Throughout 2015, reproductive-rights issues have made headlines, and the news has mostly been bad.
From deceptive videos intended to discredit Planned Parenthood to more clinic closures and the recent shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, legislators and anti-abortion extremists are unrelenting in their efforts to push abortion out of reach. While there has been a large flood of support for Planned Parenthood and other reproductive-health providers, clinics and their staff, rallies and protests are predominantly white, when, in reality, abortion access and reproductive-health care are more significant issues for black women than for any other group.
Black women have a higher rate of unintended pregnancy than white or Hispanic women and are more likely to have an abortion as a result. According to the Guttmacher institute, around 42 percent of abortion patients are poor. For women living in poverty, even with limited health care, accessing high-quality contraception remains difficult. Many factors can prevent a woman from being able to use her chosen method of birth control consistently, including the distance from the clinic, cost of birth control and lack of awareness of no-co-pay birth control options.
Moreover, impediments caused by life events, relationship changes, personal crises, and cultural or linguistic barriers, all of which are common among all women, become magnified when you are low-income, already very busy, stressed and living paycheck to paycheck with children (since 60 percent of women who have an abortion already have children).
Access to abortion and reproductive-health care is challenged further when legislative restrictions close clinics, forcing women to travel longer distances to receive care and comply with mandatory waiting periods. Nowhere is this felt more than in a place like Texas. Despite then-state Sen. Wendy Davis’ valiant 11-hour filibuster, anti-abortion bill H.B. 2 was passed by a predominantly anti-choice Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2013.
As a result of this law’s provisions, over half of the clinics in the state have closed, leaving Whole Woman’s Health, which provides gynecological-health services in several states, as one of the few remaining abortion providers in Texas.
“Clinics that are still open, even with H.B. 2, have very long wait lists, very long,” said Marva Sadler, director of clinical services at Whole Woman’s Health in Texas.
The clinic closures—including the closing of the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in Beaumont—have hit some predominantly black communities in Texas particularly hard.
“Our Beaumont clinic [saw] a majority [of] African-American women, and the majority are low-income,” said Sadler. Travel is not an option for them because of a lack of financial resources. “They’ve never been out of the city of Beaumont, Texas. Our clients in Fort Worth, they might have [money]. In Beaumont they just don’t have it.”
Many activists argue that while Roe v. Wade in 1973 established a woman’s right to choose, it means nothing if women cannot access services because of a lack of financial resources or legal restrictions. This falls hardest on women of color and those struggling to get by.
Fighting for the right to control their reproductive destiny has been an ongoing struggle for many in the African-American community. In the late 1800s, black women—once denied a say in when they had children, or if they got to keep their children, because of slavery—understood this deeply. Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body examines this history in great detail. The Women’s Era, a black-women’s newsletter, acknowledged a woman’s right to birth control in 1894, saying that “not all women are intended for mothers. Some of us have not temperament for family life.”
Other African-American leaders joined this chorus. As early as 1922, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote an article in The Crisis that argued for black families’ adoption of birth control. The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, in 1932, spoke at a public meeting in favor of birth control. Many African-American women suffered maternity-related deaths because of illegal abortions before Roe—so much so that Dr. Dorothy Brown, the first black female surgeon from the South, who also became the first black female Tennessee state representative in the 1960s, introduced a bill to legalize abortion before the Supreme Court did.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many black civil rights activists rebelled against this activism, encouraging black women to have more children for the growth of the black community. Specifically, many black activists were concerned that family planning was being supported by the white community only in order to reduce the number of black people born. Despite the naysayers, the tradition of black reproductive-rights activism never died, evolving into a philosophy known today as reproductive justice. Reproductive justice is the human right to have children, or not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments.
Although black activists and writers like Zerlina Maxwell, Feminista Jones, Imani Gandy and Renee Bracey Sherman are very public faces in the fight for women’s rights—specifically, abortion access for black women—the faces at the protests and rallies are still predominantly white. This is even more apparent to reproductive-justice advocates at a time when the rights of the black community as a whole are the focus of regular #BlackLivesMatter protests and media attention.
This has also not gone unnoticed by those like Marva Sadler.
“The fight absolutely affects all of us in so many ways. People always want to stand up at these anti-choice rallies and say [abortion] is the No. 1 killer of black women,” said Sadler. “They don’t know what they are talking about.”
Myths and misinformation aside, the reality of these women’s lives is even more complicated now. With Whole Woman’s Health’s Beaumont clinic closed, Sadler continues to receive calls on the organization’s hotline from women looking for abortion care. Some go to Houston. Others go to Mexico. And others will carry an unwanted pregnancy to term if left with no options.
As for young black women and men, Sadler hopes to see more of them out there fighting for a right that is “not just a white woman’s issue,” as some activists of color have called the fight for reproductive rights.
“Get involved. Stop letting the ‘antis’ paint us as victims,” Sadler said firmly. “As much as we talk about Black Lives Matter, women matter as well.”
Indeed, it is time that we reclaim Roe for black women.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Atima Omara is an award-winning nonprofit leader and strategist in politics and the progressive movement. Her writings on progressive issues have been featured in many outlets, including the American Prospect, the Huffington Post and Ebony magazine. She has served on the board of the Planned Parenthood Metropolitan Washington Action Fund and is a former member of the DC Abortion Fund board of directors. Follow her on Twitter.