This post is part of our forum on “Black Women and Reproductive Rights.”
In September 1986, former Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) member and pediatrician Melanie Tervalon spoke to an audience about the history of racism in the United States and how it shaped Black women’s perspective on the abortion rights movement. Differing from mainstream white feminists’ advocacy of reproductive rights, Black women organizers called for a more expansive definition of bodily autonomy that extended beyond access to safe abortion and contraceptives. As Tervalon articulated then, “there are a wide range of issues included under the heading of reproductive rights—right to quality prenatal care, right to bear healthy children, right to protection from sterilization abuse, right to protection from experimental and unnecessary surgery, right to information about sex…and of course, rights to safe and affordable abortions.” Tervalon’s argument was an early iteration of what we now know as reproductive justice, a framework coined by Black women activists in 1994. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Tervalon, along with Vicki Alexander, organized around these ideas and spearheaded a local campaign in Oakland, CA, against infant mortality of Black babies. Their activism and intellectualism remind today’s community organizers, educators, politicians, and health care workers that grassroots struggles are central to challenging national and state repression of people’s bodies.
Around the time Tervalon gave her 1986 speech, she was also leading the Coalition to Fight Infant Mortality (CFIM) in Oakland, CA. The Coalition was a nine-year running, community-led project that investigated Black and Brown women’s maternal health throughout the 1980s. In the spring of 1978, shockingly high infant mortality rates in Alameda County of Oakland became a focus of public attention. Outraged community members and health activists announced at a press conference that 26 babies out of every 1000 babies died before their first birthday in predominately Black East Oakland. In comparison, in the primarily white suburb of Piedmont, infant death rates were 4 per 1000 live babies. Ericka Huggins of the Black Panther Party (BPP) called a public meeting in response to this health crisis. After the meeting, a small leadership body formed of five voluntaries, including Tervalon and another TWWA member Vicki Alexander, committed to tackling the issue of infant mortality. The TWWA’s health committee created the CFIM that following year, emerging as a group of community members, health care workers, and local activists focused on challenging the high perinatal mortality rates at the only public hospital in the county that offered obstetrical services.
Tervalon traveled to California in the early 1970s by way of Harvard University’s Fellowship of Concerned University Students (FOCUS), an activist group founded to promote the needs and inclusion of low-income/racial minority students at universities. After spending just a summer in the San Francisco Bay Area, Tervalon dropped out of Harvard to commit full time to the freedom movement and permanently relocated to the region. Tervalon’s parents (Marie and Albert Tervalon) instilled in their children the importance of Black self-determination, community building, and civil rights activism. As the daughter of Louisiana migrants, Tervalon was born on September 5, 1951, in Philadelphia, PA. Her family was among the few Black families who intentionally challenged the zoning codes that prevented Black and Jewish people from owning homes in Germantown. Tervalon worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during her youth, mostly doing secretarial labor in the local office. When she met TWWA and BPP members during the summer of 1970, her radicalism was nurtured in these revolutionary circles. Through these connections, Tervalon traveled to Cuba on the fourth Venceremos Brigade. She joined the TWWA soon after returning to the Bay Area.
Black women founded the TWWA in New York during the late 1960s, and within a decade, the group rose to national prominence with affiliated branches in the California Bay Area and Seattle, WA. The TWWA was one of the largest and most influential women of color organizations in the 1970s, rooted in anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-imperialist framing of liberation. Each chapter had different community projects, and in the Bay Area, these women successfully hosted International Women’s Day celebrations and political education sessions and participated in several local protests and demonstrations. When the TWWA’s New York headquarters closed in 1977, Bay Area members continued organizing and eventually renamed their chapter the Alliance Against Women’s Oppression. Tervalon remained active in the Alliance throughout the transition, mainly working on the CFIM while also pursuing a doctorate in medicine.
Black TWWA members like Melanie Tervalon, Vicki Alexander, and Letisha Wadsworth played a central role in the formation, sustainment, and success of the CFIM. In September and again in October of 1979, the Coalition met with the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to call out their complacency with the high infant mortality rates in Oakland. Known as “a people’s physician,” obstetrician Alexander drew attention to the role racism played in Highland’s doctors’ inadequate care for poor and mostly marginalized communities. Tervalon added that an investigation committee put together by the hospital or the county would not suffice and argued for a community-based effort instead. Wadsworth, who was a childcare worker, further explained, “There’s a real marked difference in the care, health care, available to the residents of East Oakland and Piedmont…This is the deadliest form of racism. The negligent care exhibited at the OBGYN Department at Highland Hospital is an attack on the…on Third World and poor women’s capacity to bear and raise healthy children.” After the hearings, the Board refused to initiate a community-driven investigation and instead, proceeded with a Grand Jury Investigation of Highland Hospital and its obstetrics and gynecology department. The Board’s Grand Jury was mostly composed of white, male, middle-class residents of the Southern California region.
Defying the Board of Supervisors, the CFIM launched a one-year community-driven investigation on infant mortality in Alameda County. Tervalon was one of the primary researchers on the team, which also incorporated the experiences of 225 community members into their report. The CFIM’s report approached the issue from a structural lens and outlined barriers to prenatal care like “money, education, racism and sexism, transportation and translation.” Throughout the 1980s, the Coalition continued to document severe problems with the local hospital, “ranging from inadequate coordination of perinatal services and insufficient obstetrical staffing to major deficiencies in the newborn nursery.” In 1985, the CFIM filed a complaint with the State of California Department of Health Services, which resulted in additional funding for the local county hospital and a complete overhaul of the administration. CFIM volunteers circulated their quarterly newsletter to galvanize support for their cause and inform community members of their group’s progress on holding state officials accountable for the deaths of Black babies. Tervalon’s efforts to improve maternity care for poor and working-class Black and Brown women demonstrate the effectiveness of community-focused approaches to state negligence and violence.
Many women’s and queer organizations, maternal health advocacy groups, and even a few elected officials are currently protesting the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Yet, Black women’s long fight for reproductive justice reveals the unfortunate continuities of racism, sexism, and economic exploitation that disproportionately have and continue to limit poor and working-class Black people’s ability to have and raise healthy children. When Tervalon asserted, “Without control over our reproductive capacity—we are reduced to slaves to our reproductive systems—unable to circumscribe when, whether and under what condition we will have children,” she had Black mothers in mind but also Latina, Asian, and Native American women. She drew parallels between women of color’s shared experiences of sterilization abuse, medical experiments, poverty, mass incarceration, and state violence. Black women like Tervalon, Wadsworth, and Alexander situated their battles for reproductive rights in relation to other societal and economic issues, demonstrating how integral solidarity practices across movements were to sustaining long-term freedom struggles.
Approaching the modern-day bodily autonomy movement from a working-class, Black feminist perspective demands a more expansive understanding of reproductive rights. Scholars like Loretta Ross, Jennifer Nelson, Dorothy Roberts, Zakiya Luna, Patricia Zavella, and others have made important contributions to the history of Black women and the Reproductive Rights Movement, illuminating how race, gender, sexuality, reproduction, and labor have been intertwined in the fabrics of American society. The end of legalized abortions is not just a threat to reproductive rights, but also to other social justice issues.permission.