During Black History Month, let’s remember that it is Black women who introduced the revolutionary concept of “reproductive justice.”
With the dismal future of abortion and reproductive rights in the United States — Roe v. Wade stands a strong chance of being overturned by the ultraconservative Supreme Court — we need legislation rooted in reproductive justice more than ever. Reproductive justice is defined as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” It is an ever-important term that shapes crucial legislation to protect abortion rights and reproductive health care.
While Black women, as well as Indigenous women, women of color and trans women, have always had to fight for their bodily autonomy in unique ways that white women have not, the actual term “reproductive justice” was invented by a group of Black women attending the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. According to SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, “They recognized that the women’s rights movement, led by and representing middle class and wealthy white women, could not defend the needs of women of color and other marginalized women and trans* people.” As such, they “needed to lead our own national movement to uplift the needs of the most marginalized women, families and communities.” And thus the reproductive justice movement was truly born.
This concept is significant because it breaks down the tired abortion rights arguments often centering through the lens of choice. The framework of reproductive justice counters that choice is a very privileged concept, since it suggests that everybody is equal in terms of socioeconomic status, class, race, (dis)ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc., in a society where discrimination is systemic. Furthermore, it isn’t just about abortion — it’s about the totality of reproductive health care. This includes pregnancy, childbirth and sexuality, and raising one’s children. Reproductive justice dismantles the notion of choice by acknowledging that access isn’t necessarily inclusion.
We see dire inequities in our current system. For example, Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. Wisconsin, FFRF’s home state, had the highest infant mortality rate in the nation for babies born to Black women from 2013 to 2015. State data also shows that maternal mortality in Wisconsin is five times higher for Black women than white women. “Social determinants of health have historically prevented many people from racial and ethnic minority groups from having fair opportunities for economic, physical and emotional health,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Religious hospitals also contribute to major reproductive health inequities. For example, Catholic hospitals dominate areas where Black, Indigenous and people of color live, both in cities and in rural areas. Because Catholic hospitals are forbidden from providing abortions, contraception and sterilization, women in these areas are severely limited in the reproductive health care services that they can obtain. Columbia Law School researchers even found that Wisconsin is the only state where Black women are more likely to deliver their babies in a Catholic institution than a non-Catholic one.
Black women also face overwhelmingly high rates of unintended pregnancies due to limited access to affordable and effective contraception. This is because of funding cuts to programs that provide contraception, as well as limited reproductive health care centers in predominantly Black communities and neighborhoods. We saw this most recently when the Trump administration invoked a domestic gag rule that stripped federal funding from clinics like Planned Parenthood. This decision, pandering to the Religious Right, resulted in diminished services to the 22 percent of Black patients that use Planned Parenthood.
In terms of abortion, Black women are 55 percent more likely to be uninsured, making the procedure extremely costly. Plus, the religiously influenced Hyde Amendment prevents Black women from using Medicaid to pay for an abortion.
Yet in the face of these extreme barriers, Black women continue to be resilient and fight for the collective. And reproductive justice informs legislation that holistically addresses the multitude of reproductive health barriers. Most notable is the Women’s Health Protection Act, which cites reproductive justice as “a human right that can and will be achieved when all people, regardless of actual or perceived race, color, national origin, immigration status, sex (including gender identity, sex stereotyping or sexual orientation), age or disability status, have the economic, social and political power and resources to define and make decisions about their bodies, health, sexuality, families and communities in all areas of their lives, with dignity and self-determination.” This act explains the impetus for the legislation: It “seeks to address restrictions on reproductive health, including abortion, that perpetuate systems of oppression, lack of bodily autonomy, white supremacy and anti-Black racism. This violent legacy has manifested in policies including enslavement, rape and experimentation on Black women; forced sterilizations; medical experimentation on low-income women’s reproductive systems; and the forcible removal of Indigenous children. Access to equitable reproductive health care, including abortion services, has always been deficient in the United States for Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC) and their families.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has long supported this bill by submitting formal testimony and joining hundreds of organizations in letters of support.
Let’s honor the crucial reproductive justice work done by Black women by calling our senators and demanding that they support this bill.
Photo via Shutterstock by Vic Hinterlang