Whose Bodies? Black Lives Matter and the Reproductive Justice Imperative

Over the past several years toxic canards like “abortion is black genocide” and “the most dangerous place for a black child is the womb,” which are often cloaked in civil rights rhetoric, have been used to smear abortion and demonize black women’s bodies. In 2009, when conservative organizations began targeting communities of color with anti-abortion billboard propaganda, black and Latina women’s organizations fought back with their own billboards and media campaigns. These unrelenting assaults on the reproductive rights and self-determination of black women are epitomized by the wave of anti-abortion and anti-contraception state laws that have rocked the nation. One of the most egregious recent examples is a Missouri bill dubbed the “All Lives Matter Act,” which would define a fertilized egg as a person with rights. This blatant appropriation of the Black Lives Matter mantle is just another example of the right wing’s efforts to undermine black liberation struggle by distorting the language of human rights.

To bolster its claims that abortion is genocide, images of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger are stamped with Nazi swastikas. Historically revisionist assessments of Planned Parenthood conveniently omit the connection many early-twentieth-century progressive black activists made between family planning, birth control, abortion, and black liberation. Tellingly, Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Mary McLeod Bethune supported Sanger’s controversial work with the Birth Control Federation of America.

This past February, in an effort to address this tactic, Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists publicly aligned with reproductive justice activists. Historically, reproductive justice has always been about more than just unrestricted access to abortion and birth control. Under slavery and Jim Crow, black women had little to no control over their reproductive destinies. In addition to having the least wealth of any group in the United States, black women, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, are also more likely to get abortions—precisely because of wealth and health care disparities. Thus, for black women, reproductive justice is a precondition for mental health, wellness, bodily autonomy, and community enfranchisement. Spearheaded nationally by the Atlanta- based African-American women’s organization Sister Song, the concept of reproductive justice draws upon the notion of intersectionality, which situates women’s right to self-determination within a broader economic justice and human rights framework. As Sister Song notes:

Reproductive justice is a positive approach that links sexuality, health, and human rights to social justice movements by placing abortion and reproductive health issues in the larger context of the well-being and health of women, families, and communities because reproductive justice seamlessly integrates those individual and group human rights particularly important to marginalized communities. We believe that the ability of any woman to determine her own reproductive destiny is directly linked to the conditions in her community and these conditions are not just a matter of individual choice and access.

Discussing the relationship between Black Lives Matter activism and reproductive justice in a February 9 statement published at the daily news site Color Lines, BLM co-founder Alicia Garza maintained:

I think from our perspective, reproductive justice is very much situated within the Black Lives Matter movement. And the way we that talk about that is that essentially, it’s not just about the right for women to be able to determine when and how and where they want to start families, but it is also very much about our right to be able to raise families, to be able to raise children to become adults…. And that is being hindered by state violence in many different forms. One form being violence by law enforcement or other state forces, and the other form of crisis through poverty and lack of access to resources and lack of access to health communities that are safe and sustainable. So we certainly understand that BLM and reproductive justice go hand in hand.

This is an important juncture in the BLM movement because it further broadens its scope, making an explicit connection between anti-abortion legislation, reactionary misogynist, anti-black “messaging,” and economic justice activism. BLM’s embrace also comes at critical moment in the national mobilization over women’s rights. As the Supreme Court weighs HB2, a Texas law requiring that doctors who perform abortions at local health clinics have hospital admitting privileges, the threat to health care for poor and working class women has deepened. If the court upholds this dangerous law, Texas would be left with as few as nine abortion clinics, and other states would have the right to enforce similar laws. The insidious implications of this shift should be a catalyst for further intersectional organizing—bringing together humanist, feminist, and progressive voices against the forces of religious and political fascism.

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