Reproductive Justice Belongs to Everyone

Christina Dawson of Virginia joined thousands to support the first anniversary of the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. © J.M. Giordano/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Women of color, and particularly Black women, have been, at best, relegated to the sidelines in the reproductive rights movements of the last century. But the contributions Black women have made in the past two-dozen years through the reproductive justice framework have transformed the way we discuss reproductive rights today.

Black women have demonstrated that the right to abortion isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to reproductive rights, despite being the most visible part of the women’s movement since anti-choice forces began trying to dismantle Roe v. Wade. Reproductive rights through a reproductive justice lens include affordable access to family planning (threatened by bans on Medicaid reimbursements to Planned Parenthood and cuts to the nation’s Title X program); comprehensive sex ed that’s appropriate to students’ cultural identity (threatened by the premature canceling of Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program grants); access to safe maternity care (Black women are 3-4 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women); and yes, the right to safe abortion without unnecessary delay (the Hyde amendment prohibits Medicaid funding of abortion, and TRAP laws disproportionately affect poor women and women of color who may have more difficulty with waiting periods and traveling long distances to clinics). Reproductive justice insists that there are many components to reproductive choice, including the right to have children, and to deliver and raise them in safe environments.

In the early twentieth century, with the advent of the first modern contraceptives, Black women joined white feminists in advocating for birth control as a means to escape the financial and physical stresses of multiple pregnancies. But it was during this time that eugenics became acceptable public policy. The racist and unscientific theories behind eugenics led the United States government to wield anti-natalist policies targeting vulnerable communities — most horrifically, through state-sponsored coercive sterilization. In response, Black women broadened their family planning activism to include fighting the government’s attempts to control their bodies.

African American women’s fight for bodily autonomy continued during the Civil Rights movement and the subsequent Black Power movement. Throughout this time, reproductive rights for Black women came under attack from two fronts: the U.S. government and Black movements themselves.

In 1965, the provocative study “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”[1] concluded that, “The breakdown of the Negro family has led to a startling increase in welfare dependency.” The report identified a rise in male unemployment, marital dissolution, female-headed households, and “illegitimate births” as the primary components of “the deterioration of the Negro family.” The report gave rise to the notion that government involvement in Black women’s reproductive decision-making would reduce welfare spending.

Within the African American community, Black liberation movements struggled to adequately address reproductive rights for Black women. The Nation of Islam, for example, protested against the eugenics-inspired agenda of forced sterilization, but also argued that women’s sole responsibility was to procreate. The Black Panther Party’s leadership, while intimately aware of the inequities Black women faced within their communities, nonetheless struggled to rein in their sexist and chauvinistic inclinations.

That changed when Elaine Brown, a prominent figure in the Black Panther Party, was able to overcome the party’s deep-seated misogyny and become chair of the party in 1974. Brown added reproductive rights for Black women to the party’s platform. She said, “I would support every assertion of human rights by women — from the right to abortion to the right of equality with men as laborers and leaders. I would declare that the agenda of the Black Panther Party and our revolution to free Black people from the oppression specifically included Black women.”

LAS VEGAS, NV – JANUARY 21: Attendees hold a sign during the Women’s March “Power to the Polls” voter registration tour launch at Sam Boyd Stadium on January 21, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Demonstrators across the nation gathered over the weekend, one year after the historic Women’s March on Washington, D.C., to protest President Donald Trump’s administration and to raise awareness for women’s issues. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

In the mid-1990s, a group of Black women convened in Chicago and coined the term “reproductive justice.” Calling themselves the Black Women’s Caucus of the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance, these women went to work ensuring that women of color and women of limited means be empowered and defended, in national and international declarations and action plans.

Now, more than twenty years later, the mainstream feminist movement still struggles to adequately address issues affecting women of color within their ranks, and Black women still struggle to maintain bodily autonomy. But it’s getting better, and that’s thanks to countless Black women over the past century who demanded to be heard.

[1] Informally known as “The Moynihan Report,” named for its author, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was serving as Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Lyndon B. Johnson


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