Louisiana’s Criminalization of Abortion Care Demands We Embrace Reproductive Justice

The people working overtime to maintain racial and gender hierarchies will not stop at the criminalization of abortion drugs—just like they didn’t stop with the banning of abortion.

The World Health Organization recommends two regimens for medication abortion: misoprostol alone or combined with another medication, mifepristone. (Soumyabrata Roy / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, the Louisiana House passed legislation criminalizing two drugs commonly used for abortion care: mifepristone and misoprostol. The bill was signed into law on May 24, by Gov. Jeff Landry (R).

Instead of working to address the maternal mortality crisis, the infant mortality crisis or the climate crisis (the list of crises goes on), Louisiana’s lawmakers are looking to lock up our neighbors for up to five years for possessing these life-saving drugs. The move is pigheaded, embarrassing and downright dangerous—but not surprising. 

Thirty-five years ago—at the height of the war on drug users and the HIV/AIDS crisis—a small collective realized how the public health institutions supposed to serve our communities had, at best, abandoned Black folks and, at worst, were actively terrorizing our communities. Women With a Vision’s foremothers took matters into their own hands, operating illegally for decades distributing sterile needles and condoms to those most at risk for HIV/AIDS infection and criminalization.

Today, the organization my mother helped found, where I now serve as executive director, works at the intersection of public health, reproductive justice and criminalization—recognizing the ways racial capitalism, queerphobia and the patriarchy function together to isolate, blame, criminalize, erase and take. 

This week’s move to ban abortion pills in Louisiana is a continuation of the long tradition of infringing on the bodily autonomy of birthing people, Black folks in particular.

For the conservative, white, cisgender men who dominate our politics, the goal is always to maintain the same hierarchy that protected chattel slavery and today protects their status.

WWAV foremothers Danita Muse, Catherine Haywood and Deon Haywood with red AIDS ribbons in their hands, as featured in the Source in April 2001. (via Instagram)

Our lawmakers’ assault on our right to determine what we do with our bodies started with the enslavement of our ancestors, the attempted genocide of Indigenous people, and the taking of their land, and continues by criminalizing and incarcerating folks at the bottom of racial, gender and class hierarchies. 

Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.”

Everyday I’m reminded that our oppressions are woven together—each oppressive action reinforcing the one that came before and laying the groundwork for the next one. Two years ago, when the Supreme Court toppled Roe and Louisiana’s trigger ban went into effect, our history showed us the next step would be criminalization. 

For the conservative, white, cisgender men who dominate our politics, the goal is always to maintain the same hierarchy that protected chattel slavery and today protects their status. And they’re not shy about it. At the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis and war on drugs, these same forces blamed substance users and queer folks for their infection rates. They used their made-up authority to hasten the demise of the most vulnerable, refusing to allot lifesaving resources to Black and brown communities and criminalizing people on the ground distributing sterile needles and condoms. 

Today is no different. Before the Supreme Court took up Dobbs, our legislators had passed a trigger ban, planning for a forced birth future. And when New Orleans leaders refused to criminalize abortion seekers, it was Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry (then attorney general) who threatened to withhold the public funds needed to maintain the city’s pumps that keep water from destroying our homes, cars and neighborhoods. He said the withholding of these funds was meant to “bring them to heel”—a phrase that unmistakably reeks of the white supremacist nature of his policies. 

Statements like Landry’s, combined with policies like the one criminalizing mifepristone and misoprostol, speak to the true “pro-life” agenda: white supremacy.

Not long after Women With a Vision’s founding, a group of Black women and women of color were building the human rights framework today known as reproductive justice. They recognized the ways the abortion rights movement failed us and worked to bring our disparate movements together, knowing that the right to abortion was not enough. Their vision for a world where we all have the right to have children when and how we choose, not have children, and live in whole, healthy, thriving communities is a clarion call to counter the white supremacist vision driving the anti-abortion movement. 

Through a reproductive justice lens, we realize the movements to end mass criminalization and the war on drug users isn’t supplemental to the fight for abortion rights. It is only through embracing a vision for a whole, healthy, liberated future that we can put an end to the assault on our rights. 

Through a reproductive justice lens, we realize that when we partner with those most vulnerable, when we work as their accomplices, we aren’t just doing good deeds. We are moving towards collective liberation together, the only thing that will save us from the ever-present march of white supremacy. The war on drugs and the HIV/AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s are inextricably linked to the terrors of our politics today. And it is only through embracing the lessons learned during those fights—allyship, refusal, speech and dreaming of a world otherwise—that we can equip ourselves for the fights ahead. 

Deon Haywood, Gloria Steinem and Angeline Echeverria attend the Ms. Foundation For Women’s annual Gloria Awards on May 8, 2019, in New York City. (Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images for Ms. Foundation For Women)

As a Black, queer, woman working in the Deep South, I know the people working overtime to maintain racial and gender hierarchies will not stop at the criminalization of abortion drugs—just like they didn’t stop with the banning of abortion. And they are not limited to the Deep South: Our state is a testing ground for some of white supremacy’s worst policies because our home is Black and brown and queer. It’s us, the folks who have been working to counter these forces for decades, who best understand our opposition. 

And so, as the news of the criminalization of mifepristone and misoprostol spreads across the country, I ask you, those who profess to be with us in this fight, to embrace reproductive justice. We need you to understand the ways our fights are connected and to keep resourcing the folks on the frontlines—the Black, queer, poor and working-class Southerners. When they’re using the same tools they used to wreak havoc on Black and brown communities for decades to criminalize anyone for simply possessing abortion care drugs, we know that our collective struggle transcends abortion rights alone.

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U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Deon Haywood is the executive director of Women With a Vision. Haywood is also an activist, human rights advocate, mother and grandmother, and community leader from New Orleans. For more than 30 years, she has advocated for the rights of Black women and girls, poor and working class folks, sex workers, substance users and LGBTQ+ communities in the Deep South.