Health

How Black Women Are Reclaiming The Conversation About Abortion Access

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When the media covers issues related to reproductive health and rights, they’re usually talking to white women.

The most prominent national pro-choice groups — Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the National Abortion Federation — are all led by white women. They’re the easiest sources for the media to call on, so they’re the voices that usually wind up at the forefront of discussions about the gaps in access to health care services like birth control and abortion. But, since those disparities fall along racial and economic lines, that often leaves women of color absent from conversations about the health issues shaping their own communities.

That’s why the leaders of five black women’s reproductive justice organizations have launched a new national partnership to elevate the work of non-white activists in this space. On Thursday morning, those groups premiered their agenda at a policy briefing entitled “In Our Own Voice.”

“Black women want to be their own spokespeople,” Marcela Howell, the strategic director for the new National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, told ThinkProgress. “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.”

Two decades ago, women of color coined the term “reproductive justice” to articulate a paradigm shift toward a broader agenda that isn’t necessarily reflected in pro-choice activism. Rather than simply focusing on the right to a legal abortion, the reproductive justice framework is concerned with the range of oppressions that prevent black women from making their own decisions about their families.

This past fall, the reproductive justice movement marked its 20-year anniversary. But the media is often complicit in erasing black women’s work in this area. For instance, a recent New York Times article about Planned Parenthood’s shift away from a narrow definition of “pro-choice,” a central tenet of reproductive justice, failed to include any context about the efforts across the country led by women of color.

La’Tasha Mayes, the executive director of New Voices Pittsburgh, one of the groups participating in the new initiative, hopes that lifting up the voices of reproductive justice advocates will prevent that from happening in the future. “The national, state, and local press will know that there are no more excuses — it’s not acceptable to say you didn’t know black women are doing this work,” Mayes told ThinkProgress.

Leaders from the five organizations — Black Women for Wellness, Black Women’s Health Imperative, New Voices Pittsburgh, SisterLove, and SPARK Reproductive Justice Now — are hoping to facilitate a long-term shift in the way that the pro-choice community approaches issues that primarily impact women of color.

“It’s one sense to have an issue that reproductive justice issues are important, but now there’s a sense of who needs to take the lead,” Dr. Willie Parker, an OB-GYN who provides abortion care and who spoke at Thursday’s event, told ThinkProgress. “The people who should be driving the bus, so to speak, are the people who are mostly affected by the issue.”

According to Howell, that involves pursuing three main goals: Establishing a leadership voice for black women at the national level, building a coordinated grassroots strategy to get young women involved, and laying the foundation for ongoing policy change regarding issues that impact communities of color. Advocates are mainly focused on working toward abortion access, contraception access, and comprehensive sexuality education — particularly after commissioning a poll among African American adults that revealed strong support for those policy areas.

The reproductive justice leaders who spoke with ThinkProgress said they’re optimistic about continuing to make black women a central part of the ongoing conversation about reproductive health issues, particularly as the new GOP-controlled Congress advances attacks on abortion access in 2015. They believe the new partnership will help them achieve that.

“Our goal is to create a national black reproductive justice organization over the next several years, and this is the beginning of that process,” Mayes said. “I would say that this is a pivotal moment… We’re finally bringing the voices and the lives of black women to the table.”