OPINION: Winning the Fight for Reproductive Justice Means Finally Putting Black Women in the Driver’s Seat

Civil rights attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong believes it's time for white women to step aside and let those most impacted steer this battle.

The Supreme Court’s earth-shifting ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was a striking reminder that disconnected elites still control the bodily autonomy of pregnant women and girls. And yet, the fast collapse of abortion rights must also be a moment of reckoning for the reproductive freedom and abortion rights movements, as a similar group of elites continues to exert outsized influence on the strategic choices in the struggle for reproductive rights. If we’re going to win the fight for abortion justice over the long-haul, it will require us to rethink the leadership, strategies, and legal framework for an entire movement.

No social movement - in the United States or globally - has ever succeeded without the leadership of the people whose lives and opportunities would be most transformed through the process of liberation and progress. Unfortunately, as long as there have been movements for suffrage and gender equity in the United States, white women have dominated those conversations, often explicitly excluding the interests of Black and Brown women in the process. That exclusion ­– a lineage that can be traced directly from Susan B. Anthony to the advocates of today – must end, not just for the sake of abortion rights and reproductive freedom, but for the benefit of all movements that purport to advance the liberation of marginalized people.

When it comes to safe abortion access and reproductive choice, Black women, by a wide margin, are more affected by draconian bans than any other group. While all kinds of people become pregnant and get abortions – including those who identify as trans, male, and nonbinary – Black women are four times as likely to have an abortion as white women. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention also states that almost half of Black American women of childbearing age live in the 22 states that have imposed strict abortion restrictions, and most abortion seekers in these states are Black women.

The Dobbs ruling relies on a legal sleight of hand, arguing that “safe-haven adoption” laws dismiss the need for terminating pregnancies; but abortion access is just one facet of Black women’s reproductive health. Eliminating safe abortion access will lead to curtailed healthcare access for Black women, who are more likely to be uninsured, under-insured, experiencing poverty, or living in a “contraception desert,” where access to reproductive care is more precarious.

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These factors, compounded by centuries of medical racism and white supremacy, mean that Black women are three-times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women.

In other words, the conservative Court’s majority has decided that its religious orthodoxy is more important than the lives of Black women and girls.

If we want to win a long-term fight for reproductive freedom for all, Black women must be at the forefront of every aspect of that fight: structuring legislation, devising legal strategy, prioritizing advocacy demands, organizing grassroots activists, delivering health services, and more.

"If we want to win a long-term fight for reproductive freedom for all, Black women must be at the forefront of every aspect of that fight"

Unfortunately, there remain too few Black and Brown women in leadership roles in the organizations and formations that drive the national agenda for abortion rights and reproductive freedom. This is not just an ethical failing, but a tactical one. Since Plessy v. Ferguson, Black Civil Rights leaders and activists have been at the cutting edge of crafting the legal strategy necessary to confront oppression. While this creativity  unfortunately has been honed through incessant fighting for our own liberation, the knowledge that our system will never concede power without a demand is an essential starting point for this particular battle.

This knowledge, and the strategic consequences thereof, is at the heart of why we must rethink who leads social movements and how. Take the recent, highly-reported, public turmoil at the Guttmacher Institute, one of the country’s leading reproductive rights organizations. While they wasted precious resources fighting internal battles – nonetheless created by many years of refusing to acknowledge the leadership of Black women – the group was unprepared to confront the single most consequential political moment in at least two generations distinctive to their core mission.

While Guttmacher is just the most public instance of institutional actors being asleep at the switch, the rest of the reproductive rights movement is equally culpable of getting too comfortable with the status quo. The movement is characterized by a daisy-chain of related nonprofit and legal organizations, staffed mostly by well-paid, white women, forbidden from playing realpolitik by focusing on practical matters but instead are paralyzed by their 501c3 nonprofit tax status.

Listen, some of these organizations do great, important, necessary work, but that work lacks grounding in the sort of substantial, inclusive grassroots movement that could make the difference in protecting people from having their rights confiscated by conservative elites.

As a result, the real work of protecting people’s health and lives falls to Black activists at the grassroots level. People like Asia Brown, a rising senior at Spelman College who showed up every day to the Jackson, Mississippi health clinic at the center of the Supreme Court ruling, with one job: helping Black women to get safe abortions amidst a barrage of harassment from radical forced-birthers.

According to a report by NBC News, Brown recalls an older white man yelling at her outside the clinic for abetting the “killing” of future football recruits. The language is not accidental and reveals much more than what the forced-birth movement really thinks about Black lives. As states move to criminalize abortion seekers and providers alike, the disparate treatment of Black people by the criminal legal system gives us a clear roadmap for what the anti-choice movement is planning next. 

At a recent forum on reproductive justice in New York City, Olayem Olurin, a public defender with The Legal Aid Society, noted that, “When it comes to efforts to criminalize abortion, we already know who will end up being criminalized.”

Considering these factors, we must do everything possible to make sure that reproductive justice efforts are led by the Black and Brown women whose lives and livelihoods are literally at stake in this fight. Howard University Law Professor Lisa A. Crooms-Robinson suggests looking to the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery as a starting point.

"As states move to criminalize abortion seekers and providers alike, the disparate treatment of Black people by the criminal legal system gives us a clear roadmap for what the anti-choice movement is planning next."

“This is not a claim that forced pregnancy … is analogous to slavery,” she argues in a recent op-ed for NBC News, “Rather, it is a direct claim that a law protecting Black people’s reproductive health, which goes beyond abortions, is essential to Black freedom because enslavement denied Black people rights, including those recognized in Roe.”

So, what’s the plan? Let’s start by building an infrastructure of protection, bodily, legal, and otherwise, that supports our sisters who will always need access to safe maternal healthcare. We should erect institutions, organizations, and movements in the image of women like Asia Brown, who risk their lives, not because they choose to, but because they must. That means moving real resources to the people doing the work at every level of this struggle, including the grassroots activists who are consistently and tragically underfunded.

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The truth of the matter is that wealthy, white women will always have access to safe abortions, no matter the so-called law of the land. Our legal system protects the rights and property of the privileged, as usual, while pulling the rug out from under the feet of marginalized folks again and again. This is unacceptable, unconscionable, and simply put, it’s time we put an end to it.

Nekima Levy Armstrong is a civil rights attorney, activist and the executive director of the Wayfinder Foundation, which has one mission: invest in women, change the world.

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