentation went forward without incident, but the unrecorded interaction with the students who stayed afterward grew tense as they asked broader questions about race and politics and challenged some of his answers.
In their email to the student body, the student leaders didn’t offer any details on Bomberger’s statements during or after the presentation, but they said the Wheaton community affirms "the worth of all human beings as unique image-bearers of God. We also look to recognize and challenge any situations that may hinder this mission.”
Bomberger wasn’t happy with the accusations. He told WORLD he was especially troubled by the accusation that he made people feel “unsafe,” particularly since he speaks out about the dangers of abortion for unborn children.
He wrote to the student leaders at the Student Activities email address (and copied school officials), saying he believed their campuswide message demonized him and didn’t offer support for their claims. He said he would be talking with an attorney and with school officials to decide whether to take action against what he called defamation.
Paul Chelsen, Wheaton’s vice president for student development, told WORLD that an email sent by elected student leaders to the student body is not an official message from the college. But he also confirmed the student leaders incorporated “advisor feedback” before sending the message from the email address of the Student Activities Office (SAO).
Advisers became involved the day after Bomberger’s visit, as SAO staffers invited student leaders to come and “process” the event. Five days later, the three student leaders sent the campuswide email.
Bomberger publicly questioned whether all three student leaders writing the email and the advisors attended his event. (It appears at least one of the student leaders did attend.) Chelsen didn’t answer that question directly, but he said student leaders could respond to students’ concerns, even if they don’t attend every event.
When it comes to responding to Bomberger’s complaints about the email and its lack of details on what the students found offensive, Chelsen said the school wouldn’t respond via the media because of “the serious legal implications for undergraduate students accused of defamation.”
Bomberger said when he mentioned the possibility of legal action, he meant possible action against the school, not the students. Either way, he said he didn’t have immediate legal plans, and he had hoped the situation could be resolved with an apology from the school.
That didn’t appear imminent. Chelsen said student leaders have the latitude to respond to student concerns, and “we affirm their right and responsibility as elected student leaders to do so.”
But both Chelsen and Bomberger said they were open to pursuing talks. The goal for the Christian parties should be a resolution without legal action.
Other students had different concerns. Members of the College Republicans, the student group that invited Bomberger to campus, said they didn’t object to Bomberger’s comments during or after the presentation, and they were surprised the students sent the campuswide email.
Alexis Kent, a Wheaton senior and a founding member of the Republican club, said she was “shocked” to receive the message. “I do not believe that anything that was said by Ryan Bomberger was cause for student government or school administration to get involved,” she wrote in an email. She said the episode made her concerned about freedom of expression at Wheaton.
“I do not wish to invalidate the feelings of a certain group of students that may feel marginalized or oppressed,” Kent continued. “Rather, I desire to see a campus in which thoughtful dialogue and conversation can occur without the claim that a student is being personally attacked because they are being disagreed with.”
Indeed, Wheaton has shown a willingness to host speakers some students might disagree with.
In 2017, Emory University philosophy professor George Yancy spoke at an event held in Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center. Yancy is well-known for his provocative language about issues surrounding race, and he told students from the outset his talk might be upsetting.
The speech was painful, no matter how one received it. Yancy contended all white people are racist because they live as the majority in a racist society. He used offensive language (including the F-word), and after he described the horrific lynching of a black woman in 1918, he told the audience, “That’s white America.”
Yancy also said that given the history of white supremacy in the United States, it’s black people who should be afraid of white people: “If you’re black, you should be scared as hell here at Wheaton College.”
Given Yancy’s provocative speech, why did Bomberger’s discussion of race—which included challenging the idea that all white people are racist—trigger a campuswide email?
Chelsen responded by saying, in Yancy’s case, faculty members invited him to campus, and were responsible for any follow-up. Since a student group invited Bomberger to the school, student leaders responded.
Bomberger said the response was disappointing, particularly from a Christian school: “It’s one thing to have a different opinion about something but to so clearly demonize me … and then to send it out to the entire school with no other perspectives provided … I was really thrown.”
It does offer a stark contrast to the school’s reception of Yancy. Before his controversial talk at Wheaton last year, Yancy told students: “This talk is candid. … So if the language is too much I apologize in advance. But then again: Why should I apologize for telling the truth?” — Jamie Dean
—Read the next story in this Roe v. Wade special section: “Living pro-vida”
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