Thanks to the reproductive justice collective SisterSong and the group’s allies and partners, reproductive justice is a phrase and a concept well-known within the reproductive health and rights movement. But it wasn’t always that way. In 1994, a group of Black women issued a very public call to action in the Washington Post demanding that the healthcare needs of the most marginalized be included in President Clinton’s healthcare reform legislation. Specifically, they demanded universal health care and spoke to the necessity for Black women’s access to reproductive health care. They called reproductive freedom “a life and death issue for many Black women” and said it “deserves as much recognition as any other freedom.” The group, Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, helped catapult these ideas and organized Black women around the country in support of reproductive justice and the intersection of human rights and reproductive rights for women of color.
More than twenty years later, SisterSong continues their work to achieve reproductive justice for women of color and indigenous women. This weekend SisterSong celebrates their twentieth anniversary with the third national “Let’s Talk About Sex” conference in New Orleans. The conference is a multi-faceted discussion about sex, reproductive health and rights, oppression — and the importance of Black women reclaiming their human right to bodily autonomy. As Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong shared on a call Tuesday:
Women of color in this country have always understood what reproductive justice is because it is an intersectional framework and rooted in human rights. It promotes our human right to have children if we want, to not have children if we choose, to have the resources necessary to do so, and to parent those children in healthy and safe environments. It’s about our human right to self determination.
Black women have been fighting for reproductive justice in this country since slavery. Enslaved Black women’s bodies were used for profit, forced into birthing children for more profit. The sterilization of Black women without their consent continued well into the 20th century in the United States. Other women of color, including indigenous women, fared no better. The birth control pill was tested on Puerto Rican women without their consent. And as Simpson notes, colonialism stripped Native women of their reproductive rights — rights they are still fighting for to this day.
There is no shortage of reasons to fight for reproductive justice in this moment in time. Our current presidential administration has shown itself hostile to reproductive rights and the health care needs of the most marginalized people and specifically Black women. Republican legislators seem intent on stripping away abortion access.
Women of color continue to fight for their right to live their lives free of oppression and exploitation. Their access to high-quality, affordable health care remains severely limited. Black women die during pregnancy, childbirth, and the year immediately following childbirth at nearly four times the rate of white women. In New York City, Black women are 12 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. And the bodies and lives of women of color — like Purvi Patel, who was arrested and convicted of feticide for inducing an abortion — continue to be criminalized.
Simpson argues that reproductive justice is about more than pregnancy, birth, and parenting. It’s about more than abortion access. It’s why SisterSong’s conference is titled “Let’s Talk About Sex”:
We can’t talk about reproductive justice and not talk about sex: the thing that gives us pleasure, the thing that is sometimes criminalized and sometimes fraught with violence. The conference will help us talk about what reproductive oppression is, along with the exploitation of our sexuality and our labor. Our national conference is all about these intersections for women of color and gives us a chance and the space to talk about all of these issues.
The current political climate makes it even more urgent for all allies to support, amplify and center the voices and lives of women of color in the fight against oppression. Women of color have led the way in the fight for reproductive justice because the claws of reproductive oppression have taken hold of most aspects of their lives. The conference allows space for women of color to chart a new path forward. Monica Simpson offers a call to action for those both attending the conference and to women of color everywhere, “We must resist the systems of oppression plaguing our lives and reclaim our human right to bodily autonomy and to redefine our future for ourselves.”
If you’re not attending the “Let’s Talk About Sex” conference in person but want to follow along, join the conversation and amplify the voices and work of women of color using #LTAS17