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How Black women are advancing the cause of reproductive justice

Reproductive rights are for everyone. But justice demands that those who bear the disproportionate brunt of the blow of restrictive abortion laws get their fair share of the protection.

Representative Ayanna Pressley joined House Democrats at a news conference on the "Women's Health Protection Act," on Sept. 24 in Washington, D.C.SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

When it comes to the new abortion wars, fueled by GOP state lawmakers passing increasingly draconian bans, race matters — particularly for Black women, who are uniquely threatened by these policies.

The extreme “abortion car” bans passed by Republican-led legislatures in Texas, Mississippi, and elsewhere were designed to give the Supreme Court ample opportunity to strike down Roe v. Wade and the constitutional privacy protection it affords to all child-bearing people.

I know this includes white people, particularly poorer ones. (No need to flood my Twitter mentions or inbox with the usual excoriations I get each time I write, tweet, or publicly comment on the impact of a policy on the most marginalized Americans.)


So do the growing number of organizations, led by Black women, who are demanding what they call “reproductive justice.” Reproductive rights are for everyone. But, they say, justice demands that those who bear the disproportionate brunt of the blow these restrictive abortion laws inflict get their fair share of the protection.

“That’s what reproductive justice is about,” said Marcela Howell, founder and president of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, a coalition of eight Black women’s reproductive and maternal health care advocacy organizations.

As is usually the case for understanding most aspects of American society, race is an essential element. For example, Howell said, it’s true that 57 percent of women voted for President Biden in the 2020 election. But two additional facts add clarity: 55 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump, while 90 percent of Black women cast their ballots for Biden. That context matters.

“When it comes to maternal health, it is the same thing,” Howell said. “It is Black women who die from pregnancy-related complications three to four times more than white women.”


Abortion rights demonstrators march to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, on Sept. 13.Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

The coalition is behind the Black Reproductive Justice Policy Agenda, a series of policy proposals that include ending federal abortion care bans, creating a federal preclearance requirement for state abortion laws modeled after the requirements in the Voting Rights Act, and ending “out-of-pocket” cost-sharing that makes abortion services prohibitively expensive for many.

The reproductive justice movement has started taking hold. The term is used in the House-passed Women’s Health Protection Act, whose lead sponsors include Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. That bill would essentially codify the protections in Roe, prohibiting a host of limitations on pregnant individuals’ ability to receive — and health care providers’ ability to perform — abortion services. The bill would prohibit, among other things, state laws that ban pre-viability abortions, post-viability abortion bans without exceptions for the life or health of the pregnant patient, and unnecessary regulations regarding clinic buildings or the certification or hospital admitting privileges of the provider.

“We know these bans don’t prevent all abortions,” Pressley said last week at a press conference outside of the US Capitol before the bill’s passage. “What they do is simply put safe, necessary medical care out of reach, specifically for our lowest-income sisters, our queer, trans, and nonbinary siblings, Black, brown, AAPI, and Indigenous people.”

Pressley is right that state law prohibitions cannot ban abortion from existence.

In fact, abortions in the United States had been declining long before the latest attack on access began, and the drop has been driven largely by better access to affordable contraception. According to a recent Guttmacher Institute report, one of the main drivers of that increased access was passage of the Affordable Care Act, which made no-cost contraception available to millions of Americans. That increased access has also driven a decade-long decline in adolescent abortions and pregnancies.


But the wave of abortion prohibitions aren’t about policy. They’re about control — and some are eerily reminiscent of Jim Crow laws that placed the power of enforcement in the hands of the public.

“We are now deputizing individuals to police Black and brown women getting abortions,” Howell said of a provision in Texas law that allows individuals to sue patients, providers, and those who help people access abortions.

It’s a fool’s errand to believe the road to reproductive justice runs through Congress — even Pressley’s bill is all but sure to die in the Senate. But we can’t fix a problem that we cannot see clearly, in its context. And when it comes to abortion care, Black women’s eyes are open.

Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at Follow her @KimberlyEAtkins.