‘Black Women’s Bodies Have Always Been Under Attack’: Marcela Howell on Reproductive Justice and Why We Must Listen to Black Women

Black Feminist in Public is a series of conversations between creative Black women and Janell Hobson, a Ms. scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of history, popular culture and representations of women of African descent.

Marcela Howell, an advocate and policy strategist, is retiring after 35 years of advocating for women’s rights and reproductive freedoms. The founder and president of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, Howell spoke with Ms.’ Janell Hobson about the current state of affairs, reproductive justice, and why more of us need to listen to Black women.

Reproductive justice “is a term that … [manifests] itself in having control over your body, your community, your family, your work and your gender identity—all of those things that make up Black women’s, girls’ and gender-expansive people’s lives,” said Howell. (Courtesy of In Our Own Voice)

Janell Hobson: How did you get started in this work?

Howell: I’ve been involved in Black empowerment, Black women’s empowerment, since I was a teenager. Actually, earlier than that, because my grandmother was very involved in Black city politics in New York City, and I learned from her. She was a powerful person and thought about the empowerment of Black women and girls. I’ve always worked in that regard.

When those 12 Black women met in Chicago and coined “reproductive justice” in 1994, I realized that’s what I had been working on all my life. I was already in Los Angeles working with different women’s groups. I was, at that point, the head of the Women’s Caucus of the California Democratic Party and worked with women’s political groups of all kinds.

The naming of ‘reproductive justice‘ was a great signal for me—as well as I think for many women—as we realized that the work we were doing fits very well under this mantra because it’s grounded in human rights and Black feminist theory. It is a term that really does manifest itself in having control over your body, your community, your family, your work and your gender identity—all of those things that make up Black women’s, girls’ and gender-expansive people’s lives.

Hobson: Let’s talk about where we are now. Roe v. Wade was overturned, and here we are.

Howell: Yes, unfortunately, but if you think about it, some Black women have been living as if Roe v. Wade didn’t exist.

Three years after Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court, Congress implemented the Hyde Amendment, which basically said if you are a poor person and you get your healthcare through Medicaid, you cannot use that healthcare to access an abortion. You can use it if you want to carry a pregnancy to term, but you cannot use it to access abortion—which meant that for Black women specifically, but for all poor women, they were in this dilemma of having a law that was passed, a constitutional right that they could not actually access through their own health insurance.

Some people could access abortion care and use their healthcare, but if you were poor, you couldn’t, which meant you had to figure out how to come up with funds to get an abortion.

Marcela Howell

Hobson: This issue doesn’t often get addressed in national feminist conversations.

Howell: What we’ve always said in reproductive justice is that Roe was the floor, not the ceiling. It was a basic thing, but it did not answer all of these other problems of Black women living in the South, living in some of these states that passed anti-abortion laws or policies, that passed policies about waiting limits and ultrasounds—all these different kinds of things that set up barriers to actually accessing abortion.

Hobson: Could you say more about these different barriers?

Howell: The first was financial, but then the others were things like waiting periods, instructing that you had to meet with the doctor that was going to do the procedure first in order to get either a vaginal ultrasound or to read literature, dictated by the states, about the dangers of abortion, most of which were untrue. The literature was not medically sound. And then you had to go through your waiting period and then come back later when you could get your appointment.

For poor women, that meant that if you had to travel any distance, you had to take off time from work; and if you were working as an hourly person, you missed work. You basically didn’t get paid. If you already had children, you had to get childcare. You sometimes might have to get transportation to get there. And then you had to do that all over again when the waiting period was over and you finally got your appointment.

Those were barriers that were being set up in the states that many national women’s groups were not contesting, were not fighting against, but Black women and other women of color were fighting against these obstacles.

That was why we always said that Roe was the floor, not the ceiling, because some people could access abortion care and use their healthcare, but if you were poor, you couldn’t, which meant you had to figure out how to come up with funds to get an abortion. The Hyde Amendment is what literally gave rise to abortion funds. Many states imposed their own Hyde restrictions within their states. So, you always had that problem.

Hobson: Is this a problem that has been building up to where we are now?

Howell: Yes. When we were watching these conservative justices being confirmed under the Trump administration, Black RJ groups were meeting and talking about the fact that this could very well mean the fall of Roe because even though we saw it as a floor, it still was the floor.

It was still a right, and we knew that if it fell, we would be faced with all of the states either passing new laws that banned abortion or implementing laws that had been on the books but were not valid under Roe. And that’s exactly what we have now.

Hobson: I’m assuming it’s not a coincidence that the Supreme Court case that eventually overturned Roe, the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, is constituted in Black women’s bodies—wouldn’t you say?

Howell: Yes. Since it came from Mississippi, and you kind of think that, well, all of these anti-abortion laws have been directed at women of color and poor people because white women who can afford it have always had access to abortion. Even the issue around having midwives and doulas was always the same thing. Black women’s bodies have always been under attack.

What we have now is an all-out attack by conservative state legislators who want to basically make sure that they control what all women do now, not just women of color, but all women, and they want to criminalize any kind of action that they take. That’s what we’re starting to see now.

Those same state legislatures that passed abortion bans are now trying to figure out how to limit travel, how to impose their vision on young people. They’re even trying to access these apps that people use on their phones to track their menstrual cycles and trying to find out exactly what people’s menstrual tracks are. What that says is if you’re trying to travel, and the state government actually knows you’re pregnant, they’re going to try to stop that.

This whole battle is not just about controlling women’s wombs. It is an attack on the human rights of citizens. That’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing that in abortion bans. We’re seeing it in restrictions on voting because they want to control women, especially Black women who are the most progressive voters in this country.

If Black women in their full force come out and vote in elections, conservatives lose; their policies lose. If you want to control Black women, you control their bodies, control their votes, control what they learn in school, control their history.

All of those are direct attacks on human rights, and reproductive justice is grounded in human rights. It’s the human rights philosophy that says everyone has the right to make decisions about their own lives. This is the attack that we see. It’s the same with attacking LGBTQ young people’s right to life-affirming healthcare, attacking their parents. These attacks on civil and human rights are basically saying, “We get to dictate who you are and what you get to do.”

What we have now is an all-out attack by conservative state legislators who want to basically make sure that they control what all women do now, not just women of color, but all women, and they want to criminalize any kind of action that they take.

Marcela Howell

Hobson: How do we resist, and what are the alternatives to having a far-right leaning Supreme Court? How do you fight against something like that?

Howell: I think you have to fight at the state level and the federal level in Congress. You have to actually get good people into those seats where they can pass laws that the Supreme Court can’t challenge. And we have to get rid of the filibuster. The filibuster is a racist, antiquated thing, and we’ve got to get rid of that.

Hobson: It sounds like we also need to educate people who also understand how our laws work.

Howell: Yes. Both with the federal and the state and the local level. People really do need to understand. Oftentimes, they don’t really know who their state representatives are. They don’t pay attention to the elections of judges, which they should. And it’s because we no longer teach civics in our schools. So, part of what we end up doing as Black RJ organizations is teaching people civics.

Hobson: That is interesting because you didn’t hear that much outcry over the removal of civics education in schools, the way we are talking about “CRT” [critical race theory]!

Howell: Exactly. Because teaching people civics also means you’re teaching them to think for themselves and to pay attention. Conservative policymakers don’t want to have people think. Instead, they go after them with emotional nonsense talking points.

Hobson: How do you teach the next generation to continue this advocacy work?

Howell: One of the things that we’ve been doing at In Our Own Voice is we’ve been trying to train young people at HBCU campuses as the next generation of reproductive justice leaders. We have a fellows program that’s a two-year paid fellowship that literally trains young people about reproductive justice, about organizing, about advocacy and policy issues about environmental justice so that they can be the next leaders, not necessarily in nonprofit organizations, but that they take that reproductive justice framework into whatever kind of work they do, and then they see it through a different lens.

Hobson: What gives you hope—since you’re talking about the next generation?

Howell: Well, they do. These young people are absolutely brilliant. Some of our graduates went on to law school. Some of them are now working for members of Congress as legislative aids. Some of them have gone to school to get other kinds of degrees, are mentoring young people, all kinds of things. They are some of the most brilliant young people that we’ve come across, and so they give me hope.

Hobson: Now that you are retiring, what advice would you give to those who continue this fight?

Howell: Get a lot of rest. And seek allies. Don’t try to do it all by yourself. Do not despair. Policy change is long. It’s hard work, but it is valuable work. We’ve seen it this last election. We see the impact that it can have. I would say to keep hope alive.

Up next:

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.