Black women and the fight for the right to abortion:
By Natelege Whaley
Faye Wattleton, the first black woman to serve as president of Planned Parenthood, rose on the steps of the Supreme Court in the summer of 1989 to condemn her decision in the abortion rights case Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. The High Court had ruled that states had the right to limit access to abortion.
“This Supreme Court ruling once again slaps poor women in the face and says you don’t have constitutional protections if your state sees fit to restrict them, and you don’t have the resources to get around those restrictions. “, Wattleton said, according to an August 1989 New York Times report. not belong to you.’
The Webster decision upheld a Missouri law that prohibited state-sponsored abortions in public facilities and public employees from performing abortions, prohibited pro-abortion counseling, and stated that physicians must perform blood tests. viability for the fetus when a woman was 20 weeks pregnant or more. Opponents of the ruling saw this as a threat to the landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, who asserted that access to safe and legal abortions is a constitutional right.
Wattleton and other black civil rights activists, lawmakers and icons were fed up with the new debate over women’s right to choose. For the most part, the voices of black women had been excluded from the conversation about abortion access.
Until the summer of 1989.
That year, 16 black women made history by issuing the first collective statement advocating equal access to abortion, “We Remember: African-American Women are for Reproductive Freedom.” Retired U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm, soon-to-be-elected U.S. Representative Maxine Waters and civil rights activist Dorothy Height were among the notable names who signed the unprecedented pamphlet. Many points in the pamphlet amplified some of Wattleton’s statements that day in the Supreme Court.
“Now, once again, someone is trying to say that we can’t deal with freedom of choice,” the document reads. “Only this time they are saying that African American women cannot think for themselves and therefore cannot be allowed to make serious decisions. Someone says we shouldn’t have the freedom to take charge of our personal lives and protect our health, that we only have limited rights over our bodies.
September marks the 30th anniversary of the statement’s first distribution, at anti-apartheid demonstrations, anti-rape rallies and other public places. In commemorating this public statement, there are parallels to the state of abortion access in America today. Under the Trump administration, reproductive health advocates say Roe v. Wade could be overruled, which experts say could have devastating effects for low-income women of color. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2014 black women made up 28% of people seeking abortions, compared to 36% of white women and 25% of Hispanic women. Meanwhile, 60% of black American adults say abortions should be legal in all or most cases, according to a 2018 Pew Center research report.
It was in a similar context that black women came together to create the “We Remember” brochures. Ordinary black women who were ashamed to speak publicly about their abortions now had the support of some of the most powerful black women in the country. The brochure supported their rights to full ownership of their bodies and addressed the impact of racism and poverty on these decisions.
“We black women, who have been very active in reproductive politics for a long time, felt like leaders without a constituency,” said Loretta Ross, a professor at Arizona State University in Phoenix, organizer of the brochure and co-founder. of the reproductive justice movement in 1994. “We represented black women who went to clinics, but no one gave them permission to admit what they were doing. They spoke with their feet rather than their mouths.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision, Donna Brazile, a founding member and organizer of the National Political Congress of Black Women, hosted a conference call with prominent black women, including Ross, then director of the Women of Color Program at the National Organization for Women, and Byllye Avery, founder of the National Black Women’s Health Project, now Black Women’s Health Imperative.
The National Political Congress of Black Women and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women were among the few black women’s organizations that spoke out proactively on abortion rights, according to Ross.
“A number of them spoke out, but they had to be persuaded because they were afraid of alienating what they perceived as their religious affiliation,” the activist said. There was also the stigma that supporting abortion rights meant supporting black genocide. Not everyone on the call signed the document, Ross explained.
Avery, whom Ross described as having the strongest position in the reproductive freedom movement in the black community, suggested the group write a pamphlet, the most common form of distributing new ideas in the public forum at the era before political hashtags spread the word about campaigns. . The pamphlet would serve as a permission slip to speak out on abortion access, Avery said, because many leaders were afraid of being punished by their constituents for supporting the right to choose.
Faye Wattleton was the first African American and the youngest ever elected president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the first woman since Margaret Sanger to hold the office. She is best known for her contributions to family planning, reproductive health, and pro-choice activism. As a nursing student at Columbia University, Wattleton watched a woman die from a botched abortion. She understood that the fight for safe and legal abortions was also about the fight against racism, sexism and poverty. According to an article in the Baltimore Sun (1990), “In 1989, after the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services decision granted states the right to limit abortions, Wattleton told a crowd on the steps of the Supreme Court: ‘This decision slaps the again poor women in the face and says you don’t have constitutional protections if your state sees fit to restrict them and you don’t have the resources to get around those restrictions. “
The Baltimore Sun reporter wrote that the United States needs to re-educate before it can correct its gender confusion (a recent national survey found widespread ignorance about basic sexuality issues), sexually transmitted disease crises and a rising birth rate among the poor. , young women, said Wattleton. “It means a very radical change in the way we see ourselves, but also in the way we see our children and their sexual development. The lack of comfort with sexual issues on the one hand, the dissemination of explicitly sexual material and ideas at the same time as we repress knowledge and information, I’m sure, from the perspective of someone who looks at us from afar, is special indeed,” says Wattleton. “But I think it really reflects the remnants of our Puritan traditions, which were pretty hypocritical even then, by the way. . . We have a tragic record to show for that.