Reproductive Justice Activist Explains Why Black Leaders Are Key To Abortion Rights

Black people "know more than anybody that being able to control our bodies is essential to our liberation,” said Yamani Hernandez.

As several states pass restrictive abortion bans, abortion rights activists are urging supporters of reproductive justice to rally behind longstanding grassroots organizations and black advocates from communities gravely affected by the new laws.

Last week, the Alabama Senate passed the strictest anti-abortion law in the nation. As many noted on social media, the 25 senators who voted for the ban — which is expected to disproportionately criminalize people of color and low-income people — were white men.

Nearly every black person in the Alabama Senate voted against the ban. Five out of the six state senators who voted against the abortion ban are black, and the only other black state senator, Malika Sanders-Fortier, abstained.

Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, noted that black legislators, activists and black-led organizations have been aggressively fighting for reproductive justice for years.

For example, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced the EACH Woman Act in 2015 to effectively repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortions with exceptions for rape, incest or to save the life of the pregnant person.

The new abortion bans have not only sparked protests, they’ve also offered more ways for advocates to promote cooperation, like the recent Twitter hashtag #AbortionSolidarity, which encourages people to spotlight abortion rights organizations, health providers and independent funds across the nation.

The recent bans have also spurred conversations about inclusivity and racially insensitive language.

On Saturday, Laverne Cox drew attention to abortion rights language that excludes transgender men. Last week, many on social media criticized people who used hashtags like #UndergroundRailroad2019 and #AuntieNetwork to offer people seeking abortion care a place to stay across state lines.

While people have been forming underground networks to support abortion care for decades, assistant professor Sami Schalk pointed out on Twitter that the recent language and hashtag “draws on our cultural legacies in terminology.”

The National Network of Abortion Funds, founded 25 years ago, approaches abortion rights issues by tackling the ways economic, racial, gender and reproductive justice all intersect. The nonprofit works with over 70 member organizations located in about 40 states (a list of individual funds across state lines can be found here).

Hernandez talked to HuffPost about the importance of elevating black voices and black leaders in abortion rights movements, and how the new anti-abortion laws affect staggering black maternal mortality rates.

Elijah Nouvelage via Getty Images

On rallying behind black leaders and elected officials:

Hernandez noted that women of color lead the National Network of Abortion Funds’ All Above All campaign, which is aimed at repealing the Hyde Amendment.

“That campaign is led by women of color in terms of the organization,” she said. “But it’s also the legislators that have signed on to it and who have really carried the torch in the House and the Senate… [they] have been people of color. Barbara Lee is the primary sponsor, she is in California, and there’s been countless others, so it makes a difference.”

Hernandez also pointed to a number of organizations, including National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda and Movement for Black Lives, that mobilize to connect with black legislators and policymakers on issues that especially affect communities of color.

“There’s a lot of myths about the black community and the conservative views around the black community and abortion, but they actually don’t hold up when you do the polling,” she said, “Black folks still want access to contraception, to sex ed, to abortion, to equitable birth, all of those things. And we know more than anybody that being able to control our bodies is essential to our liberation.”

She continued, “I think it’s important that we have the representation and that representation isn’t the only thing, because you can be black and not necessarily hold the values that other black people hold. But the education and organizing of black leaders is really important.”

On people who are relatively new to the abortion rights movement:

“I say welcome, welcome to the movement, and welcome to the work,” Hernandez said. “And I’m glad that people are fired up and interested and ready to get involved. For me, I think it’s important that folks follow the expertise of people who have been doing the work for a while.”

An “enormous amount of logistics” goes into relocating people across state lines to get them access to care, and there’s a vetting process in place for volunteers who want to host people choosing to have an abortion, she added.

“We can certainly use more people involved, more folks contributing to have more coverage,” she added. “Our network has been around for 25 years and the individual member abortion funds have been around longer than that.”

On the rise of social media hashtags, like #Undergroundrailroad2019 and #AuntieNetwork:

“I don’t use ‘Underground Railroad’ related to this work. I don’t think it’s an appropriate term to use,” Hernandez explained. Getting people health care is important, she said, but it’s also important not to suggest it’s the same issue as “chattel slavery.”

There’s a “delicate balance” to approaching the waves of new abortion rights organizers on social media, she explained.

“I think it’s amazing that 3,800 people signed up to take action to help people get to abortion care,” Hernandez said. “I think that’s amazing.”

However, she added: “It worries me when people are trying to reinvent stuff that already exists because there is years and years and years of expertise that has gone into it … there’s just no reason for people to start from scratch, and also make the mistakes that folks have already learned from.”

She continued, “We don’t want to stop people from self-organizing. I think that that’s powerful as well, but we just don’t want people to recreate the wheel and we also just want to keep folks safe.”

There are a lot of questions and variables to consider when hosting someone seeking abortion care: What happens if someone gets injured while staying in your home? Do you know what to say to health professionals if someone needs to go to a hospital?

“There’s no reason for people to be floundering around in the dark.. it’s time for us to come together and be on the same page,” Hernandez said.

On being aware of issues affecting black women and women of color:

“For our national hotline, 50% of the folks that call are black, so we know who our core constituency is, and we’ve been doing a lot of work over the last couple of years to talk about and unpack anti-racist values in doing this work,” Hernandez said.

The National Network of Abortion Funds looks at abortion rights issues from an “intersectional lens,” which includes examining issues like economic justice, welfare caps and maternal mortality, she added. (Black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die because of pregnancy-related issues, according to the CDC.)

“That means that’s a factor in whether someone decides to parent,” Hernandez said. “Because it’s somewhat risking their life to choose to give birth in this country as a black person.”

“The choices that we make are impacted by systemic injustice,” she later added. “In some cases, we make many different choices [than we would] if we lived in an equal society.”

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