Fighting for reproductive rights takes courage and stamina, as the battle carries on. Today, imminent threats to Roe v. Wade intensify those fears that our worst nightmares could soon transform into the harshest of realities. And it’s true; the loss of Roe would impact us all. But those who would suffer the most are those in marginalized communities – namely women of color and all those living in poverty who are less likely to have health insurance and access to affordable birth control. And so, we need to center the voices of those people in our fight for reproductive rights.
As physician and abortion provider Dr. Willie Parker said, if Roe is overturned, “the only people who will have abortions will be people who have access to means, which will mean like pre-Roe, poor women and women of color will be the people who’ll experience the harms that we dread with illegal abortion.”
And as La’Tasha D. Mayes, founder and executive director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice points out: “Black women, who already experience an unequal playing field when it comes to health care, can ill-afford the anti-abortion wave that threatens to drown access for all but the wealthy.”
In honor of National Black History Month and to recognize those, like Parker and Mayes, on the frontlines in this battle for reproductive rights, we’ve gathered the stories of African Americans who have fought – and who continue to fight - for reproductive freedom.
So, who are these heroes among us?
Elaine Brown was the first woman chair of the Black Panther Party from 1974 to 1977. During her tenure, Brown shifted the party’s rhetoric – that once claimed a woman’s sole purpose was to have children – to include a platform for Black women’s reproductive rights.
“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.” – Elaine Brown
During the early 1970s in Gainesville, Fla., Byllye Avery volunteered for a legal abortion referral network that gave women seeking to end their pregnancies a number for a clinic in New York. Then, seeing the region’s dire need for affordable and accessible reproductive healthcare, Avery and three other women opened the Gainesville Women’s Health Center (GWHC) to: “help women solve the crisis-producing situation of unplanned, unwanted pregnancy.” Avery went on to launch the National Black Women’s Health Project, now the Black Women’s Health Imperative, that advocates for the health and well-being of African American women.
Khiara Bridges, a self-described feminist and activist, has done extensive research on “the impact that race and ethnic identity have on health care outcomes.” In writing her book, Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization, Bridges conducted a field study following four uninsured pregnant women enrolled in a New York City hospital’s Prenatal Care Assistance Program. She concluded that “race affects the standard of prenatal care received and ultimately alters the experience of hospital childbirth.”
As both a devout Christian and abortion provider, Dr. Willie Parker plays a unique yet critical role in our battle for reproductive justice. In his book Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, Parker references moments in his personal and professional lives to explain his unwavering belief that “helping women in need, without judgement, is precisely the Christian thing to do.” After reading Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Good Samaritan sermon, Parker “realized that in order to be a true Christian, he must show compassion for all women regardless of their needs.” Currently, Parker provides abortions for women living in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Illinois who have limited access to this kind of medical care. He also serves as chair of the board of Physicians for Reproductive Health and as a board member of The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and URGE.
Parker has said: “…from the standpoint of someone who’s in a situation where they have all of their economic needs met or they’re in a situation where they have safe housing and environment, say if you live in a city where you have access to abortion and the like ... then you may not understand the implications of a law that requires a woman to wait an additional 24 hours when she’s doing the best she can to scramble all the resources she needs to reach her reproductive goals. The women that I see, they’re advocating for having more resources to control their lives, not less. They place abortion in the context of the things that help them fulfill their reproductive destiny.”
African Americans - both women and men – place themselves on the frontlines in this battle for reproductive justice. The African American community has been at the forefront of the reproductive rights and justice movements – running for office, staging marches, leading voter engagement.
And in doing so, they have shifted the conversation about reproductive rights and justice. Because, for minority communities, the conversation is not only about abortion rights, but also about reproductive justice. This Black History Month we celebrate and uplift their work. affordable healthcare and family planning services. And for that, we thank them.