40 Years Later: Abortion Rights Still Matter

Even decades after Roe v. Wade, women of color strive to define and protect their reproductive destiny.

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 In an interview with The Root, Gloria Feldt, a former president of Planned Parenthood, the country's leading abortion-rights organization, explained that in her experience black men, including members of the clergy, have been supportive of the cause of reproductive justice. She recalled that when she began her work with Planned Parenthood in Phoenix nearly two decades ago, the Rev. George Brooks, who was one of the most prominent black pastors in Arizona, welcomed her. She also found a community ally in Lincoln Ragsdale, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen who became one of the state's most accomplished black business leaders.

Feldt explained that despite some of the stereotypes some may hold regarding the conservatism of the black community, and black males in particular, she found these two men invaluable in their support -- in part, she theorized, because they were both old enough to recall the days when women in their communities died from illegal abortions.

Diverse Supporters Are Key

Although accurate figures are difficult to obtain, estimates claim that there were as many as 1.2 million illegal abortions annually before Roe v. Wade, and that thousands of women were physically harmed or died as a result. Poor women were most at risk, not those from wealthy families, who could hire private doctors to discreetly perform the procedure. This means that because of the class and racial divides that have existed since our country's inception, black women were a particularly vulnerable group. (I have been told that a distant relative died from such a procedure in the 1930s.)

Feldt did acknowledge, though, that making an effort to find diverse allies is an essential key to ensuring that all communities are engaged in the issue of reproductive rights, something that many activists within the reproductive-rights community have not done well. Feldt recalls that she was once asked by another white activist about the racial diversity of her board of directors in Arizona.

"I was asked, 'What did you put in your letters [to convince them to join]?' " Feldt explained. "I said, 'I don't do letters. I do lunch. It was important to me, as a white woman, to pick up the phone and call people. You've got to reach out and meet people where they are."

When the organization found itself facing a significant loss of funding for its health work from the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Planned Parenthood highlighted how many low-income women of color benefit from such programs, and increased the diversity of its spokeswomen in order to publicize such work. Actress Nia Long joined other high-profile celebrity ambassadors of color, such as actresses Gabrielle Union and Aisha Tyler.

The organization has also hired a more-diverse staff to focus on actively involving women of color. In an interview with The Root, Kelley Robinson at Planned Parenthood explained that making a concerted effort to reach out to communities of color and tailor messages to them are keys to keeping women of color informed and engaged on the issue of reproductive health. Acknowledging the shortcomings of the reproductive-rights movement in the past, she said, "Women of color have been marginalized within the movement for a long time."

Going Beyond Labels

But she highlighted new findings that Planned Parenthood unveiled in the new year -- namely that while many women support the legal right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, many are uncomfortable with the label "pro-choice." While the term has not been replaced, the reproductive-rights movement is striving to tailor its message to address more effectively the fluidity and complexity that reflect the way many women feel about this issue.