Black Women’s Expansive Vision For Reproductive Freedom

This post is part of our forum on “Black Women and Reproductive Rights.”

Demonstrators participating in the 2021 Women’s March protest near the United States Supreme Court (Ben Von Klemperer / Shutterstock.com)

When Elaine Brown took the helm of the Black Panther Party in the early 1970s, she declared that she “would support every assertion of human rights by women—from the right to have an abortion to the right of equality with men as laborers and leaders.” Brown stated her pro-abortion stance a year after Roe v. Wade was codified but when it was still unclear how the law would affect Black women. She also began to shift the Party’s focus toward holistic health care practices, claiming that Black women needed more than a Supreme Court decision to have access to safe abortion and exercise their reproductive choice. This approach was in line with Black Panthers’ support of the principle of self-determination—the right to determine one’s life and future.

During the Black Power movement, self-determination became a rallying cry across the African Diaspora. Black women activists seized on this principle and shaped it to fit their reproductive rights and needs. They created a network of ideas, programs, and advocacy that supported Black women’s ability to determine if and how they wanted to have children, how to manage their health should they choose to have an abortion, and how to protect themselves from legal ramifications when they did. Living in a world where it was unclear if abortion would ever be legal, activists constantly imagined a future that was not rooted in the law. They built an expansive and holistic understanding of reproductive rights, rooted in Black women’s right to self-determination. Their organizing provides a path forward amid the end of Roe.

For the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA), reproductive education was a central tenet of self-determination. The Alliance developed out of a Black women’s caucus in the Student Non-Violent Coordination Committee (SNCC), and championed a globally minded, women-centered form of Black Power politics. Many TWWA members had personally experienced or witnessed the devastating effects of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions. They saw a direct correlation between efforts to keep women “ignorant” about their bodies and the state’s effort to deny them options when determining their reproductive choices. The Alliance set up health workshops to educate members about female anatomy, birth control, and the reproductive process. Members reprinted the information disseminated in these workshops in their newspaper, Triple Jeopardy, to promote the wider reach of reproductive health information. TWWA leader Frances Beal explained that members were liberating themselves “from the vagary of biology.” She argued that education would result in women being better able to choose at what point and in what capacity they wanted to engage in childbearing.

The TWWA also partnered with organizations like the Black Panther Party to help support Black women’s reproductive health. Even as they gained a reputation as a brash, patriarchal organization, the Panthers created health care options to support the reproductive health of women. A key prong of the Party’s mission was to protect Black people from the harms of the state. Chief among them was the racist health care system that left Black people segregated, without adequate health care resources, and blamed them for their own poor outcomes. In 1968, the Party established People’s Free Health Care Clinics in local chapters across the country to meet the basic health care needs of their communities. Panther women like Audrea Jones managed, staffed, and fundraised for the clinics in an effort to provide Black women with comprehensive care and empower them to take control of their health care decisions—reproductive and otherwise. As women took over Party leadership in the early 1970s, they transformed the organization into a space that actively advocated for abortion rights, supported Black doctors who provided abortions, and fought against the Hyde Amendment, which limited federal funds for abortion. Panther leaders also published articles on reproductive health and connected fair housing, employment, and welfare rights to a woman’s right to choose.

Black women thinkers and organizers were also invested in using the law to help mitigate the harms of exercising reproductive choice. Before Roe v Wade, lawyers, feminists, and Black Power activists like Florynce Kennedy worked to legalize abortion through Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, a 1970 lawsuit that was the first constitutional challenge to abortion and featured women who had undergone illegal abortions, rather than medical professionals, as expert witnesses. Born in Kansas City and educated at Columbia Law School, Kennedy was a committed activist participating in everything from Black Power conferences to picket lines for women’s rights. Kennedy conducted interviews with women who had abortions and then deposed them on the record, outmaneuvering rival counselors who tried to delegitimize their testimony and experiences. As her biographer Sherie Randolph explained, Kennedy made the proceedings “an open political tribunal and a protest rally.” She was successful. Lawyers deployed the strategy of using women plaintiffs to win Roe v. Wade.

Black Power activists organized in a moment akin to where we find ourselves now: without constitutional protections, under a heightened surveillance state, and amid a heavily armed police force designed to criminalize anyone who dares to defy unjust laws. These women, and countless others, organizing in the 1960s created a reproductive justice infrastructure that included information, health and legal support, and, when needed, cover for “criminal acts” in order to help Black women survive. Beal, Brown, Kennedy, were among the many who understood that they could not rely on anyone or any institution to save them.

Supreme Court decisions never stopped anyone—white or Black—from acting illegally. Abortions have always and will always continue to happen, they will just be more unsafe.

Organizers’ personal and political experiences confirmed that federal laws did not guarantee protection from daily acts of oppression and that the state privileges the rich, white few over the many poor, Black and Brown people in America. They witnessed and understood what is now becoming clear for many today: that the roll back of voting rights, the further militarization of the police, the dehumanization of women in the press and popular culture, the lack of universal parental leave or childcare, and the criminalization of parents who don’t meet society standards are all part of the fabric of reproductive rights. Those with white privilege and financial means will always find a way to have safe access to abortion without criminalization. Black women will undoubtedly endure the brunt of the harms—everything from incarceration to death—for exercising self-determination over their bodies.

Yet, Black Power-era activists were not deterred, and we will not be either. All is not lost with the repeal of Roe. We must do what we can to reinstate legal protections. But this is also a moment when we can push for a broader understanding of reproductive justice that extends beyond legal decisions. It is a moment when we can and should build upon the already existing networks of organizers who can and will continue to provide abortions, to expand health care networks to child bearers, and to bolster education and childcare opportunities for all people in our communities. Black women organizers have offered us an example for how to develop spaces to learn about reproductive rights, support bodies and health, and engage in legal fights. Let’s follow their example, stop focusing on one legal decision, and start creating a world where all people can safely decide what reproductive freedom means to them.

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Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer is an Associate Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, is the first intellectual history of women in the black power movement. Follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer.

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