The arrival of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade has come today with the expected media commemorating (or in the case of the antis, vilifying) the occasion. From the “where are they nows” to the current state of reproductive politics, what remains glaring to me again, particularly since 2012, is the continued lack of women-of-color voices represented in the mainstream debate on reproductive justice.
Well on this, the 40th anniversary Roe v. Wade, I want to remind everyone why this black woman will continue to fight for reproductive justice.
I am the granddaughter of two African women who, in their lifetimes in rural Africa, bore more than 10 children each. They were women married as teenaged girls, because that is what you did in their culture when you reached puberty. My mother, the eldest child born to my then-15-year-old grandmother, looked at the one option she had for a life and wanted no part it. She decided to become a nun (yes, the irony that she used the Catholic Church to escape having children is not lost on me), because as a nun she could seek education, train to be a medical professional and travel the world. It brought her to America, where she met my father, decided she actually did want to be a mother, and the rest is history.
She brought me up in this vein of self-determination, insistent that I and no one else determine my destiny and not settle down to have a family until I was absolutely ready. Being “pro-choice,” by extension, made sense to me. As a new American, while my history as a black woman is different from that of black women whose families have been in the U.S. for hundreds of years due to slavery, we share the historical tie of constantly fighting to own our destiny.
Black women have had to struggle for ownerships of our bodies and our lives. In the antebellum American South, black women feared sexual assault from the white men who owned them; fear of their children being sold away from them; fear of being sold away from their families. When slavery lifted legal ownership over black women, that was not the end. Black women and other women of color lived in fear of forced sterilization, even in the late 20th century. Some black women would enter clinics, often for a routine operation, and wake up sterilized, as happened to the famous civil and women’s rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Or imagine going in for a routine checkup, be coerced into taking birth control and then find out what you really got was a sterilization shot—as did two young sisters, Mary Alice, 12, and Minnie Relf, 14, in 1973. Their subsequent case, Relf v. Weinberger, resulted in the uncovering of more than 100,000 federally funded involuntary sterilizations. Half of the women sterilized were black.
While Roe v. Wade was won 40 years ago, the victory was short-lived for many women of color with the passage of the Hyde Amendment. Hyde prohibited Medicaid funding for low-income women being used for abortion, and it disproportionately affected women of color.
This history makes me, as a black woman, angry—but all the more determined in my fight for reproductive justice. Forty years later, black women are three times more likely to experience an unintended pregnancy than white women, and therefore also have higher abortion rates. These higher rates of unexpected pregnancies reflect a disparity in access to quality affordable contraceptive services and overall women’s health care.
Despite these numbers that show women of color being the most impacted by reproductive justice policies, the perceived leaders featured in the media on this issue are not women of color. But women of color leaders are out there—working for domestic violence shelters, abortion funds and free clinics. We fight to raise the minimum wage, improve worker’s conditions, make higher education affordable and improve health care. Because we as black women know too well that economic justice means greater control in our reproductive destiny.
In the past year, we in the U.S. fought to keep Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate, protested TRAP regulations to shut down abortion clinics, lobbied against personhood amendments and insisted on the right to not have that transvaginal wand in our collective vaginas. Meanwhile, around the world, impoverished women have had to fight for access to quality reproductive care, while being forced to skip school due to lack of menstrual protection or having to fear childbirth due to inadequate maternity care.
I don’t have to look too far in my family to see what my life could have been. Because of that constant awareness, I will never surrender in the fight for reproductive justice.