Forty Years In and Women of Color Still Lack Access to Reproductive Health Care


This post is part of Still Wading: Forty years of resistance, resilience and reclamation in communities of color, a blog series by Strong Families commemorating the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade.

Forty. This past summer I turned 40, a milestone year in my life. Not too young, not too old. I wonder which way I am headed next. 

Forty. Significant also for the landmark Roe v. Wade decision 40 years ago that made it legal for women to obtain an abortion. I wonder, what is next for Roe v. Wade?

I’m a child of the civil rights and feminist movements. The year I turned 16, my mother, herself a lifetime activist/agitator, turned 40 and began sharing with me more of her history and her views on the issues. She told me about how she wasn’t able to attend the college she wanted to because my grandmother (another civil rights activist/agitator) was fearful of my mother going to school in the deep South. In 1966, the year my mother would have entered college, young Black women were facing grave dangers.

My mother spoke passionately about how she wanted more for me—she wanted me to have all that she’d worked for and to understand why she chose to fight and advocate. She talked to me about my right to a life full of “unending potential, possibility, and promise.” She talked about my right to choose, the various choices I would be making, and how I would make them. We always talked openly, honestly, and yes, with some difficulty, about sexuality, especially Black female sexuality. Our conversation reverberated with tones of the Middle Passage, American slavery, Jim Crow, segregation… and choice. We talked about how my life was my choice: my body, what I did with it, and who I decided to do things with were all mine.

In high school, several of my peers were pregnant and had to make a choice. Some left school to give birth and parent. Some opted for adoption. The few who exercised their right to terminate their pregnancy asked me to help advocate for them. I did, continuing the family legacy of being a youth-focused activist. I remember the stigma and shame these young women endured. It was a horrible and soul shaking experience. The images that were pushed on us as we walked into the clinic, the vile words that were shouted at us: “baby killers;” “whores who have no morals.” I hadn’t felt such tangible hatred from folks before. They had no clue about the personal situations that resulted in a decision to abort, and of course, none of them offered other ways to help, either.

At college, I continued to speak out and advocate for friends who chose to terminate pregnancies. During these years, I worked at a reproductive health clinic that provided health services, including abortion. As staff, we were required to receive training in bomb safety and self-defense just to go to work. It was a choice that I made, and without hesitation, I would do it again. Yet, the environment was hard, working to provide quality, compassionate care to women and their families/partners under threats of harm and violence. Although time has passed, the stigma and the hostile reality for women who exercise their right to choose still feel fresh and palpable.

Forty years young and it strikes me deeply how the right to choose is still a question of whether women have a right to control their own bodies. I got a loud, resounding answer during this most recent election cycle. Women, their bodies, and choice were bandied around by white men who promoted their concept of “women” as a commodity, interchangeable with whatever parts fit the needs of those in power. I was disgusted with the conversations about rape, power, and choice—and the deafening silence about intersections of oppression that impact many women.

Because of my experience in the deep South, the reality of how difficult it is for women to access services without being harassed, stigmatized, disrespected or arrested is not lost on me. In places outside of the South, people might have the idea that it’s no longer so hard to gain access to abortion services. Women of color, immigrant women, and low-income women who are pregnant know, however, that access to reproductive health services (especially abortion) has many roadblocks. Consider what these women might encounter if they have issues with finances, transportation, immigration status, not having childcare/support, literacy issues, addiction, language barriers. All these issues shape the ability of women to seek access to quality care, including safe and legal abortions in a state that is considered a leader in health care reform. That is why a path to citizenship is a choice issue. Economic justice and educational equity are choice issues. Criminal justice reform is a choice issue. The list is long, yet important.

Roe v. Wade. Forty. Not too young or too old. Right in the middle. Which way are we headed? What will be the legacy that is yet unwritten? How do we want the impact of this decision to ripple out for the next generation of women?

This year I turned 40. Not too young, not too old. Right in the middle. What I choose now in my life will certainly inform the life and legacy that I want to have. As I reflect back on my mother, and the hopes she expressed to me, I ask myself, what would I say to her? I would say to her, “Mama, I’ve chosen to remain committed to our family legacy of activism. I’ve refused to remain silent, and instead I am openly supporting other women in their decisions, whatever they may be. I’ve tried to live the life you imagined for me so many years ago in the hopes that I’ve made you proud.”

And so, I will always choose to fight for women’s right to make choices about their lives. I will always choose to make sure my reproductive choice is fully protected, honored, and available. I will always choose to see the complexity of that choice, and to find my place in the multiple and connected struggles for social justice, not only for me, but for my nieces and nephews, godchildren, sisters and brothers, cousins, and friends. And, especially for you.

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  • patentlydisgusted

    This sounds like Margret Sanger was attempting to do almost 100 years ago in her “Negro Project” and you want to continue it! Doesn’t it phase you that about 1/3 of the Black population has been erased through abortion since 1973? You have really bought the lie!

     

  • jennifer-starr

    And so, I will always choose to fight for women’s right to make choices about their lives. I will always choose to make sure my reproductive choice is fully protected, honored, and available. I will always choose to see the complexity of that choice, and to find my place in the multiple and connected struggles for social justice, not only for me, but for my nieces and nephews, godchildren, sisters and brothers, cousins, and friends. And, especially for you.

    I”m puzzled as to where you see racism in fighting for the right of individual women to make choices about their own lives and reproduction. Maybe you were reading a completely different article, because the conclusions you draw are completely erroneous. 

  • prochoiceferret

    This sounds like Margret Sanger was attempting to do almost 100 years ago in her “Negro Project” and you want to continue it!

     

    No, actually, we want to help African-American and other minority communities better than Margaret Sanger was able to.

     

    Arguments persist about whether or not the Negro Project was purely a racist endeavor (search for “Sanger” “Negro Project” and “racism” on the Internet and be prepared for the onslaught). Certainly the patriarchal racism of the time that guided many of the social policies in Washington and the practices of philanthropic and charitable organizations working to “lift up” African-Americans, dictated both the Federation’s and Sanger’s approach to blacks and birth control. The public rationale for the Project was rooted in economics, tax-payer burden, and the social threats posed by what was perceived to be an exploding black underclass, rather than the health and sexual liberation of black women (though it should be notes that the birth control movement largely ignored the issue of women’s “black or white” sexual autonomy in the interwar years). And there is no doubt that a good number of medical professionals involved in the birth control movement exhibited strong racist sentiments, some of them arguing for and even carrying out compulsory sterilization on black women considered to be of low intelligence and therefore not capable of choosing not to control their fertility, as well as on those deemed morally or behaviorally deviant. But there is no evidence that Sanger or even the Federation coerced or intended to coerce black women into using birth control. The fundamental belief, underscored at every meeting, mentioned in much of the behind-the-scenes correspondence, and evident in all the printed material put out by the Division of Negro Service, was that uncontrolled fertility presented the greatest burden to the poor, and Southern blacks were among the poorest Americans. In fact, the Negro Project did not differ very much from the earlier birth control campaigns in the rural South designed to test simpler methods on poor, uneducated and mostly white agricultural communities. Following these other efforts in the South, it would have been more racist, in Sanger’s mind, to ignore African-Americans in the South than to fail at trying to raise the health and economic standards of their communities. 

    http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/secure/newsletter/articles/bc_or_race_control.html

     

    Doesn’t it phase you that about 1/3 of the Black population has been erased through abortion since 1973?

     

    Are you seriously saying that Black women should have been forced to carry through pregnancies they didn’t want in order to increase the Black population? Because that would sure faze me.

     

    You have really bought the lie!

     

    That you actually care about the Black community? Nope, I didn’t find it remotely convincing.

  • crowepps

    Black women have a lifetime fertility rate higher than other women, that is, they have more total children over their lifetime.

    The number of Black people in the American population has increased since abortion became legal.

    The percentage of the American population that is Black has increased since abortion became legal.

    There is a huge unmet need for reliable contraception among Black girls and women.  Providing free IUD’s to anyone who wanted them would cause their abortion rate to plummet, and all their children could be wanted children, born at the optimal time in their mothers’ lives.