Edited by Jamilah Lemieux
While driving through Memphis, Tenn., last spring, Cherisse Scott passed anti-abortion billboards, paid for by Prolife Across America, which stated, “Dad’s princess #︎♥︎beat at 18 days” next to the smiling face of a Black infant. Scott, founder and CEO of SisterReach, a nonprofit committed to supporting reproductive autonomy for women and girls, launched a campaign to remove the billboards from the city’s Black communities, claiming the ads are a racialized attempt to create division between Black men and women. “They are inflammatory and racist,” Scott tells EBONY. “They were put up to make us invisible and dismiss why we have to have abortions.”
According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly 1 in 3 women will have an abortion by age 45. Research shows Black women make up one-third of American women who have abortions, although only 13 percent of the U.S. female population. Black women are disproportionately more likely to have an abortion, a fact the Guttmacher Institute attributes to the lack of consistent access to quality contraception and health care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports Black women are also three to four times more likely than White women to die from pregnancy-related causes. For some, access to contraception and safe abortion care can mean the difference between life and death.
In response, SisterReach erected its own billboards to highlight the need for access to quality schools, health care, transportation and safe neighborhoods. “We’re pushing back to change the narrative,” states Scott. “We don’t need outsiders to tell us about our lives.” She says this mission is not only about abortion; it’s also about ensuring Black women can raise their families with dignity, with a living wage and without fear of violence.
Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, believes it is important to fully understand how abortion fits into Black women’s lives. A 2010 report from the Insight Center for Community Economic Development found that single Black women have a median wealth of $100, compared to $41,500 for White women. “Given the wealth disparities Black women face, it’s even more important that they have the freedom and agency to decide whether and when they become parents,” she explains.
A recent study from the University of California supports Hernandez’s theory; women who sought an abortion but were turned away due to the state’s gestational limits were three times as likely to be living in poverty two years later than those who were able to access the procedure. Researchers say this is reflective of the economics of abortion, with the Guttmacher Institute finding three-quarters of women citing inability to afford a child and the impact it would have on the children they already have as reasons for wanting an abortion. Data reveals that over 60 percent of women seeking abortions had at least one child, with more than 30 percent already parenting more than two children. Hernandez says the ability to access abortion care could “mean securing economic sustainability to become the parent they want to be and have the families they want to have.”
A 2013 poll conducted by Belden Russonello Strategists LLC found that 80 percent of African-Americans believe abortion should be legal and accessible, regardless of personal stances about the issue, with the opinions remaining favorable among weekly church attendees and conservatives. Rev. Emma Akpan, a North Carolina-based member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, feels this is why faith leaders must move away from talking about abortion in a stigmatizing way, because it isn’t representative of what communities actually believe. “That rhetoric is dangerous because women who may need an abortion one day sit in our pews. It leads them to believe that they are sinful to request an essential piece of reproductive health care.”
Of course, not everyone supports a woman’s right to choose. Ryan Bomberger of the Radiance Foundation, an organization that creates anti-abortion multimedia ads targeted at the Black community, believes there is no lack of access to contraception for Black women and that abortion, not police brutality, is the civil rights issue of today. He says he also believes heterosexual families and “truth” are the “best weapons” against poverty, not access to abortion. Bomberger and many Republican politicians support crisis pregnancy centers, some of which have been found to distribute incorrect medical information in order to convince women not to seek abortions. Recently, California took action to regulate crisis pregnancy centers and curb the spread of falsehoods.
The Other issues
Scott says she’s open to working with anti-choice legislators to ensure pregnant Black women have access to health care, housing and food, but she feels her hands are tied by legislation such as Tennessee’s Fetal Assault Law, which criminalizes pregnant women who are found with illegal drugs in their systems. Rather than receiving rehabilitation, they are sent to prison, Scott explains. “How are we creating a healthy and safe environment for people when they are scared to walk through the doors of a hospital or doctor’s office?” asks Monica Raye Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, a reproductive justice organization based in Atlanta. “This does not promote family values. Instead, it further perpetuates the dismantling of the Black family, which weakens our communities.”
For many advocates, the fight for reproductive rights also extends to standing up for women behind bars. Pregnant prisoners often lack access to proper care and are legally shackled during labor in 29 states. “This practice is barbaric and inhumane and should be abolished,” says La’Tasha Mayes, executive director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice. “Anti-shackling is a baseline [in the fight for health care] for pregnant incarcerated women,” notes Mayes, whose organization fights for pre- and post-natal service, abortion and contraceptive care for imprisoned individuals. The Sentencing Project found that 1 in 19 Black women is likely to be incarcerated, compared with 1 in 118 White women. In addition, the American Medical Association says that between 5 and 10 percent of women are pregnant when they enter correctional facilities.
Of slogans such as “Black Lives Matter, Beginning in the Womb,” Mayes says, “It is absolutely shameful that during a transformative movement to liberate Black people in this country, those who oppose the human rights of Black women to control our own bodies seek to co-opt [protest language, such as] #BlackLivesMatter while attempting to undermine the reproductive justice movement.”
Bomberger disagrees: “We extolled the truth that Black lives mattered long before the dishonest and propaganda-ridden hashtag movement.”
Laying Down the Laws
According to the Guttmacher Institute, states have passed 231 restrictions on abortion since 2011, more than were passed between 2000 and 2010 combined.
Majority Republican legislatures continue to pass Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws, which force clinics to undergo expensive construction changes—including widening hallways and upgrading procedure rooms to hospital standards fit for open heart surgery—or shut down. Abortion opponents say the laws are designed to make abortion safer, yet research shows complications take place in less than 1 percent of the pregnancy terminations.
In 2013, parts of House Bill (HB) 2, Texas’ TRAP law, went into effect, shuttering some clinics and banning abortion after 20 weeks. Although opponents of HB 2 have taken their case to the Supreme Court, its effects are already being felt: In 2012, Texas had 41 abortion providers and, depending on how the Court rules, could have fewer than 10.
Legislatures are also making accessing abortion at remaining clinics increasingly difficult. Currently, 28 states require waiting periods of either 24 or 72 hours, which forces patients to make multiple trips to the clinic. “We found that poor women and those living more than 20 miles from a [Texas] clinic were significantly more likely to say it was difficult to get to these extra, unnecessary visits, and one-third of the women reported the waiting period had a negative effect on their emotional well-being,” says Daniel Grossman, M.D., of his research at Ibis Reproductive Health. At present, 17 states mandate counseling, some of which require physicians to educate patients on long-term mental health issues and disseminate medically inaccurate information linking abortion to breast cancer.
Four states—Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming—have only one abortion provider, and more states are slated to join that list. Advocates say the right to abortion is meaningless without access, something many Black women may soon lose, if they haven’t already.
For nearly 40 years, the Hyde Amendment has prohibited Medicaid recipients, military personnel and others who receive their health insurance through the government from accessing abortions by banning federal funds from covering it. The EACH Woman Act, introduced by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), seeks to end all abortion-coverage bans. “The EACH Woman Act will get us closer to a day when the right to an abortion is not only a right in words but in reality,” offers Hernandez. Fifteen states allow state Medicaid funds to cover abortion, but if clinics continue to close, advocates believe it may not matter because the ability of a woman to terminate her pregnancy has already been decimated in many states.
As more clinics close and access dwindles, advocates point to the hypocrisy of pro-life politicians allowing Black families to live in poverty. “If they truly cared for Black lives, they would be present for all issues that impact Black people,” says Simpson. “They would invest their money and time building relationships with grassroots communities instead of exploiting and shaming people for their human right to self-determine.”
Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive justice activist and writer with Echoing Ida, a Black women’s writing collective. She holds a master’s degree in public administration from Cornell University, serves as the policy representative for the National Network of Abortion Funds and sits on the board of directors for NARAL Pro-Choice America.