Baptist minister Walter B. Hoye, speaker and educator Ryan Bomberger, and pro-life activist Bevelyn Beatty speak frankly about abortion, race, and the gospel message.
As this past summer of protests and racial unrest was heating up, I began hearing increasing criticism directed at the American pro-life movement. An extreme, but telling example came from Rolling Stone Magazine’s Jamil Smith July 15: The moniker “pro-life,” so often used in the service of not just misogyny but also racism, should be retired right along with Aunt Jemima and the “Redskins” team name.
Other concerns focused on pro-lifers’ use of the phrase “All Lives Matter” or the movement’s prioritizing abortion over racism and other issues. Critics highlighted the “politicization” of abortion. Others faulted the movement for supposedly ignoring the root causes of abortion; still others declared those root causes to be off limits for discussion.
The array of concerns—ranging from vitriolic to well-intentioned to seemingly contradictory—puzzled me. To get a better perspective, I sought out three individuals who could speak to the issue from personal experience. All three have put their lives, income, and security on the line to work full time for the pro-life cause. And as African-Americans, they can speak about racism from personal experience. The resulting conversations were humbling and eye opening as we reflected together on abortion, race, and the gospel message.
“Abortion is the #1 cause of death in black America.”
May 13, 2008: Rev. Walter B. Hoye stood outside Family Planning Services in Oakland, California with a sign reading “God loves you and your baby. Let us help you.” That act resulted in the soft-spoken Baptist pastor’s arrest for violating a “bubble law,” tailor-made by the city of Oakland to remove him from the area. Hoye’s decision to accept prison time rather than give up sidewalk counseling made him a pro-life hero. Today, he runs the Issues4Life Foundation, together with his wife, Lori. The organization works with black leadership to build a culture of life.
“How long do you need?” Hoye asks at the beginning of our phone conversation. It’s a Friday night and I don’t want to impose; I suggest fifteen minutes. Little do I know that I am embarking on an engrossing three hour tutorial. Its subject: the evil twins of abortion and racism, two issues so intertwined in American history that they are difficult, if not impossible, to separate.
My opening question is simple: Is the pro-life movement racist?”
“They’re simply saying it’s a one issue movement,” Hoye replies. The implication is that pro-lifers only care about ending abortion, that they don’t care about the black community or about women in crisis.
“From that perspective, the pro-life movement is not racist at all. Not even remotely,” he adds. “The goal of the movement is to end abortion, and when you’re talking about killing a baby, obviously that should be your highest priority. It doesn’t matter if you have a job waiting on you, or a family waiting on you, or an education waiting on you, or a wonderful future waiting on you. If you can‘t get out of the womb, nothing matters. Without life, nothing matters.”
The most frequent criticism I hear, I remark, is that the pro-life movement “politicizes” abortion. “When you hear that, you’re not having an honest conversation” Hoye responds. “Yes, when it comes time to elect a new president, everything gets political.” He has strong words for the Democratic party. “There’s no way you can vote Democrat and really be pro-life… Today the Democratic party’s platform is godless, and they promote abortion, homosexuality, and on down the line. There is no way, if you’re a Christian, and Biblical values are important to you, that you could even remotely think about putting the Democrats back in power.”
The conversation turns next to Notre Dame’s “Racism is a Life Issue” panel, which took place in July. I ask Hoye to comment on this remark by panelist and outspoken pro-life advocate Gloria Purvis:
Pro-lifers…You can’t go in and assume a position of superiority over black people as if they don’t know what is best for their community. You’ve got to listen, you’ve got to be in solidarity, and you’ve got to be humble. And for goodness sake please, please, stop with the political talking points of the far right…. Don’t use encoded race language like “black on black crime and [absence of black fathers] … because it sounds like you’re … not there to have a conversation, you’re there to dominate. And if you can’t go in a position of listening and being humble, please just stay home because you’re going to do more harm than good.
“The reality of black-on-black crime and absent fathers in my community is real,” Hoye acknowledges. “But as black Americans we don’t like anybody to talk about it. We don’t want anyone to say one word about it. It’s supposed to be an internal conversation, and that’s the code.”
Because those are “internal issues, family issues, black only issues,” whites are not welcome to point them out. “One reason is that it takes the conversation away from white folk being the problem, to the point where the problem isn’t white folk, it’s black folk that are the problem. And that’s an entirely different conversation.”
“If you consider the legacy of racism,” Hoye continues, “You’ll understand you can’t have this conversation. They’ll say you’re racist and you’ll be dismissed. However, if they were willing to have an honest conversation, you wouldn’t be dismissed. The abortion industry can’t have an honest conversation. If they have an honest conversation, they lose. Because the bottom line is, the child inside the womb is human, made in the image of God, and they’re killing a person.”
A licensed and ordained black Baptist minister since 1989, Hoye says “I’m in a position where I can talk about it. I talk about these internal issues a lot.” His foundation, Issues4Life, exists specifically to reach black leadership, and “in order for us to focus on black leadership, we have to have that intimate conversation.”
The Issues4Life Foundation is one of a mere handful of black, pro-life non-profits in the United States. The reason is simple economics: abortion is so controversial that there is no donor base for the pro-life movement in black America.
At one time, however, many black organizations were vocally anti-abortion, including the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers. A 1973 article in the Black Panther Party’s newspaper argued “The abortion law hides behind the guise of helping women, when in reality it will attempt to destroy our people.” A 1965 statement by Cecil Moore, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, said “Planned Parenthood’s plan is replete with everything to help the Negroes commit race suicide.”
Tragically, as abortion has insinuated itself deeply into the fabric of the black community, those statements are no longer heard and would be considered greatly out of character. “Things have changed dramatically,” laments Hoye.“Abortion is running wild.”
He cites four reasons why “nobody wants to talk about it, why nobody’s preaching on it, why the larger pro-life movement is rejected entirely.”
The first reason is that “black leadership is post-abortive.” For pastors, “that means there is an abortion in his life somewhere… mother, wife, son, daughter, if he’s a black pastor, probably the entire congregation he’s preaching to is post-abortive. The abortion numbers in my community are highly disproportionate. There are post-abortion issues in the congregation and those issues run really deep. Even though the Bible is clear regarding abortion—the taking of an innocent life—the pastor is not talking about it. And it’s likely because there’s one in his own life. This is something that needs to be dealt with.”
The second reason the pro-life movement is rejected by black leadership is racism. “Category #2 is that he’s racist. What could you possibly do about it? Let’s say you meet him and he’s racist, he hates white folk. How are you going to reach him for the pro-life movement? You can’t, but I can.”
Many black leaders in this category “are struggling with forgiveness,” Hoye says. He had his own struggle with forgiveness. “I get it. At one point I didn’t like white folk at all. My great grandfather was lynched by the Klan. I can’t tell you what they did to my great grandmother because you’re polite company. But I can tell you that they lit the house on fire and they burned seven of the 14 kids alive. And the older seven burned alive to save the younger seven. And one of the youngest seven was my grandmother.”
Hoye continues: “But… in my grandmother’s life, when she met Jesus, her world got better… And when her daughter, my Momma, accepted Christ, her world got better. And when I accepted Christ, my world got better.”
The alternative is to be consumed by anger and bitterness. Sadly, “some people don’t mind being consumed. The pastor in that #2 category doesn’t mind being consumed. So if you try to reach him for the pro-life movement, he’ll be polite. But you can’t reach him. I can.”
The third reason is financial. Hoye points out that in the Catholic Church, “If a priest makes a mistake, he’s may be reassigned… And maybe advancement is not in his future anymore. But he eats and sleeps. He still has healthcare. He has a place to stay.”
Independent black pastors have no such assurance. “In my community, you can preach about abortion at noon, be done at 1, and by 3 o’clock that same Sunday afternoon be voted out of the pulpit. Now you’re jobless and potentially homeless in the street.”
Hoye’s own experience illustrates this. During his month in prison, his only visitor among the clergy was San Francisco’s Archbishop Cordileone. His fellow black pastors stayed away: they would not risk angering their congregations. “Are you willing to lose your job over the pro-life issue? I had to face that. Ultimately my church fired me for being pro-life.” Black pastors have a huge financial stake in not alienating their congregations. And “they don’t know what to do about it.”
The fourth reason why a black pastor might reject the pro-life movement is that “he’s uninformed.” Many black pastors are unaware of the extent to which abortion threatens their flock.
“Abortion is the #1 cause of death in black America. It outstrips all thirteen leading causes of death combined.” Hoye cites drastically dropping black fertility rates: “We’re no longer even replacing ourselves. If black America doesn’t stop aborting her children at the current rate, black America has only got about 30 years left. By 2050 black America will be facing irreversibility.”
Many black pastors are equally unaware of the racist roots of abortion in America: “Abortion is the answer to a problem,” Hoye explains. It exists “because black people do. When we were slaves, we were assets. Free labor… But when we stopped being slaves we stopped being assets to the country and started being a liability.”
Citing the documentary “Maafa 21” Hoye traces the intertwined history of abortion and racism in the United States. Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, “racist as the day is long,” wrote in 1939:
We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out the idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.
Sanger knew the importance of working through black pastors to achieve her Negro Project’s goals, something Hoye sees as critical for the pro-life movement as well. “If you’re going to end abortion, you have to reach black Americans. You have to come to my neighborhood. Margaret Sanger understood that’s what she needed to get to the black community.”
Discerning the four reasons why blacks reject the pro-life movement was a revelation. It led Hoye to create a unique program, “a modern day underground railroad” to move the hearts and minds of pastors by addressing each issue. Escaped slave Harriet Tubman went deep into the South to lead slaves to freedom, while whites with homes along the route risked everything to hide fleeing slaves. The analogy is a good one. Although white pro-lifers may be unable to reach the black community, their support of black pro-lifers who can carry the message is crucial.
Hoye models his approach after Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. “Jesus understands why she’s struggling and because Jesus understands, He gets right to the heart of the matter,” he reflects. “When you understand why somebody’s telling you no, then you can get them to say yes. But if you don’t know why they’re telling you no, you’re not going to get to the heart of the matter.”
There is one pro-life strategy that Hoye feels transcends political party lines: personhood. The legal acknowledgement that “everybody is a person, even the child in the womb, from the very beginning,” the concept appeals to the black community because “we know what it’s like not to be persons,” he says.
Brilliantly simple, Personhood “means the child in the womb is protected by the Constitution… That means abortion comes to an end.”
Hoye ran three campaigns to put personhood on the California ballot, the last in 2015. The proposed initiatives would have amended the California Constitution to include the unborn under the term “person.” Blacks were his biggest supporters. After a brief talk at a black church in Los Angeles, Hoye collected over 3,000 signatures for his ballot initiative. Many black pro-lifers feel the personhood movement is key to reaching the black community, with its civil rights legacy, and ultimately key to ending abortion in the United States.
If abortion is decimating black America, making it a “minority of a minority”, how does one overcome the bitterness that causes blacks to embrace the party of abortion?
The answer, says Hoye, goes back to the Bible. The book of Exodus speaks loudly on race and gives a strategy for dealing with racism. “God simply said, you follow Me,” Hoye says with conviction. “Racism has been going on as long as it could possibly be. And it’s clear what we should do to end racism,” he says. “The biblical strategy is for us to do God’s will. Live life His way. To worship Him. That will take care of all the problems.”
He acknowledges that the biblical strategy can be more difficult than other approaches. “Yet God never fails, so the answer remains: We must embrace God fully and live life His way.”
Hoye has great affection for Exodus and its parallels for black America. “Life is a biblical issue,” he reflects, citing Pharaoh’s command to kill Hebrew infants in Exodus Chapter 1: “The midwives were supposed to kill the child when it came out of the womb— that’s a late term abortion.” The midwives obeyed God’s law over Pharaoh’s, and as a result, the Hebrew nation was blessed. The lesson is clear: “God says… I’m going to bless the nation through the child. That’s the answer right there.”
An Intentionally Destructive Narrative
April 19, 2016: Ryan Bomberger addressed a packed auditorium at Harvard University. His topic: “Abortion in Black Communities.” His talk discussed high abortion rates among blacks and covered the issues surrounding abortion: poverty, and fatherlessness as a leading cause of poverty. The audience “laughed and mocked me,” he recounts, and it’s clear the memory still saddens him. Indeed, the audience did more than laugh. The Q&A session following Bomberger’s talk devolved into chaos, with students shouting profanities and calling him a racist.
Today, Bomberger says he is “grateful to get to actually vocalize my perspective on the pro-life movement and the media-driven propaganda that the pro-life movement is racist.”
As a black man who has worked for the pro-life cause for decades, Bomberger has firsthand knowledge of the subject. He and his wife Bethany are co-founders of the Radiance Foundation, which works through education, ad campaigns, multi-media presentations, journalism, and community outreach. The Radiance Foundation is based on the belief that every human life has purpose, and Bomberger has a unique perspective on that belief: conceived through rape, he was adopted into an ethnically diverse family that would grow to 15, with ten adopted children. He himself has two adopted children. His outlook on life and race, he says, comes from “my white mother who taught me about black Americans and their amazing achievements, their struggle, and how triumph rises from tragedy.”
My white father,” he adds, “loved the ones that other men abandoned and the world so easily discarded. In a day and age where many lazily blame everything on ‘white supremacy’ my dad sacrificed his whole life to help unleash our God-given purpose.”
Does the pro-life movement need to examine its conscience with regards to race?Bomberger responds “quite succinctly, that’s absurd.”
The first question to ask, he says, is what it means to be racist. “The problem with our culture today is that we rely on buzzwords and buzzphrases without any specificity. We’re in a culture right now that wants to label everything as racist to the point where the word has become meaningless. It’s now racist to say ‘All lives matter.’ And, according to the New York Times, it’s racist or white supremacist to say that we are one human race. How in the world is that a racist thing? The converse of that is we are all separate races. What has that ever done for humanity? It has never elevated us to separate ourselves by color.”
One thing that is certainly meant when critics talk about race and the pro-life movement, is that the movement primarily focuses on ending abortion. Is the pro-life movement a “one hit wonder?” The charge, Bomberger feels, is punitive. “Other causes are not expected to handle the full spectrum of human experience. But the pro-life movement is. We’re the only ones expected to tackle every single injustice, in order to talk about the issue of abortion…the reason our movement exists.”
Bomberger points out that no one is actually unclear about what “pro-life” generally stands for. The term was coined after Roe v. Wade primarily to describe a movement against abortion, and that holds true today. “When I refer to ‘pro-life’ as the world tends to understand it, we’re tackling the issue of abortion. If it’s better to address it as ‘the anti-abortion movement’, it doesn’t matter, it’s one and the same. What group gets to be denied the label that they give themselves?”
In July, during Notre Dame’s “Racism is a Life Issue” panel, Sen. Katrina Jackson (D, LA) said “There’s a major pushback in the African American community to really come out and support the pro-life movement, because they don’t believe it to be authentic. They believe it to be a pro-birth movement and to not really include the issues that really matter in allowing someone, helping someone and allowing them to choose life and making sure they’re able to give their child a life that they would want them to have.”
Bomberger expresses admiration for Senator Jackson—a pro-life Democrat, a rarity these days in the national scene. He agrees there is a great misperception about who and what the pro-life movement does. Abortion is often seen, in the black community, as a white male Republican issue. “But that’s the tragic thing. Abortion, statistically, disproportionately decimates the black community. In New York City, more black babies are aborted than born alive,” Bomberger emphasizes. “Our organization tackles a myriad of issues. Many pro-life organizations do; it’s why we have pregnancy medical help clinics, maternity homes, adoption agencies, and parachurch organizations like Samaritan’s Purse and Catholic Charities that deal with the spectrum of needs at every age and stage.”
The pro-life movement can, and does, “walk and chew gum,” Bomberger explains. “People think we can’t handle things concurrently. We simultaneously address the issues and causes of poverty and abortion at the same time.” The pregnancy care center movement is a prime example of this, he says. “I work with so many amazing centers. They’re teaching parenting skills, they’re teaching basic life skills, so that people can elevate themselves out of their current situation.
Nonetheless, “you don’t excuse a violent injustice because there are reasons that have led to it. You stop the injustice and you intervene in these other issues at the same time. But once a child is killed, there is no intervention.”
Bomberger feels that many who are critical of pro-lifers are unfamiliar with the pregnancy care movement. “You read so many articles about how pro-lifers don’t care about babies after they’re born,” he says. “Have you stepped inside of a pregnancy care center? Have you sat through a class?” He lists some of the classes and services offered by pregnancy care centers: parenting, life skills, basic help like formula and clothing. “They are the ones who care, deeply, for the child in utero, and often up to two years after the child is born.”
“I worked with pregnancy centers for decades, and it’s there that the expression ‘All Lives Matter’ is actually carried out in action. The pregnancy centers that I’ve worked with don’t care about your socio economic background, your ethnic background, all they care about it is that you’re someone in need, someone who needs love and compassion. I have seen that carried out in so many different ways. What leads with the pro-life movement is the pregnancy care center movement. The pro-life movement absolutely cares about every life, regardless of any kind of background.”
As a college student, Bomberger says, he encountered pro-lifers who were tongue tied when it came to addressing abortion’s contributing factors. He committed to never being in that position. “When people talk about poverty, when people talk about maternal mortality, when people talk about joblessness, when people talk about some of these external issues, that are inextricably tied, I’m going to address them. When they talk about incarceration rates. I will address it.”
Yet he is aware that these discussions can be a red herring. He cites his experience at Harvard: “I talked about one of the largest contributing factors to poverty, and therefore abortion, being fatherlessness . . . There’s no denying the majority of studies on father absence. There’s no debate on the negative disparities, on so many different measures, and yet they mocked that. People point to these underlying factors, yet when you talk about the underlying factors, they say ‘oh wait, that’s not actually the issue.’”
We touch on Black Lives Matter. Bomberger believes the Black Lives Matter movement fosters a “false empathy” and ignores the suffering of numerous black women who are “collateral damage” of the abortion industry. Victims such as Tanya Reeves, a black woman who was left to bleed to death after an abortion at a Planned Parenthood facility in Chicago, “get no attention. There are no riots, no protests, no nothing.”
What about racism, plain and simple in the pro-life movement? Bomberger counters “What racist movement actually gives up reputation, their financial everything, to rescue those that they’re supposedly racist against?”
He sees an agenda behind the bevy of criticisms leveled against pro-lifers.
“There is a concerted effort from the pro-abortion left that is trying to cast the pro-life movement as racist…,” he states, “I have worked with every leader in this movement and I’ll tell you, they have gone above and beyond. I have never heard a racist thing said or done. I have only seen people who will fight peacefully with everything in their being, to save human lives. The lives of mothers, of babies born and unborn… reaching out to fathers. It is a leftist, intentionally destructive narrative that wants to re-cast a movement that saves lives as racist. Meanwhile, the movement that actually is racist continues to kill millions. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition that no narrative can actually change or revise.”
His voice sounds weary as he continues. Saying the pro-life movement is racist is “a bumper sticker mantra, from those who try to demonize the pro-life movement. They have to ignore the totality of the movement in order to make statements like that.”
Why ignore the totality of the movement? In order to downplay abortion, Bomberger says. People insist “‘I’m for life, I’m pro-life, BUT’… and then it’s the same thing, equating every other issue with abortion. But, without life, nothing else matters. A dead child doesn’t need an education. A dead child doesn’t need a safe environment. A dead child needs nothing. If we don’t get the first issue right, we will never get any of the subsequent issues right.”
Despite his frustration, Bomberger emphasizes “It’s heartbreaking to hear people repeat these things. I know in their heart they want to do the right thing, they want to be compassionate. But the verse that compels me so much in all this talk about race, is Psalm 89:14: Righteousness and justice are the foundations of your throne, Oh God. Unfailing love and truth precede you. We can’t get to justice without the unfailing love and truth that comes first. You can’t be fully compassionate and act responsibly if you don’t know the truth of what’s going on.”
Pro-Lifers: Take the Gospel With You
Bevelyn Beatty, like Walter Hoye, takes the biblical conversation at the well as her paradigm. Her organization, At the Well Ministries, with co-founder Edmee Chavannes, was founded to reach people with the gospel message through one on one conversations. That goal now includes a broader audience through social media and street preaching, and it has a clear focus on abortion. Its website states its mission: “Taking the message throughout America that pre-born babies have a right to life; to churches, abortion centers, high schools, colleges and the streets.”
Fearless and frequently controversial, the 29-year-old Beatty is in the media frequently, whether it’s being arrested for praying outside Planned Parenthood or exhorting protesters in Seattle’s CHOP zone to care about the unborn black babies killed by Planned Parenthood.
In July, Beatty made international news when she smeared black paint on a Black Lives Matter mural in New York. Its support for abortion is the primary reason she does not support Black Lives Matter. “The number one killer of black Americans is abortion. 28 million babies and counting,” she says, her voice sad. “Averaging to about 675,000 babies a year dead. This is the number one killer. We are dying in massive numbers.”
Speaking on the phone, Beatty is soft spoken and articulate, in contrast to her street preacher persona.
I ask her to comment on a statement by former NFL player and pro-life advocate Benjamin Watson. Pro-lifers, he said at Notre Dame’s “Racism is a Life Issue” conference this summer, should take the issue of abortion “out of the political realm.” While the black community “is overwhelmingly pro-life in the sense of for-life, against abortion,” he said, the pro-life label “has come to mean something totally different than the essence of what it is.”
Beatty does not shy away from politics, so her response surprises me. “I think I’m going to have to agree with him, and this is why: You sit down with the average African American individual and you discuss abortion. Even those who have experienced that trauma are most likely going to agree that abortion is murder. We’re not so liberal that we’re totally delusional about the wrong doing. We just make excuses for why we did it. But pro-lifers have in a sense become very political. “
For Beatty, taking abortion “out of the political realm” clearly doesn’t mean ignoring the role of politics. Known for being a fervent Trump supporter, she is well educated in conservative political thought. But her primary motivation is her Christian faith. “This is bigger than politics,” she says. “This is sin.”
Being pro-life, Beatty maintains, “is bigger than just fighting to end abortion. It means getting involved in your community, getting involved with people’s souls.” It means addressing sin.
Regretfully, Beatty says, many pro-lifers “have only focused on the political realm.” If the goal is “about bringing a solution to the problem, it has to be through the Gospel. It can’t just be through regulation and politics. The Gospel has to stand firm.”
To be clear, Beatty is not saying “don’t focus on the politics of it,” but ending abortion means acknowledging “there’s a reason why these young girls are getting abortions.” She feels there needs to be a dual, but equal, emphasis: changing laws and reaching women “before they even head into the clinic.” That means “Being in the neighborhood, getting involved with families. Discipling. This is what Jesus Christ did. We focus so much on the issues politically that we forget to minister and get to the root of the problem, which is sin.”
Beatty cites her own childhood as an example. Her mother was not a churchgoer, and Beatty credits her Christian faith to a local church that sent school buses to pick up neighborhood children and take them to church on Sundays. Reaching out to youth “in the neighborhood where these issues are happening, before they hit the clinic” is crucial.
Circling back to politics, I ask Beatty what she thinks of the statement that pro-lifers only care about black life in the womb when it comes to election time, that pro-lifers are only interested in blacks in order to get votes. Beatty disagrees. “That would be wrong: a lie.”
She gives special credit to Catholics in particular. “When it comes to fighting for life, pro-lifers, especially the Catholics, are on the front lines.” Citing the thousands of crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes, and pregnancy care centers in the United States, many of them run by Catholics, she says Catholics “have been on the job. Period. But I do think that we need to grow to a place as Christians where we hinder the problem from happening at all.”
We close by discussing the observation that abortion is exceptionally difficult for whites to address with blacks. Beatty says “If whites are focused on the issue of abortion, then it is going to be difficult. But if whites are focused on the gospel…” She pauses. “The gospel is a difficult thing for anybody. But if you’re going to speak about abortion, you have to bring the gospel with you.”