Recent statements by Planned Parenthood claiming Martin Luther King was supportive of its effort to engage and reform racial inequality in healthcare received criticism from a member of the King family. Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King and participant in Atlanta’s MLK Day events, accused Planned Parenthood of wrongly associating its cause and mission with her uncle’s legacy. Alveda King and Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, attended the MLK festitivites at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Alveda King released the following statement on MLK Day,
“The unborn are as much a part of the Beloved Community as are newborns, infants, teenagers, adults, and the elderly. Too many of us speak of tolerance and inclusion, yet refuse to tolerate or include the weakest and most innocent among us in the human family. As we celebrate the life of Uncle Martin, let us renew our hearts and commit our lives to treating each other, whatever our race, status, or stage of life, as we would want to be treated. Let us let each other live.”
This statement preceded her response to Planned Parenthood’s comments noting King’s support for racial equity in healthcare and his reception of an award given by Planned Parenthood in 1966. Alveda King contends that her uncle received the award as a measure of good will and did not – and would not – support Planned Parenthood’s positions on reproductive rights and abortion. She responded,
“In 1966, abortion on demand was unthinkable. To imply that Uncle Martin’s receipt of that award constitutes his endorsement of what Planned Parenthood engages in today – the destruction of human lives – is an outrage.”
Alveda King’s vocal opposition to abortion reflects a different political posture not often associated with the civil rights causes of Martin Luther King. Despite her insistence that King would never support Planned Parenthood, it is hard to imagine someone like King receiving an award from a group or organization without sufficient knowledge of its policy positions. This is not to say that King would wholly endorse Planned Parenthood today, but it is unlikely that he would accept such an award without at least basic agreement on certain issues.
Whether King would be critical of Planned Parenthood’s stances on abortion and reproductive rights today is hard to determine. Abortion was not a key issue in his movement and did not gain real political traction until the passage of Roe v. Wade and the ascendancy of the religious right. Interestingly, even among evangelicals and religious conservatives in the 1960’s and 1970’s, abortion was often seen as a case of individual decision, reflecting a more libertarian view of government intervention in personal matters.
Randall Balmer, a prominent scholar and commentator on evangelicalism in the US, notes that the Southern Baptist Convention of 1971 stated that abortion was permissible in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity, and when the fetus was a direct threat to the mother’s life. It wasn’t until many years later when evangelicals and others embraced the political right that pro-life policies became a hallmark social cause of American religious conservatives. Historically, Catholics actually have a longer history of being “pro-life” than evangelicals.
Its not that Alveda King is necessarily wrong. However, it is certainly difficult to judge what King’s exact stand on abortion would be. But the exclusive tone of her claim, particularly her stance that King would have never been supportive of abortion in almost all cases, does not reflect the political and social climate in which King himself developed his ideas.
Whether King was “pro-life” or “pro-choice” is hard to judge. But Alveda King’s strong rhetoric further serves a false dichotomy between “pro-life” and “pro-choice” that King may have been weary of embracing himself.
Sources and Links:
Alveda King’s MLK Day remarks
Alveda King’s reponse to Planned Parenthood
Randall Balmer on the religious right
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