Black Women Have BEEN On The Frontlines Of The Abortion Rights Fight & We’re Still Here

Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images.
On Friday June 24, 2022, Roe v. Wade was overturned, restricting abortion access across the country. That’s the painful reality. I’m not here to fearmonger or make you more scared then you already are. There are so many people already doing that. Even as national reproductive justice advocates caution us to avoid misinformation or dooms-day reporting, there are people rushing to share coat hanger imagery that shocks and scares more than it informs. Although abortions are safer than ever (even safer than a colonscopy or wisdom tooth extraction) that won’t mean much if the people who need them the most can’t afford the risk. The Supreme Court just unraveled decades-long constitutional affirmations to privacy, making what’s coming just as terrifying as what we’ve survived. 
Many coastal and North Atlantic states have ensured abortion remains a protected right under their respective constitutions so it will overwhelmingly be Midwestern and Southern women — specifically women of color and working class people from these regions — who are most affected by this Supreme Court decision. Let’s be very clear: Black women and Black birthing people will be criminalized at disproportionate rates. The cycle of poverty that continues to marginalize the aforementioned groups will only intensify and some people will die because crossing state lines isn’t an option. Abortion bans are racist and violent. With all of that in mind, we also know that those closest to the problems are also closest to the solutions. During moments of crisis like this, it’s important that we follow the lead of Black women from these parts of the country who are often spoken over, disregarded, and ignored.

The cycle of poverty that continues to marginalize [Black folks] will only intensify and some people will die because crossing state lines isn’t an option. Abortion bans are racist and violent.

brea baker

How Black Women Have Led The Fight For Reproductive Justice

Black women have long been on the frontlines of the fight for reproductive justice, as providers, advocates, and organizers, filling in gaps and giving us something to fight for, not just against.  At a women’s rights conference in 1994, Democratic leadership admitted to capitulating to the Republican Party by deprioritizing abortion as part of the Clinton administration’s Health Security Act. In response, 12 Black women met in a hotel room to build a bolder vision for the future of what they would dub “reproductive justice” (RJ). They were Toni M. Bond Leonard, Reverend Alma Crawford, Evelyn S.Field, Terri James, Bisola Marignay, Cassandra McConnell, Cynthia Newbille, Loretta Ross, ‘Able’ Mable Thomas, Winnette P. Willis, and Kim Youngblood, soon to be known as the Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice
Though mainstream white feminists would begin co-opting the terminology, the RJ framework would remain overlooked in larger conversations about the human right to safe, quality, and affirming healthcare, which includes abortion. If there had been a real commitment to the protection of women and gender marginalized people, Roe v. Wade would have been codified years ago rather than left vulnerable to the whims of the Supreme Court (Democrats have been running on the promise of codifying Roe v. Wade for decades). If it was really about “babies” or even “pro-life,” elected officials would have passed sweeping legislation that includes addressing maternal mortality, parental leave, and healthcare access not tied to one's employment status. Political leaders would have better funded and disbursed abortion clinics while Roe v. Wade was in place as opposed to leaving people in rural communities out to dry. They would have done more.

What Are Black Pro-Abortion Leaders Saying Now? And Why We Should Listen

Wallowing in our would-haves and should-haves does nothing materially for the people across 26 states who are at risk right now. And it doesn’t give credit to the Black women who have been doing what others should have. Black-led organizations like SisterSong, Midwest Access Coalition, Shero Mississippi, New Orleans Abortion Fund, and ARC Southeast have always showed up in the spirit of achieving true justice and care. So, what do Black reproductive justice leaders have to say in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned? Desireé Luckey is the Director of Policy at URGE, whose work involves overseeing federal and state policy strategy as well as coalition building in states like Texas and Kansas. She stepped into her role last August, just a few weeks before S.B. 8, also known as the Texas Heartbeat Act, took effect. 

Many states with the most restrictive abortion bans have the worst maternal and child health outcomes and the least supportive social welfare and family support programs, particularly for Black women and birthing people

Angela D. Aina, Black Mama’s Matter Alliance
When it comes to what perspectives need to be centered right now, Luckey is clear that Black people will always be hit hardest by restrictive abortion legislation. “For various reasons, Black people are more likely to have abortions than their non-Black counterparts, so bans and restrictions disproportionately affect us,” she says. “Socioeconomic status and other financial factors affect the ability to access care, so laws that create additional barriers, such as waiting periods, increase the cost. People have to take more time off of work to seek the care that they need, pay more money for multiple trips, and pay for lodging if it is too far to make the trip repeatedly. Additionally, many Black people have experienced discrimination in healthcare settings, which can delay the initial contact with abortion provider, putting them outside windows where they can access the care that they want.” 
Angela D. Aina, executive director at Black Mama’s Matter Alliance (BMMA), echoes Luckey’s sentiments. “Roe v. Wade has never meant full access to abortion for our communities. Even with constitutional protections, serious barriers such as the Hyde Amendment, Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws, insufficient financial, transportation, childcare, housing support, and stigma, have seriously diminished the abortion care access and care landscape in the United States,” she explains. BMMA’s work centers around building a world where Black birthing people have the rights, respect, and resources to thrive before, during, and after pregnancy.  “Many of the states with the most restrictive abortion bans have the worst maternal and child health outcomes and the least supportive social welfare and family support programs, particularly for Black women and birthing people,” Aina says.  

Now Is Not The Time To Center Cis White Women

The Handmaid’s Tale metaphors have consumed social media feeds and protest posters alike. The instantly-recognizable red cloak and white bonnets have become a go-to costume for white women “resisting” the rollback of their rights. The cos-play and public performance of it all ignores that the foundation for the fictional series were the very real experiences of Black women, including enslaved women forced to serve as breeders while routinely being separated from their children, and Tituba, an enslaved Black girl and the first person to be accused during the Salem Witch Trials. The analogies don’t end with emancipation either; during World War I, the 1918 Chamberlain-Kahn Act enabled police to arrest anyone they suspected of carrying an STI and it’s no surprise that working class women of color were most routinely detained in inhumane conditions riddled with neglect and rampant abuse.
And it’s not just race that gets obscured in these critical conversations. While most of the messaging you’ll see in mainstream news outlets or even on your Twitter timelines will center cisgender white women, it’s also important that we not lose sight of gender marginalized people (especially those of color) who will be uniquely affected and isolated if our advocacy isn’t inclusive. “Once in health care settings, LGBTQIA+ individuals often find that there is not culturally normative care that acknowledges their humanity and is educated on their specific health needs,” says Luckey. “This is particularly true for gender nonconforming and transgender individuals, who face heterosexist ideas about who can get pregnant and who needs abortion care.” Further, legal experts have sounded the alarm about how the overturn of Roe v. Wade will impact families seeking IVF treatment, another outcome that will disproportionately impact LGBTQ+ people. It takes nothing from cisgender women to acknowledge that we aren’t the only ones hurt by this ruling. Our feminism cannot be so fragile that it excludes other gender marginalized people. That’s not feminism at all.

Things We Can Do Today To Help

For people who want to do something – anything – to be productive in this moment, Aina offers a simple mandate: “Uplift and pour into the Black-led community-based organizations and independent clinics providing abortion care, such as Feminist Women’s Health Center and CHOICES: Memphis Center for Reproductive Health. In the face of these longstanding barriers, abortion providers, activists, and patients have developed creative and compassionate strategies. Abortion funds are connecting those seeking abortion care with financial and practical support. Abortion providers and independent clinics are continuing to provide safe, compassionate, non-judgmental care and counseling within their communities.”
Luckey says that the key is to start local. “If everyone who donated time and money to national efforts poured those resources into their states, we could see some really direct impacts on the individuals in our communities. No one knows what a community needs more than its own members.”

If everyone who donated time and money to national efforts poured those resources into their states, we could see some really direct impact... No one knows what a community needs more than its own members.

Desireé Luckey, Director of Policy, URGE
She also says it’s imperative to know the abortion funds and practical support funds and reproductive-centered organizations near you. Here is a list of abortion funds by state. While they can surely all use direct monetary donations, there are other, creative ways to ensure these advocates and providers have the tools they need in the coming months. Luckey encourages us all to dig deep and assess our full skill sets and capacity. If, for example, you have a background in law, communications, or policy, you’re uniquely positioned to do a lot more than the average person. Or perhaps you’re a tech wizard or social media manager who can support local activists in expanding their digital reach. Maybe you’re a regular person with a car, extra bedroom, or connections to transportation and lodging (such as hotel points or airline miles). Engaging in mutual aid can make a material impact in this moment. It’s important to reach out directly to trusted community organizers (instead of trying to do any of this yourself without knowledge and experience) so that they can discreetly connect you to people in need. 
“Listen to the people on the ground who have been doing this work. Respect is key in this moment — the people who have been running abortion funds, practical support funds, and advocacy have expertise that people who are just getting involved can rely on to be helpful and not accidentally cause harm,” Luckey says. Social media can feel like an endless chorus of voices shouting at you for attention. How do we discern who is worth listening to? Those directly impacted of course! They have cared about these issues long before media attention and they will continue doing so long after this current moment fades. “[Listen to] other abortion storytellers, specifically those who have also had multiple abortions. We have the most expertise on what it is like to have abortions and our voices should be centered,” Luckey continues. 
Finally, Luckey reminds us that “pacing is everything. Yes, this is a critical moment for the legal right to abortion. Yes, this means there are people whose lives will change overnight. The seriousness of that cannot be overstated. However, each of us is only one individual, and running yourself ragged in the first two weeks following the Supreme Court decision is not going to be beneficial to anyone.” Self-care, as Audre Lorde said, is self-preservation which leads to community care and our collective wellness is what’s best for the sustainability of our movements.

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