In the wake of the would-be fiftieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Shirley Chisholm's 1969 statement on abortion is bold, progressive, unsentimental – and necessary.
January 22, 2023 would have marked the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 legal case wherein the US Supreme Court declared restrictive laws against abortion unconstitutional - effectively making abortion legal. The same US Supreme Court would overturn their predecessor’s decision in June 2022, when its extreme right-wing denizens held that the United States’ female population had no constitutional right to abortion. On this aborted anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Black Women Radicals, a “Black feminist advocacy organization dedicated to uplifting Black feminist activism,” reminded us that Black women have always been the pioneers in the struggle for reproductive access for all, even coining the term, “Reproductive Justice.” Shirley Chisholm's remarkable “Statement on Abortion” is an example of this legacy.
A daughter of Caribbean immigrants born in New York City, Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to the US House of Representatives. During her tenure, which spanned 1969 to 1983, she was extremely active, serving on a number of key committees, helping to pass major legislation, and founding organizations, such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus. Chisholm’s legislative feats are legendary: she helped to broaden the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children (the WIC and food stamp programs); she authored the 1974 minimum wage law which expanded minimum wage to domestic workers as well as local government employees; and she advocated for reproductive rights. In fact, Chisholm was made honorary co-president of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws in 1969.
Chisholm’s early fight for reproductive justice, and especially abortion, earned her an audience before the Republican Task Force on Earth Resources and Population, chaired by Texas congressman (and future US President) George H. W. Bush. In the post-1945 era, US elites became concerned with world population growth, supposedly because of its potential to maintain the underdevelopment of the Third Word, which could possibly lead to security problems for the West. The Task Force on Earth Resources and Population was one in a long series of programs and committees set up by the US to “deal with the problem of rapid population growth” in the nonwhite world. At times linked to the Eugenics movement, the concern with population growth achieved both national and global prominence. It led to a US-sponsored World Populations Conference in 1974, which yielded the World Population Plan of Action that instituted support for international family programs. These programs were established on a national level in the US through successive Democratic and Republican presidencies, from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan.
In her address to the Task Force, Chisholm stressed both the impediments to family planning for Black and Brown women, and the need to advocate for abortion as an aspect of family planning. Offering a rigorous analysis absent of sentimentality, she focused on how women’s and poor peoples’ material conditions were the main factors that determined requests for and access to abortion. It is a statement that is bold, progressive, and necessary. Yet, it is ironic that it was deployed in the context of the white West’s Eugenics-like attempt to diminish the population of the non-white world. Indeed, G. H. W. Bush was so impressed with Chisholm's statement that he made the rare moved to publish it in full in the Congressional Record, arguing that “Mrs. Chisholm made a bold and forthright presentation…[that] deserves wide-spread attenuation.” Of course, G. H. W. Bush and his Republican descendants would shift far, far away from their position on family planning and abortion.
Nevertheless, despite the revocation of the right to abortion, and despite the unequivocally problematic - even racist - context of its original presentation, Chisholm’s statement on abortion remains powerful for its advocacy for Black and Brown women, and for poor people. For that reason, we reprint it below.
Statement On Abortion
Gentlemen, first I'd like to say that I have long been and still am an ardent advocate of family planning. It is obvious that when possible we should limit the number of births by the use of contraceptive devices. I am equally aware however, that for a number of reasons, birth control is not enough. Contraceptive devices fail, women are raped, they forget to take a pill, they can't afford the most effective birth control devices or they are just not informed.
And I must say that part of the reason people have not been informed is that it has only been recently that we as legislators have supported birth control. Even now there are problems. For example, even though approximately four percent of the mothers of the 245,000 babies born illegitimately in the United States every year are women 19 years old or younger; we still are not making information on birth control available to these young girls.
It wasn't until 1965 that New York changed its welfare rulings and made birth control information available to young women who were heads of households and they still won't give the information to any girl under 18. Although many young people seem to be very sophisticated about sex, they in fact are frequently lacking in knowledge about the facts of life.
There are many persons who either for religious or personal convictions believe that abortion is wrong because you are killing a child, others believe that human life does not start until some time after conception or at birth. I believe that this is a personal matter which should not be decided by the state.
Certainly, no one should ever be forced to have an abortion. The decision to have a child should be a personal private decision. Unfortunately as the law stands now there is no choice. Under the present circumstances we are imposing the Catholic view of abortion on the entire population. For many years I supported abortion repeal but repeal is not enough. The majority of women who seek abortions not because they have been raped, exposed to German measles or have serious heart or liver ailments. The number of rape-induced pregnancies in the United States is about 800 per year - between 80,000 and 160,000 defective children or between 2% and 4% are born a year.
Women seek abortions because they find themselves with unwelcome or unwanted pregnancies. Abortion is a last resort birth control measure when preventive techniques have failed or have not been used.
Approximately 50 million abortions are performed annually around the world. Between 8,000 and 13,000 legal, that is therapeutic abortions are performed annually in the United States.
Between 250,000 to 1,250,000 illegal abortions are performed annually in the United States.
Approximately 20,000 are performed in the D.C. area alone of which only 25% are done in hospitals.
Nearly half of those seeking abortions are unmarried girls. Unless these girls have the $600 to $700 it takes to get a therapeutic abortion and are willing to swear to two psychiatrists that they are going to jump off a ledge, the only solution is to have the child.
Societies' attitude seem to be “you've had your pleasure now pay the price.” What is more immoral, granting an abortion or forcing a young girl - some of them as young as 14 or 15 - to assume the responsibilities of an adult while she is still a child? What are we doing to the mother? What are we doing to the child?
If a white girl gives up her child for adoption there is a pretty good chance that the child will be adopted. This is not the case for black and other minority group children. They spend their lives in orphanages and foster homes. This is one of the prime reasons so many black girls keep their babies. The number of children in orphanages or in foster care totals 316,000. Only 25% of the black children are in public institutions - 18% are in voluntary welfare institutions or homes. This contrasts sharply with the 71% of white children in public institutions and 80% in voluntary care.
Is it more humane for these children to grow up unwanted and unloved?
Botched abortions are the single largest cause of maternal deaths in the United States. In 1964, Dr. Carl Goldmark, Jr., president of the New York County Medical Society reported that 34 women died in New York City as the result of criminal abortions. He estimated at that time that about 80% of maternal deaths are the result of criminal abortions. Women from minority groups are hit hardest. According to a study by Edwin M. Gold for 1960-1962, abortion was the cause of death for 25% of the white women, 49% of the non-white women and 56% of the Puerto Rican women.
Aside from the problem of securing the money for therapeutic abortions, poor, minority group women have another problem, that is that the municipal hospitals which they must patronize are far more reluctant to perform therapeutic abortions than volunteer hospitals. While 3.9 per 1,000 live births is the ratio for therapeutic abortions in voluntary hospitals, the ratio is only 1 per 1,000 live births, in municipal hospitals in New York City. Well over 90% of all therapeutic abortions in New York City are performed formed on white women.
Illegitimacy is a growing problem as of 1967 approximately 4.5 million children under the age of 18 In the United States are illegitimate. We can't ignore this. It is a fact. These children, this problem is not going to go away. We need to be concerned about the quality of these lives - both of the children and of their mothers.
By forcing a young girl to have an unwanted child, we are assigning her to societies’ trash heap. Young, confused, usually without skills or training, she will be cut off from avenues of opportunity. Widows and divorcees have a rough time in the marriage market. Unwed mothers have it even rougher. By punishing her to have the baby, have we solved any problems? I think not. I think we have created some.
Some of you gentlemen may think this is all too hearts and flowers. Well I've got an even more practical reason why you should be in favor of abortion repeal. It costs you money.
The number of illegitimate children on AFDC has been steadily rising. Until now (as of 1967) 1,100,000 or 28% of all AFDC children are illegitimate. About 4 to 43 of all illegitimate children under the age of 18 are on the AFDC rolls. Over 70,000 unmarried mothers are receiving aid for dependent children.
The AFDC payments range from $10.55 per recipient in Mississippi to $64.65 in New Jersey. The national average per recipient is $44.30. For D.C. it is $42.40. Think about it, gentlemen, that is about $48,730,000 a year and unmarried women are the ones who find it most difficult to get off the welfare rolls.
I have talked a great deal about illegitimacy today. I have done it purposely because people are squeamish and don't want to discuss the matter. I think we must discuss the matter and come to grips with it. I do not believe in sugarcoating the issue.
Single girls are not the only ones seeking abortions. The most frequent reason married women seek abortions is that they feel that they have too many children already.
In a recent survey by Dr. Charles F. Westoff of Princeton's office of population research revealed that 22% of all legitimate births in the United States are unwanted by either the husband or the wife. This in depth survey of 5,600 persons revealed that the poor were most anxious about this issue of all economic groups. Among the poor (i.e., earning under$4,000) 42% of all legitimate births are unwanted. The principal reason seems to be financial or financially related, e.g., crowded housing. Indeed there is a high correlation between the number of children in a family and the ability to break the poverty cycle. The risk of poverty increases rapidly 9% for one-child families to 42% for families with 6 or more children. Nearly half of the children growing up in poverty in 1966 were members of families with five or more children under 18. More than one quarter of all families with four or more children live in poverty. The risk of poverty is two and a half times that for families with three children or less.
One hears talk about "genocide" from black militants. I think the principal things in operation here are the feeling of blacks that they want to control their lives and of the black man's pride and ego. Most of those who raise the genocide issue are black men not black women.
But we must also be aware of one of the underlying fears that is that blacks fear that some day people will be "required" to use contraceptives or have an abortion in order to receive public assistance. Although I am a strong advocate for both, I do not want anyone to misunderstand me. Birth control and abortions should never be forced or required, rather they should be “available”.
As a matter of fact, studies done in 1960 and 1965 indicate that a significantly higher percentage of non-whites prefer a family of two children or less as opposed to the white desire for about 3 children. This I think relates to an awareness of the connection between poverty and the number of children one can afford to support.
In terms of our concern for world population growth, the desire for the average American family to have three children raises serious concern. The U. S. population growth rate has equaled and exceeded two of many underdeveloped countries. We are now adding about 3,000,000 people each year.
While it took 1,840 years since the time of Christ for the world population to reach one billion, we tripled this figure in little more than a century. At the present explosive rate the three billion people we have now will double to six billion from 1960 to 2000.
We urgently need to examine our attitudes and policies toward family planning and abortion or we shall be crowded off the earth.
I know that everyone treats the issue of abortion repeal gingerly. I'm a politician too and I understand your uneasiness but I think that this is an issue where the people are ahead of the Pope and the politician. A June 9, 1969, Harris Poll published in Newsweek indicated that 64% of the general population polled favored making the decision to have an abortion an issue between the woman and her doctor, 60% of the Catholic polled felt the same way.
Repressive legislation is not the answer. The strictest rules against abortion are found in Catholic countries yet it is the Catholic countries that have the highest rates of abortions.
In Roman Catholic Chile 27% of the women reported they had had abortions. The illegal abortion rate in Uruguay is almost 21/ times the number of annual live births.
Birth control is not enough. Even if all women of child bearing age in the U.S. used the pill, a 1% failure rate would yield as many as 250,000 unwanted pregnancies. We must have expanded and more effective birth control programs and abortion repeal.
There are hopeful signs that there is a rethinking on this issue. In 1968 the American Public Health Association urged repeal of all restrictive statutes. And this year the A.M.A. [American Medical Association] will debate a resolution calling for endorsement of abortion repeal at their national convention which will be held from November 30 to December 3.
The resolution which will be introduced by the section on preventive medicine would receive the AMA’s present policy on abortion and have the AMA “go on record as recommending the repeal of all state abortion laws (except those restricting abortion to qualified physicians) so that all women, for whatever reason, can have abortion performed under safe, healthful conditions by qualified practitioners of medicine.”
As you know doctors are one of the most conservative groups in our society - they have the courage to reassess their views - in my view we cannot do less.
Abortion did not become a statutory crime in England until 1803. It did not become one in the United States until about 1830.
No other medical procedure is regulated by law.
In 43 states abortion is permitted only if the pregnancy threatens the mothers life. The other seven states and the District of Columbia are somewhat more permissive. In 1967 and 1968 five states - California, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland and North Carolina - adopted liberalized abortion laws.
Why repeal rather than reform? Because the majority of women who seek abortions do so not because they have been raped, exposed to German measles or have serious heart or liver ailments.
The number of rape-induced pregnancies in the United States is about 800 per year.
Between 80,000 and 160,000 defective children, or between 2% and 4% are born a year.
They seek abortions because they find themselves with unwelcome or unwanted pregnancies. Abortion is a last-resort birth control measure when preventive techniques have failed or have not been used.
Worldwide abortions legal and illegal - approximately 50 million annually.
Estimates are from 8,000 to 10,000 legal hospital abortions annually and from 250,000 to well over 1,250,000 illegal abortions.
NARAL statistics. 1969 over 1,000,000 abortions are performed per year 350,000 repair of botched jobs.
Dr. Vuitch estimates that more than 20,000 abortions a year are performed in D.C. area and only about 25% of them are done in the hospitals.
Dr. Russell S. Fisher, ex-president of the Medical and Surgical faculty of the State of Maryland estimated that about 1,200,000 abortions are performed per year both spontaneous and induced.
There are 2,000,000 people in the greater Washington area. TIME Nov. 21. If we relate the national estimate of percentages then about 15,000 women in greater Washington Metropolitan area receive abortions. However, it is more than probable that this number reaches 20,000 since the rate of abortions is logically higher in industrial urban areas than in rural parts of the country.
D.C. General reports 80 therapeutic abortions, but between 800 and 1,000 abortions are reported at D.C. General which are incomplete. Incomplete means that the abortion was induced either naturally, by drugs or by an instrument but they were not completed naturally . . . therefore this is a deleterious effect and must be completed by a physician.
The question is not can we justify abortions but can we justify compulsory pregnancy?
Botched abortions are the single largest cause of maternal deaths in the United States.
CBS TV Editorial, April 1, 1966 Dr. Carl Goldmark, Jr., President of the New York County Medical Society reported that 34 women died in N.Y.C. in 1964 as a result of criminal abortions. He estimates that about 80% of maternal deaths are the result of criminal abortions.
According to a study by Edwin M. Gold of deaths of women from childbirth in N.Y.C. in 1960-1962 abortion was the cause of death for 25% of the white women, 49% of the non-white women and 56% of the Puerto Rican women.
Well over 90% of all therapeutic abortions in N.Y.C. are performed on white women. (Association for the Study of Abortion inc.)
Scientific American January 1969: Ratio of therapeutic abortions per 1,000 deliveries was 2.6 for white women, .5 for Negro women and .1 for Puerto Rican women.
In N.Y.C. 1960-1962 the abortion ratios ranged from 3.9 per 1,000 live births to only .1 per 1,000 in municipal hospitals-legal abortions are less readily available to low income families.
Also marked ethnic differential per 1,000 births, 2.6 white, 5 Negro, and .1 per Puerto Rican women.
Even under a so called “liberal” reform law costs are prohibitive - approximately $600 to $700.
Total number of children in orphanages or foster care-316,000:
Public institutions Voluntary institutions
Percent black------------- 25 —-----------------18
Percent black------------- 71 —-----------------80
Percent black—------------ 4 —------------------2
Cost of Welfare per child per month: D.C. $42.50, N.J. $64.50 highest per month, Miss. $10 lowest per month except for Puerto Rico $8.50.
Illegitimate births, 1940, 89,500; 1966, 302,400; 1977, approximately 4.5 million children under the age of 18 in the United States are illegitimate.
The number of illegitimate children on AFDC has been steadily rising until now in 1967 1,100,000 or 28% of all AEDC children. About ¼ to ⅓ of all illegitimate children under age 18 are on the AFDC rolls.
Nearly half of those seeking abortions are unmarried girls. The attitude of society seems to be “you've had your pleasure now pay the price.” What is more immoral, granting an abortion or forcing a young girl, some of them as young as 14 or 15, to assume the responsibilities of an adult while she is still a child?
The committee on population of the National Academy of Sciences urges early education in family planning in order to prevent illegitimacy. The mothers of approximately 41% of the 245,000 babies born illegitimately in the United States every year are women 19 years of age or younger.
Professor Andras Klinger, a Hungarian demographer says the significant point is that in countries where laws are strict there is absolutely no impact on the number of abortions.
Klinger's studies show that countries with liberal laws have on the average 54 to 81 abortions for every 100 live births. In countries without liberal laws, the figures are exactly the same. The illegal abortion rate in Uruguay is almost 21/2 times the number of annual live births.
In Roman Catholic Chile, 27% of the women reported they had had abortions.
In Roman Catholic France, the annual number of abortions equals the annual number of live births.
In an article in the Washington Post, 1/11/69, Myra McPherson reported. “No matter what the courts do about our laws, there will always be abortions. The only difference
is whether the abortions will be done safely and legally in a hospital or clinic, or in the
degrading and dangerous underworld, where a woman slaps down the money in advance in some abortionist's office.”
Most poor families as well as the American population in general desire a 3 child family and this seems to be a significant line. More than one-quarter of all families with 4 or more children were living in poverty, and 4 out of 10 were poor or near-poor. Their risk of poverty was two-and-a-half times that for families with three children or less.
The poor rely most heavily on the contraceptive methods which have the highest incidence of failure, e.g. withdrawal, rhythm, douche, suppositories, foam as opposed to the pill, the diaphragm, coil. The problem is the same as with all medical services - the poor have little access to medical care for preventive services.
Dr. Charles Westoff of Princeton Office of Population Research says, “22% of all legitimate births in the U.S. are unwanted by either the husband or the wife” in conclusion of an in depth survey of 5,600 married women across the country.
Among the poor the percentage 42%; near poor 26%; affluent, 17%.
Westoff says if everybody were taught to use contraceptives effectively, the U.S. population growth would be reduced by as much as 45%.
Mr. Speaker, I do want to make clear that by placing this statement in the RECORD, I am not implying that the members of the task force are endorsing Mrs. Chisholm's views - some will and some will not. But her statement was most enlightening.
Shirley Chisholm's statement on abortion before the Republican Task Force on Earth Resources and Population. Printed in Congressional Record 115, 3 December 1969. Extensions on Remarks.