In 1974, the year after Roe v. Wade secured the constitutional right to an abortion, I found myself pregnant. I was fourteen years old. My mother, who was 28 and struggling to care for six children, told me, "God did not intend for your life to be like mine." Roe meant that we did not have to consult with a politician or with a medical board of white men. It also meant we didn’t have to put my life at risk at the hands of an unregulated, unsafe provider. The choice to have a safe, legal abortion, in consultation with my mother and with God, was sacred to me then and now.
Because of my experience and those of others I know, I continue to be appalled at the use of old anti-choice movement rhetoric. Last month, I shook my head with great disappointment when Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said that the “whole purpose” of Planned Parenthood is to “eliminate Black people.” Even more recently he said on Fox News that the organization exists to “control” the Black population. Really? Planned Parenthood or any organization that provides empowering services to women is not a problem for or an attack on Black people. The continued use of antiquated claims that birth control and legal abortion providers exist to eliminate African Americans is the problem. It is a lie and it is incredibly insulting. But more importantly the claim hides an agenda -- to attack women’s rights and promote yet another form of gender-based injustice that is harmful to all women, but especially to women of color.
For years, women of color and low-income women have heard this patriarchal message from various messengers implying that we are naive, misguided, and lack the intellectual capacity to make personal, critical, often difficult, informed decisions about our lives in general and our bodies more specifically. It buys into ingrained sexual stereotypes of Black women as promiscuous, hyper-fertile, irresponsible welfare queens, and it ignores our history in America, which is one of losing our bodily autonomy and the image of respected womanhood and the fight to win both back.
Carson, I know, is aware of the hundreds of years Black women in America were dehumanized, held in bondage, raped and forced to bear children. Even after the end of slavery, Jim Crow laws regulated who we could marry, where we could live, work and eat and were by all accounts successful at keeping us from voting as a people to change our own circumstances. Today Black women live under the attacks, the vestiges of Jim Crow, enduring de facto segregation, insidious discrimination, and questionable police suspicion.
My home state of Louisiana was one of the states that outlawed all abortions before Roe and it has today a “trigger law” in place that will automatically outlaw abortion again if the Supreme Court ever overturns this landmark decision. Even while Roe still stands, Gov. Bobby Jindal, also a presidential candidate, is trying to make it harder for women -- especially women who don’t have means to travel -- to access safe abortion, signing restrictions aimed at shutting down the only abortion providers in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Just this month, Jindal cut off Medicaid funding for the reproductive health services that Planned Parenthood provides to low-income women in the state. Sadly, the narrow, focused agenda on restricting abortion has also placed in jeopardy services such as anemia testing, cholesterol and diabetes screenings, physical exams, sex and sexuality education, male and female sexual health, STD testing and treatment.
At one time in my life, I was that woman whom these restrictions target -- a woman who made minimum wage (I remember being a waitress making $1.10 an hour), one who would have been unable to spend money to travel out of state or even to another city for a safe pregnancy test and nonjudgmental counseling on abortion and healthy pregnancy, one unable to pay out-of-pocket for contraception or have access to reproductive technology. In Louisiana, which has one of the nation’s highest income disparities between white and African-American people, these restrictions directly impact the Black women who make up 34 percent of the state female population.
Attacks that attempt to discredit and defund Planned Parenthood aren’t just about one organization. They are about undermining every organization, every provider, every advocate of reproductive justice as a whole. Reproductive justice does not just mean the right to a safe and legal abortion. It means access to and information about contraceptive services. It means quality, affordable health care for women and their families. It means a greater understanding of the intersectionality to economic and social justice and human rights.
In 1989 I became a pro-choice, pro-faith activist for what we then called reproductive rights and we now call reproductive justice. This framework carries special significance to women of color. It affirms our historical struggle for control over the decision to become pregnant, to terminate a pregnancy, to carry a pregnancy to term, to become a parent or to place a child up for adoption. It strengthens our resolve to continue to demand parity in a country where we earn less than any other group and have accrued less wealth. It requires the participation and value of women of color in all conversations, debates, platforms and policies that attempt to restrict our freedom to make our own choices about our own lives.
Sojourner Truth once said, “The Spirit calls and I must go.” We are under attack! Attacks on reproductive justice are attacks on a woman’s right to freedom, safety, protection, respect, dignity, self-determination and quality of life. These attacks become chains that silence and intimidate. However, whether we live in the city or the suburbs or in a rural community, identify as a Southerner or Northerner, have a Ph.D or a GED, heterosexual or same gender loving, first or second generation, native born or immigrant, youth or elder, having chosen to have children or not to have children, women of color have been called by those of the past for those of the future to go, break chains and defeat injustice with justice. We will fight and we will win.