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5 reasons Black men must fight for reproductive rights

OPINION: In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Black men must join the fight for reproductive rights.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio

I carry the straightening comb.

It was perhaps the most irritating chore for which I was responsible during my youth. Each Friday, the Harriot household’s dining room magically transformed into a hair salon where my mother served as the chief beautician for my three sisters. Because our kitchen was so narrow, it was my job to ferret the cast-iron comb back and forth from the stove to the chair while my siblings sat patiently as my mother performed alchemy, turning locks of wool into silken strands. 

My sisters hated it. They hated the way my mother craned their necks as if they were dime store mannequins. They hated the smell of Dax grease. They hated the way I sometimes repaid their weekly transgressions by leaving the straightening comb on the stove a little too long as if I were smelting steel. To my sister’s credit, they never complained (Although I suspect the weekly ritual of burned earlobes and singed edges was a major reason they switched to natural hairstyles once they became adults). I, on the other hand, constantly voiced my displeasure. It was boring. Why couldn’t my sisters take turns carrying the straightening comb for each other? I could be playing basketball or watching TV. My straightening comb duties were essentially a grievance session until one day my mother had enough. She made my sisters gather around and told me to grab a pen and paper. 

That’s when I knew I was in trouble. She told me to calculate her hourly wage. Then she made me subtract how many hours it took for her to pay for my weekly haircut. And because my sisters didn’t take art lessons or play sports, I had to add the cost of extracurricular activities to the total. Most of my sisters’ clothes were sewn by my mother, while mine were purchased from stores, so the extra expense of my wardrobe was added in. When she finished my impromptu lesson on calculating a household budget, she explained how my sisters essentially had to give up new dresses, toys and name-brand cereal for their brother’s sake. 

“Nearly two days of my work week is literally dedicated to Mikey,” she said. “I’d have to work regardless. It’s your sisters who are making sacrifices so you can be happy. But that’s what families do. And all you have to do is carry the straightening comb.”

Since then, whenever my sisters need me to do something—whether it’s running to the corner store or helping move something heavy—if they sense an objection, they know they can preempt any objection by simply saying: “All you gotta do is carry the straightening comb,” and they know I’ll do it. 

Because that’s what brothers do. 

Ever since the Supreme Court overturned women’s right to control their bodies, the conversation has centered around how the Dobbs v. Jackson decision that overturned abortion rights will impact women. But putting individual state legislatures in charge of uteruses impacts everyone in America, especially Black men. Anyone who thinks it won’t should gather around and grab a pen.

Black men, this is why it’s time for us to carry the straightening comb. 

1. It’s an economic attack on Black families.

According to a 2004 study by the Guttmacher Institute, 73 percent of women who chose abortion said they could not afford to have a child. While poverty is debilitating to all races, we know that white families, on average, have 10 times the wealth of Black families. We know that a white high-school dropout has 70 percent more wealth than the median Black college graduate. We know that the average Black woman loses nearly a million dollars to the wage gap over the course of her career and Black men are paid less than white men with the same education and experience.  

What does this have to do with Black men?

Although there is no need to go into an abbreviated explanation of how babies are made, it is safe to say that nearly 99 percent of all pregnancies involve a father. And according to numerous studies, most women (59 percent) seeking an abortion already have children, including a disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic mothers. The Guttmacher study found that married Black women had “elevated odds” of citing their responsibilities to their children and families as a reason for abortion.

Because whiteness is an asset, it’s not just absentee fathers and single mothers who will pay the price. In fact, white single-parent families have more than twice the wealth of the median two-parent Black household.  

By overturning Roe v. Wade, the justices essentially condemned millions of Black families to intergenerational poverty.

2. They’re killing everybody Black.

The anti-choice movement would have you believe they are pro-life but because Black maternal mortality is nearly three times the white rate, the SCOTUS ruling essentially snuffed out the life of Black mothers, daughters, sisters and wives across America. Sure, most of the new anti-abortion laws make exceptions for the life of the mother but only if the pregnancy complications are documented and caught in time. 

As part of their primary care services, thousands of family physicians perform abortions every year. Now, anti-choice laws are already causing providers to shutter their practices and forcing doctors to move to different states. When you factor in the Black infant mortality rate, the mortality rate of Black men and the lack of health care providers in Black neighborhoods, the Supreme Court decision is a death sentence.

3. Reproductive rights is now a criminal justice issue.

Whether it’s policing, arrests, convictions, sentencing, incarceration or parole, can you name a segment of the criminal justice system that doesn’t disproportionately negatively affect Black men? Well, add abortion to that list. 

Texas’ SB 8, for instance, doesn’t just offer a bounty on doctors. The “fetal heartbeat” law essentially offers a $10,000 bounty on anyone who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion, including paying for or reimbursing the costs of an abortion through insurance or otherwise.” This doesn’t just apply to women and doctors. It implicates husbands, single men who help women pay for an abortion and even fathers who pay for their children’s insurance.  

Some anti-abortion states don’t make exceptions for cases of rape or incest while some, like Mississippi, criminalize abortions unless the victims report the sexual abuse to law enforcement. The lasting impact of having to go to the police to get a permission slip for what the state has determined is a criminal act can affect entire families. To be fair, there may be places where these rules won’t be enforced in a racist manner.

After all, I have been told that there are some places where fatback is not greasy and grits are not considered to be groceries.

4. It’s even whiter than that.

What’s whiter than the criminal justice system and the U.S. Supreme Court?

We used data from the National Council of State Legislators to calculate the demographics of legislators in the states that have banned or restricted access to abortion (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming). When we compared them to the demographics of each state, we found that states with abortion restrictions are disproportionately Black while the lawmakers who are restricting women’s right to choose are overwhelmingly white. While the residents of these states are 62 percent white and 16 percent Black, the legislatures are 76 percent white and nine percent Black. Despite the fact that these 18 states represent 40 percent of America’s Black population, not a single one had a legislature where white people were overrepresented.

5. You’re next.

The Supreme Court’s decision wasn’t based on religion, protecting the unborn or life beginning at conception. Citing the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause (which, by the way, was written to guarantee constitutional rights to the formerly enslaved), five justices struck down abortion by explaining that women don’t have a constitutional right to control their bodies because, traditionally, that has been a man’s job. 

“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” read the majority opinion. “[The Due Process Clause has been held to guarantee some rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution, but any such right must be ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition’ and ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.’

“The right to abortion does not fall within this category. Until the latter part of the 20th century, such a right was entirely unknown in American law. Indeed, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted, three-quarters of the States made abortion a crime at all stages of pregnancy.”

See? Safe and legal abortions aren’t in the Constitution, nor has it been around long enough for it to be a “right.” 

Just wait until they apply that logic to other stuff that’s not explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution, like having bass in your voice, the right to an education or making eye contact with a proud white man. Thank God voting is in the Constitution.

Oh, wait.

Because I love telling stories, here’s one more.

When I was in college, my now-deceased sister Robin called me to tell me that she was with a friend who just found out she was pregnant. She needed Robin’s help with the cost of terminating the pregnancy, but it meant that she wouldn’t be able to cover her half of the rent for our apartment. I balked but eventually agreed to cover her half of the rent. And, although I had my suspicions, Robin never told me which friend had an abortion. 

A few days ago, before the SCOTUS decision, I told a random story about throwing a cookout for Robin’s birthday when we were in college. Because we were so broke, the only meat we had available to barbecue was a hunk of baloney. Hours after I shared the memory, one of Robin’s college friends, who I hadn’t seen in years, texted me. She told me that she says she has shared so many stories about Robin that her husband and children feel like they know her. After we laughed about the baloney cookout, we talked for a few more minutes about my sister’s “country talk,” which sometimes left her with no idea what Robin had just said. Just before she hung up she asked:

“Why did Robin always ask you about straightening combs?”

Of course, I didn’t tell her. 

I didn’t want to make her part of our criminal conspiracy. 

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.

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