How #BlackLivesMatter Commits Me Further to Reproductive Justice

by Atima Omara

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t be driving long distances by yourself,” said my husband.

I blinked hard.

My husband, who was raised by a very feminist mother and grandmother, is legitimately one of the most feminist men I know. But I could tell my solid rock of a partner was really shaken up by the police video of Sandra Bland, an unarmed young Black woman who died in police custody after being stopped for failing to signal during a lane change.

“Honey, I can’t NOT live,” I said quietly.

Between the Black Lives Matter movement that was even more on fire after the death of Sandra and my day job working for a reproductive rights organization, I was feeling the need as an African American woman to hold onto the walls a little more than normal as of late.

Why? I’ve never had more of a sense that being a Black woman who is educated, has some resources, and knows her rights doesn’t mean a hill of beans towards being able to live my life with dignity and free from violence. Sandra Bland’s police stop video drove that home for me in no uncertain terms. She was a Black woman who knew it wasn’t a crime to smoke in her own car, but from the immediate annoyance in the voice of the police officer, he didn’t seem to care about that. Sandra had stepped out of her place and she needed to be put back in it. If I follow everything to the letter of the law, and assert my rights, I am punished, with potential imprisonment, unlike my white counterparts.

Yet, #BlackLivesMatter is so much more than a protest against police brutality and criminal justice reform, although it is a movement created by the desire to address these issues. #BlackLivesMatter, much like reproductive justice, is the right to live and to live a quality life with dignity, free from violence and injustice. Reproductive justice is not only the right to not have children, through ensuring equal and unfettered access to abortion and contraception, but it is also the right to have children and parent them in a safe and healthy environment.

Where reproductive justice echoes the refrains of Black Lives Matter is if we choose to have children, many of us (if not all) have asked ourselves, what is the point, if my child can’t walk down the street doing normal kid things like buy some skittles at the store like Trayvon Martin, or play in the park like Tamir Rice, because of a racism that profiles people of color as likely criminals? Reproductive justice is based on the human right to make personal decisions about one’s life, and the expectation that government and society will ensure that the conditions are suitable for implementing one’s decisions. Reproductive justice is relevant to women of color of all socioeconomic backgrounds and experiences. Because even with resources as a woman of color who is healthy, institutional racism can make access to quality health care, even when it’s affordable, untenable.

If I should have children, I will be able to get quality maternal health care. Yet, reports say Black women are 2 to 6 times more likely to die from complications of pregnancy than white women, depending on where they live. Nobody really knows why, but “quality of prenatal delivery and postpartum care, as well as interaction between health-seeking behaviors and satisfaction with care may explain part of this difference.” Black women, regardless of class, tend to be undertreated or ignored by their health providers, resulting in quality of care neglect which is one of the two major factors that doctors have known to impact maternal health. In short, while Black women’s health definitely plays a factor, structural racism affecting the quality of health care services is inescapable.

This structural racism plays out further regarding access to abortion care and family planning services. According to a Guttmacher Institute report, regardless of income level, Black women have higher abortion rates than whites or Hispanics, except for women below the poverty line, where Hispanic women have slightly higher rates than Black women. Additionally, because Black women are three times more likely to experience an unintended pregnancy, they are more likely to have an abortion. Unintended pregnancy has been higher with Black women due to historical disparities in access to and effective use of contraceptives.

To tackle these issues, we’ve been making the right moves legislatively with the July 8th introduction of the Each Woman Act, a bill that, if successful, would remove federal restrictions on abortion coverage. This is key considering women of color make up a majority of Medicaid enrollees – 40.9% of Medicaid enrollees are African American females. If this ban was lifted, so many more women would be able to afford the care they need without making financial sacrifices of the necessities to access the health care they need.

The last several weeks, with the attacks on Planned Parenthood and the threats to defund them, have once again left me clinging to the walls in a state of disbelief. Planned Parenthood provides services to women of all backgrounds, but especially to women of color. In some areas, Planned Parenthood is the only clinic many can get to for any health care. I know the importance of reproductive justice to the overall goal of #BlackLivesMatter and ensuring that not only my generation, but rising generations of Black people, can not only choose to parent without the fear a child will be shot for the crime of being a Black child in the wrong place at the wrong time, but they will also live a life with access to the health care services they need to live a quality life.

Photo: Shutterstock

Atima Omara is the vice president of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project. She is a member of the board of directors of the Planned Parenthood Metro Washington Action Fund.

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