As we honor yet another Roe v. Wade anniversary, the case that legalized the right to an abortion in the United States, the country will discuss the state of access to safe abortion care and argue over the morality of the procedure. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we’ll get to hear stories from the 30 percent of women who will choose an abortion the time they are 45. Often, the voices we hear from in the media are White women, politicians, and television pundits, rarely Black women. But These days, the tide is turning and we are fighting to make sure our own voices are rising to the top.
For far too long, those who have not, and will never have an abortion have been twisting and reshaping the narrative. Opponents of reproductive healthcare access have been using stigma and shame to erase our stories and force us to feel embarrassment and judgment for making a decision that is best for us, and our families. As Tasha Fierce explained when sharing her abortion story at EBONY.com, that mark of shame runs deep. “For Black women, our behavior reflects on Black folks as a whole, specifically other Black women—so the scope of the shame is much wider. An unintended pregnancy can call your responsibility into question, and regardless of your age, the specter of the stereotypical Black teenage mother casts a long shadow.” I know this all too well – it was the feeling I felt when faced with an unintended pregnancy at 19 years old. I knew no matter what decision I made, I would be chided for it.
When we speak openly about our abortions, we reclaim the narrative surrounding our lives, our healthcare, and our experiences – what ever it may look like. Texas State Rep. Dawnna Dukes claimed her narrative powerfully when stating on a University Texas Austin panel that she had an abortion and challenged misinformation that abortions lead to mental health issues. More recently, rapper Nicki Minaj shared her teen pregnancy and abortion story explaining, “it was the hardest thing [she’d] ever gone through.” She said she’d “be contradictory” if she wasn't pro-choice because she “wasn’t ready” and “didn't have anything to offer a child." Minaj, like many Black women, talk about their abortions with complexity and nuance, which can be difficult to understand in a 24-hour news cycle. Because of this, the emotions of how we feel about our abortions are often told for us, through political rhetoric or statistics, and rarely by us.
When we hold our heads up high and speak out, we are able to not only talk about our experiences, but also the policies that impact them. Through ‘reproductive justice’, a term coined by women of color over 20 years ago, we are able to talk about our pregnancy experiences, and how they are impacted by where we live, how much we earn, and whether we’re able get the healthcare we need, and whether we’re able to raise our children safely. Yes, the abortion rate for Black women is five times higher than our White counterparts, but however that simple statistic doesn’t encompass the lack of access to contraception, healthcare, and sexual health education that we disproportionately experience. The shuttering of clinics in Texas makes access to abortion care and contraception nearly impossible, and research has shown that Black women in the south have some of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. We need stories to make those statistics come to life. When we share our truth, we fire back at politicians who claim to care about our children, yet allow maximum family grant policies to keep our families starving in poverty. When we give voice to our experiences, we put a face to the two-thirds of women seeking an abortion who are already parents, and over 40 percent who are living in poverty. Politicians can falsely claim that we’re having babies for money or abortions for convenience, but we know that’s not true. We will not be silent any more.
“Silence is imposed on Black women as a result of being terrorized by white supremacy while navigating our humanity,” explains Jasmine Burnett, co-founder of the National Black Network for Reproductive Justice. Burnett explains that her organization pays “specific attention to the unique experiences that Black women face in asserting our worth and defending the dignity of our bodies and lives.” We must to continue to speak on our support of reproductive healthcare and how it impacts our lives, or else those who could care less about our health will continue to convince us of falsehoods. Anti-choice activists use the images of our own children, without permission, to sell us the lie that abortion clinics are more concentrated in our communities than White ones. They work hard to convince us that Black people don’t support reproductive healthcare, when in fact 76 percent believe that abortion should be covered by health insurance and over 70 percent believe that abortion services should be available and provided by a professional in our communities.
Opponents of reproductive healthcare are even working to distort Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s own legacy by rewriting history and saying that he was not supportive of our healthcare. From his own words in 1966, when Coretta Scott King accepted a Planned Parenthood award on his behalf, he explained, “For the Negro, therefore, intelligent guides of family planning are a profoundly important ingredient in his quest for security and a decent life.”
Like Zora Neale Hurston said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” If we aren’t careful, they will write our history and lives out of existence.
Fortunately, Black women are fighting back. Announced last year, the National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda seeks to center Black women’s needs and experiences in the fight for policy change and reproductive freedom. “Black women want to be their own spokespeople,” explained Marcela Howell, Strategic Director of the National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda’s Strategic Director, told ThinkProgress in an interview. “The simple fact of the matter is that the lived experiences of black women are different than other women. And that’s what reproductive justice is all about.” By lifting Black women’s voices in media, policymakers will have to take notice of our stories and our community demands.
More and more Black women are sharing their abortion stories; online, in front of lawmakers, and with our families. We all love someone who has had an abortion, whether they’ve shared their story with us or not. We must create space for the women in our lives to share their truth, no matter what it is, and support them in using it to call for change.
Speaking up can be scary. Sometimes my voice still shakes when I say, “I had an abortion.” No matter how many butterflies flutter in my belly, I still power through because inevitably, it will lead me to another young person who utters, “I had an abortion, too.” That connection is powerful, like a secret code. It’s our passcode of connection that will give us the strength to speak our truth to power. We need to be able to speak without being misheard, coopted, or ignored.
There’s so much power in speaking up, and with it we can change the conversation around abortion to one on our terms – centering our lives and our voices. “Our stories are not just about educating people about our problems so that they feel more solidly grounded in their privilege,” Burnett points out. “Assata Shakur asks a critical question: "Black self-determination is a basic right, and if we do not have the right to determine our own destinies, who does?" Black women control our destinies through telling our stories and our lives have been made visible and transformed because of it.”
Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive justice activist who shares her abortion story to fight the stigma. Renee is a writer with Echoing Ida, a Black women's writing collective named after Ida B. Wells, which highlights health disparities. Renee is a graduate student at Cornell University pursuing a Master’s in Public Administration. She currently sits on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation.