During their "annual argument about abortion," Faith Pennick's pro-life friend told her that "abortion was a white woman's issue and black women have more important things to worry about."
"I could understand why she would make that comment," says Pennick, who was nonetheless floored by it. "Mass media have made black women invisible. You always see middle-class, middle-aged white women talking about these issues. Both of us knew black women who'd had abortions."
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonpartisan abortion think tank, black women are almost four times as likely to have abortions as white women. "The idea that abortion doesn't touch us -- it was dead wrong," says Pennick.
So the Chicago-based filmmaker got to work, and the result, Silent Choices, a documentary exploring black women's experiences with abortion, will screen in Pittsburgh on March 3. The film follows three black women who had abortions, and features pro-choice and pro-life experts and activists.
White women, Pennick says, have made abortion their issue: They vote on it, they march on it, they talk about it. But black women don't address it, and that's propagated fear and shame. Then, having overwhelmingly white women featured in books or films about abortion further alienates black women. With no representation, black women can feel like their abortion decisions and experiences happen in a vacuum.
"For African Americans in particular, you're representing the race," Pennick says, which may explain why abortion is so taboo among black women. "You're carrying the race on your shoulders." She says there is a perception among black women that owning up to having an abortion, talking about it and comparing notes with other black women is "negative -- white people will look at us badly."
Pennick, who is pro-choice, says she has received some criticism for including pro-life viewpoints in the film from pro-choice advocates who have attended earlier screenings.
"It was never my intent to make a pro-choice film," she says. "That would be very myopic of me. This film is supposed to represent a sample of the African-American experience." She says it's far more important to show black women from many perspectives discussing abortion and demonstrating the variety of experiences involved, from fear and shame to relief. Even so, Pennick had difficulty in finding -- and thus representing in the film -- poor or working-class black women. All of the subjects were middle-class and college-educated.
At a screening of the trailer in New York, Pennick says, a white woman in the audience objected angrily to a film that exclusively featured black women talking about their abortions. "The film doesn't negate [her] experience," Pennick says. "I didn't make this film exclusively for black people. I think white people need to see the film. I want as many people as possible to see the film."
"It will have an impact no matter how it is received," says La'Tasha Mayes, founder of New Voices of Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice. Mayes has been instrumental in bringing Pennick and her film to Pittsburgh. "It will demystify a lot of the taboo nature and fear and shame that surrounds the issue of abortions in black communities. It's shrouded in secrecy and silence that force people into isolation."
Mayes said she's never seen anything that specifically addresses black women's abortion experiences, and when she heard of the film, bringing it to Pittsburgh was her immediate thought. "No matter what the turnout is, the fact that this will go on record as having happened in Pittsburgh is significant."
"I think this film is important," Pennick says. "Hopefully it will get more black women to stand up and be counted."
Silent Choices, 6 p.m. Sat., March 3. 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $10-25. 412-361-3022