This year’s Black Maternal Health Week focuses on “Our Bodies Belong to Us: Restoring Black Autonomy and Joy!” As part of an annual campaign founded and led by Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Black Maternal Health Week is a necessary time for us to bring awareness and advocacy to the systemic injustices that harm Black mothers and birthing people. As secular activists, we can also consider the dangerous impact of Christian extremist policies on communities of color, particularly Black communities.
Initiatives like Black Maternal Health Week are crucial because Black women in the United States have long been denied reproductive autonomy. As Dr. Dorothy Roberts explains in her award-winning book, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, Black women, and other women of color, have been treated like second-class citizens for centuries. Enslaved women were forced to breed by slave masters, separated from their children, and used as guinea pigs in medical experiments. In fact, J. Marion Sims, considered by many to be the “Father of Gynecology,” ruthlessly developed a treatment for fistulas; however he did so on enslaved women without using any anesthesia. Meanwhile, slaveholders used the bible to justify the very institution of slavery and, consequently, the exploitation of Black bodies.
After slavery was abolished, Black women were still denied reproductive autonomy. For example, it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act that Black people were fully allowed to participate in welfare programs — previously there was widespread discrimination and loops that prevented Black women from fully participating. And much like the slaveholders of the past, proponents for segregation used the bible, even saying that “If you want to get in a fight with the one that started separation of the races, then you come face to face with your God.” Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, and the Religious Right’s proclaimed Father of the Pro-Life Movement, famously promulgated the welfare queen trope in an attack on low-income people, as well as people of color.
And within the fight for abortion, Black communities are constantly targeted with anti-abortion messages. Phrases and concepts to advance racial justice have been co-opted by the anti-abortion movement to target Black communities. For example, while polling indicates that Black Americans overwhelmingly support abortion, anti-abortion factions tell Black people that abortion is genocide. This not only negates agency for Black pregnant people to make their own decisions, but it ignores the very real systemic harm to Black communities like inequitable health care, housing, and education systems.
Anti-abortion centers, sometimes referred to as crisis pregnancy centers, are major offenders of promoting the “black genocide” narrative. These evangelical-based centers lack medical licenses and promote blatant disinformation about abortion and the Black community. By appropriating social justice terminology and “race-baiting,” anti-abortion centers claim to care about Black communities, when in reality, they are denying them the opportunity to make informed, evidence-based decisions.
Beyond anti-abortion centers, Catholic-affiliated hospitals dominate across the country. In Freedom From Religion Foundation’s home state of Wisconsin, Catholic centers account for one-third of Wisconsin hospitals. Following Religious Directives, Catholic hospitals do not provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care services, including abortion and sterilization. However, this information is often omitted from their websites. Many of these hospitals, especially in Milwaukee, serve predominantly Black neighborhoods. In fact, Wisconsin is the only state where Black women are more likely to deliver in a Catholic institution than in a non-Catholic one. Wisconsin also has the highest Black infant mortality rate in the country. Additionally, Black birthing women die at twice the rate of white women in Wisconsin.
The repeal of Roe v. Wade has only amplified these existing barriers and systemic issues. True, Roe was never enough. In fact, harmful legislation like the religiously rooted Hyde Amendment has denied many Black women who are on federal health insurance plans from subsidized abortion care for nearly 50 years. However, without Roe the risk of pregnancy-related deaths is amplified since pregnant people must travel out-of-state for abortion care. And while abortion funds like the Women’s Medical Fund of Wisconsin, started by FFRF’s principal co-founder Anne Nicol Gaylor, work to fill those gaps, major legislative overhauls are needed to work toward true autonomy.
Clearly, there is much work that needs to be done on a legislative, social, and cultural level to advance Black maternal health. For this year’s Black Maternal Health Week, I encourage you to learn more about Black Mamas Matter Alliance, read statistics and key information from their 2023 Social Media Toolkit, and amplify the work that they are doing to make change happen locally and nationally.