A documentary from former football star Benjamin Watson discusses an inconvenient truth: the abortion industry targets black people.
Benjamin Watson has been a regular speaker at prominent events like the March for Life for years, but Divided Hearts of America is the soft-spoken NFL star’s most significant foray into pro-life advocacy to date. More fundamentally, as our disagreements over the rights of the unborn occur in the context of increasingly irreconcilable philosophical divisions, the new documentary is also a window into the story of our looming national crack-up. Abortion, says one of the film’s interviewees, “is our new civil war. . . in many ways, it’s a great moral battle for the soul of this country.”
Divided Hearts is distinct from other pro-life films not just for its production quality, which is significantly higher than comparable documentaries in the genre, but also for the unique perspective it offers: Watson, a devout Christian and father of seven, is joined by a collection of other leading black pro-life voices—Tim Scott and Ben Carson both feature prominently—to examine the question of legal abortion in the context of the African-American experience. “Black Americans are only 12, 13, 14 percent of the population tops, and yet we’re responsible for between 28 to 36 percent of all abortions in the United States of America,” activist Walter Hoye tells viewers. “That’s not an accident. That’s genocide.” One can draw a direct line from the dehumanization of the black body in chattel slavery to the dehumanization of the black body in the womb.
The racist history of the billion-dollar abortion industry will be all too familiar to committed pro-lifers, but the eugenic origins of organizations like Planned Parenthood—persistently reflected today in cities like New York, where more black babies are aborted than born alive every year—are largely unknown to the average American. This comes as no surprise. The link between abortion and the oppression of black Americans is conspicuously absent from the mainstream narrative for the same reason that activists shroud the procedure’s inherent violence in abstract terms of “choice,” “autonomy” or “reproductive justice.” The contention that the pro-choice position is the obviously socially conscious policy—one of the basic claims of its proponents—is undermined by the dirty underbelly of the abortion rights movement.
The documentary’s most significant contribution to the pro-life cause, then, is its exposition of this shameful and racist past, which has long languished in relative obscurity. Its excavation of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement’s widespread opposition to abortion, for example, serves as a rebuke to the contemporary idea that “pro-choice” is the default social justice position. (“We’ve been asking for the right to decent housing, the right to education, in fact the right to healthcare—and all we’ve been given, free of charge, is the right to kill our unborn child,” pro-life civil rights activist Dolores Grier says in an old, grainy clip featured in the film). In describing the inherent moral value of unborn life from the African-American perspective, Watson and his counterparts tie the struggle for racial equality to the push to protect children in the womb, depicting both as inextricably connected aspects of the fight for a society built around human dignity.
Simultaneously, the retelling of this dark history effectively gets to the heart of what abortion is: the methodical and institutionalized deprivation of basic rights from an entire class of people, accomplished through a systemic dehumanization in both our legal system and our culture writ large.
America’s darkest moments have always been characterized by a failure to extend the universal dignity guaranteed by our system to those whom we have seen as less than human. “As long as you can paint a person as a non-human—as in the days of slavery in America or any period in the world with slaves—you…can do whatever you want to do to them,” says Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of the central pro-life voices in the film.
The parallel is illuminating: In 1852, the now-infamous Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford upheld slavery by holding that African-Americans were not eligible for the basic rights of citizenship enshrined in our Constitution; in 1973, Roe v. Wade upheld abortion using a similar justification as it pertained to unborn children. In his majority opinion in Roe, Justice Harry Blackmun admitted that the decision was founded on a denial of fetal personhood, conceding that “If this suggestion of personhood is established, [Roe’s] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [14th] Amendment.”
At its core, then, the debate over abortion is really a debate over one’s view of the human person. This essential fact is something that abortion rights advocates persistently try to avoid, but Divided Hearts of America succeeds in showing how one’s view of the issue is fundamentally a reflection of their view of the humanity of the unborn child: “You find a lot of pro-abortion people always talking about ‘it’ or ‘the cells’ or ‘the mass’ – they don’t want to personify it,” Ben Carson tells Watson toward the end of the film. And yet, he adds: “No one will ever convince me that what’s inside of a woman’s uterus is a meaningless bunch of cells.”
Nate Hochman (@njhochman) is a Young Voices associate contributor and a senior at Colorado College.
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