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The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health & Ethics


First published in: IN/FIRE ETHICS, Newsletter of the International Network of Feminists Interested in Reproductive Health
Volume 3, Issues 3&4, 1994
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Comments from an African-American Perspective on
Population and Development

By Preston Williams


As an informed lay person in respect to population and development issues, I would like to say a few words about the perspective of African-Americans in the issues being discussed at this International Conference on Population and Development [in Cairo, 1994]. I teach about both development and population in my ethics courses at the Harvard Divinity School [in Cambridge, Massachusetts].

The issues of population a development are large and so, too, the African-American community in the United States of America -- there are about thirty million African Americans in the US. Many, like myself, were born in the South, are the descendants of slaves, and are Protestant Christians. Many others are Roman Catholic, Humanists, Muslims, Coptic Christians, worshippers of African religions and other faiths. The cultures are also various, including all the peoples of the African Diaspora. No one can speak for all these people and their diverse interpretations of the issues addressed by this conference. Nonetheless, one can be fairly accurate about broad orientations and some of these are articulated below.

In the first instance, African Americans consider the issues of development to be vastly more important than those of population. While the community does not fear genocide, it is concerned about its status as a non-white minority group in a white majority, and often in attitude and public policy, a white supremacist nation. The African American community, then, in spite of the recent enlargement of its middle class and political representation, sees itself as one of the most vulnerable groups in American society. It is constantly being weakened by gangs, guns, drugs, unemployment, [single mother] births, incarceration, poor schooling, and poor health care. Marion Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, has written:

Every minute of the school day an african american youth gives up on education. Every minute and a half a black baby is born into poverty. Every three minutes a black baby is born to a teen mother. Every ten minutes a black child is arrested for a violent crime. Every four hours a black youth is murdered. And every eighteen hours a black youngster dies from AIDS. (from "Necessity" Special Policy Issue 1994, Summer 1994, 2:1, and "The Time for Action is Now!" p. 4) A community and a people that live amidst these sorts of harsh realities tend to make development rather population their prime concern. cern.

Two other factors are related to this orientation. The African American community does not share a sense of responsibility or guilt for the high rate of consumerism in the United States and the West. African Americans, like the Third World, are victims of, not significant contributors to, this environmental destruction. They are also the persons and communities that enjoy levels of health care that are in many instances comparable to those found in the Third World.

This African American community in the United states is primarily concerned with development. Its members endorse whole-heartedly the broad, more comprehensive approach to population that stresses the need for education and the empowerment of women but also of disadvantaged males. African Americans desire that the 68 percent of births to unmarried mothers to be reduced but know that this will only result from the provision of better health care, educational opportunities, and employment at above poverty wage levels. Consequently, they emphasize development. The public schools to which African Americans go must have curriculums and teachers that are able to prepare them for jobs in the new electronic and technological age. They need, in addition, better education in respect to reproduction and greater access to reproductive health care services. This education must be given to adolescents because they are sexually active and because there is such a high rate of teen and unwed births. Moreover, the family unit must be defined flexibly. The so-called natural or nuclear family has never been the only family structure that has existed among African Americans.

Slavery compelled African Americans to devise many structures for family living and responsible by mothers, grandmothers, and communities. Such units still exist today and they require support and assistance, not condemnation and isolation. The Christian churches which did much to form the African American family during slavery are prepared to continue working to strengthen these many forms of the family. Moreover, a large number of churches and a large proportion of the people support the right of a woman to choose abortion as a constitutional and a moral right. This decision has not been taken as a method of family planning but as a choice made necessary because of concern for the sanctity and quality of life and health of the mother. The slave's experience of their own humanity, their appropriation of the Christian teaching concerning the image of God in every individual, and their aspiration to possess the freedom and equality embodies in the nation's ideals, led the slave woman on occasion to choose for moral and religious reasons her own death or to take the life of her prospective child rather than give birth to a child of God whose entire would be lived in slavery. The slave woman who took the life of her child rather than give birth to a slave became a moral model and abortion a morally acceptable option.

The black Muslim community in all likelihood does not accept this position. African American culture and the majority of its diverse people and religious traditions do, however, support the empowerment of women and their right to make moral choices that determine their selves and their destiny.

About the Author

Preston Williams teaches ethics at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.


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