Black Women are Finally Talking About Abortion on TV and That's a Great Thing

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by Erica Thurman

I was watching the Love and Hip Hop reunion last week, and something occurred to me. Somewhere between Olivia Pope and Amina Pankey by way of Mary Jane Paul and K Michelle, Black women are having and talking about abortions on TV.

Last fall near the intersection of reality tv and Shondaland, we saw a Black woman, Olivia Pope, get on a table, have an abortion and then go back to her job and life without seeming to miss a beat. We saw a Black woman, Mary Jane Paul, reveal the abortion she had kept secret from her family for years. We watched a Black woman, K. Michelle, express regret about having an abortion. And we followed along as a Black woman, Amina Pankey, made the decision to terminate a pregnancy while simultaneously declaring that she did have a desire to have more children. 

What we didn’t get is a “face” of a woman who has an abortion—rightfully so. The women on TV, like women who make such decisions every day, were of varying socioeconomic classes, relationship statuses, education levels, geographic regions and ages. The only thing they shared for sure was race and the fact that each one was faced with a decision to make as to whether she wanted to become a mother (again). And each one had her own reasons for coming to her decision.

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L to R: K. Michelle, Amina Pankey, Mary Jane Paul
We also didn’t get to see the challenges women face when they decide to terminate a pregnancy. States have enacted a number of barriers to women’s access to abortion. 28 states require that women undergo counseling followed by a mandatory waiting period of between 18 and 72 hours before she can have an abortion. 38 have some version of parental consent or notice for minors, with some requiring the consent of both parents. Only 17 states allow for public funding of medically necessary abortion. 32 states and D.C. having public funding in case of life endangerment, rape or incest. Even with private insurance, 11 states restrict coverage of abortion through private plans. 45 states allow health care providers to refuse to perform or participate in an abortion and 42 allow institutions to refuse to perform them. 

There are so many numbers, and women who are making difficult decisions about their health must consider all of them. Add those to the TRAP laws that regularly shut down abortion clinics, and what you have is a situation where a woman would have to take unpaid time off from work, find transportation to the nearest clinic (often hours away), have a counseling session, and then be forced to come back one to three days later to actually have the procedure. That means either a hotel stay or traveling back home and then making the trip again. A women in an abusive relationship, for example, might have a hard time getting away twice. And this assumes that she can come up with the money to have the procedure which averages $450. 

Here is what we know. Since the beginning of time, women have turned to their environment, their medicine cabinets and their non-formally trained friends for solutions to terminate a pregnancy.  Women will always have access to abortion. The question is whether they will have access to safe abortions. Several recent cases before the Supreme Court will determine whether already restricted access becomes even more restricted (Texas v. Whole Woman’s Health and Zubik v. Burwell). In places where abortion restrictions increase, there is an increase in the number of Google queries for “how to self-abort” and “how to have miscarriage.”

When access to safe abortion is denied, women of means can afford to travel to places where it is available. Salaried employees can take time off to make multiple visits as required. Women of lower socioeconomic status are the ones who will find themselves with less safe options. Those women are disproportionately women of color. 

Black women need to talk about reproductive health, and that means we need to talk about abortion. Because no matter what your stance on abortion, when women don’t have access to safe procedures, Black women are more likely to suffer. 

Deciding when, if or how to parent and being able to do all of those in a safe and healthy environment is a personal decision. It is an economic decision. It is a spiritual decision. Above all-- it is her decision. That Olivia, Mary Jane, Amina and K. Michelle are allowing us a point of departure to discuss a very real part of Black women’s health is a good thing. It is critical that we continue to have theses conversations as easily as the conversations we have about which television characters we like.

Erica Thurman is a writer, speaker and consultant with a focus on the intersectional and shared experiences of Black girls and women. More of her work can be found at

Header photo: ABC

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