Organizing for Change
Profiles: Two Groups Working for Reproductive Justice
In recent years, women of color and their allies have organized a reproductive justice movement that examines how issues of race and class affect women’s abilities to exercise their reproductive rights. This dynamic movement is growing, and today many organizations and networks are taking part. The largest among them is SisterSong, a network of eighty local, regional, and national organizations (and many other affiliate organizations) representing five primary ethnic populations/ indigenous nations in the United States: African American, Arab American/Middle Eastern, Asian/Pacific Islander, Latina, and Native American/Indigenous.
The reproductive justice movement promotes a broader understanding of women’s rights and health, placing abortion within a larger framework that includes maternal and infant health, economic justice, racial equality, and ending violence against women. There are three main frameworks for addressing reproductive oppression: reproductive rights (legal structures), reproductive health (service delivery), and reproductive justice (movement building).
Organizations and individuals are working to strengthen each of these pillars and, by doing so, they are improving access for all women.
SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective
In 2010, the Georgia state legislature took up a bill that aimed to limit access to reproductive services. The new twist: The bill falsely proclaimed that women of color were being targeted by abortion providers. So-called “pro-life freedom rides” in the summer of 2010 co-opted important civil rights legacies in order to try to deny women of color access to reproductive choice. This followed on the heels of a controversial anti-abortion rights billboard campaign that called black children “an endangered species.”
“You cannot save black babies by discriminating against black women,” said Loretta Ross, national coordinator of SisterSong. “Civil rights has always been about expanding freedoms for black people, not rolling back the clock to the nineteenth century like these anti-abortionists want. Should black women again become breeders for their cause?”
True freedom, she added, ensures human rights for all people, including reproductive rights and reproductive health care options for women. When anti-abortion rights activists arrived by bus in Atlanta on July 24, SisterSong, along with SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW and SisterLove were waiting, their voices ready. This is Ross’s story from the counterrally:
More than fifty supporters came from Project South, Advocates for Youth, Feminist Women’s Health Center, the Malcolm X Movement, and of course, SPARK, SisterSong, and SisterLove. The folks were mostly African American, but a number of Latinas and some white activists came in solidarity. It was a decidedly young group, with only a few elders like me sitting back and watching them lead. We had a spirited rally for about an hour, with speeches and statements of solidarity, like from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Then the anti-abortionists’ bus and cars pulled up in front of the King Center. Staying on our side of the street as they disembarked, we started chanting. “Trust Black Women” as loudly as we could, holding up signs that read “You Can’t Steal Civil Rights” and “Women’s Rights are Human Rights.” Paris Hatcher and Tonya Williams from SPARK, and Heidi Williamson of SisterSong, led the rally with spirit and energy that really excited our side and kept everyone engaged and having fun.
We were quite surprised when the antis piled off the bus—all but four of whom were white as far as we could tell! For a campaign organized by the African-American outreach director for Priests for Life, Alveda King, it was surreal seeing all these white folks carrying signs that said “Abortion Is the #1 Killer of Black America.” Can you imagine the optics of the scene? Here’s a group of white folks claiming to save black babies being protested by mostly African-American women and men who are shouting “Trust Black Women!” Once we saw their signs, Paris instantly created a new chant: “Racism Is the #1 Killer of Black America, Not Black Women!” The ironies of the day seemed endless—when was the last time black folks protested at a white folks’ rally at the center named after Dr. Martin Luther King?
After marching in front of the tombs and reassembling on the sidewalk until they were told to move on, the antis left their side of the street and walked around the back of our demonstration to hold their prayer service on the grass behind the amphitheater where we were, possibly upon orders by the park police. Suddenly, there were no barriers, no police, nothing between the two groups. At first, everyone kept their distance—we shouted, they sang; we held up signs, they held up their hands. Then things got interesting when they decided to cross the invisible barrier and start praying over us. The park police providentially appeared and kept both sides apart.
It seemed a bit ridiculous when they started singing “We Shall Overcome” to counter our singing “Lift Ev’ry Voice.” Eventually, the heat of the day wore everyone out. They moved across the street again (not in front of the King Center) in order to finish their praying. We climbed to the top of the amphitheater to look down on them to continue our chant, “Trust Black Women!” I think we frustrated them because I’m sure many of these white folks assumed the black community of Atlanta would welcome them as saviors of the black race. It was obvious they were more than a little uncomfortable at being shouted down by black women. After about an hour and a half of this back and forth, they boarded their bus and left and so did we, but not without singing, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. Hey-hey-hey. Good-bye.”
National Advocates for Pregnant Women
In October 2010, Colorado voters rejected a ballot measure seeking to classify “preborns” as “legal persons with protection under the law.” With implications that went far beyond attempting to restrict abortion, this measure would have granted fetuses, embryos, and even fertilized eggs legal status separate from the women who carry them. The National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), an advocacy group working on behalf of all pregnant women, published a commentary criticizing the Colorado measure’s sponsor Personhood USA’s “radical fetal-separatist agenda” and helped defeat the ballot measure. Other states, including Montana and Nevada, have attempted without success to pass similar laws.
Lynn M. Paltrow, founder and executive director of NAPW, wrote, “Pregnant women could be sued, subject to child welfare interventions, or even arrested if they engaged in activities at work and at home that might be thought to create a risk to the life of the ‘preborn.’ Legally separating the ‘preborn’ from the pregnant women who sustain them will ensure that in jobs, education, and civic life, pregnant women will, once again, be unequal to men.”3
Speaking out against laws that undermine the rights of women, the NAPW formed to expand the reproductive rights movement to all parenting and pregnant women, including those who plan to continue their pregnancies to term. Through a wide array of advocacy work—including local and national organizing, litigation, public policy development, and public education—the organization works to secure reproductive rights for all women, especially underrepresented and at-risk groups such as women of color, low-income women, and women addicted to drugs or alcohol. In addition to safe and legal abortion, the organization lobbies for access to adequate prenatal health care, alternative birthing practices, support for vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC), and nonpunitive drug treatment services for pregnant women.
NAPW’s legal advocates vocally oppose the shackling of inmates during labor and the criminalization of drug addiction in pregnancy and have provided litigation support in a variety of related cases across the country. Relying on a network of more than two thousand local and national activists, the group has challenged the arrests of pregnant women charged with child endangerment for drinking alcohol and has formed alliances with other organizations to file amicus (friend of the court) briefs explaining how so‑called fetal rights laws dehumanize and criminalize pregnant women.
3. Lynn M. Paltrow, “PersonhoodUSA: Promoting a Radical, Fetal-Separatist Agenda,” Huffington Post, October 25, 2010. www.huffingtonpost.com/lynn-m-paltrow/personhoodusa-promoting-a_b_773572.html.
Excerpted from the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. © 2011, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.
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