Why Roe v. Wade Still Matters to Black Women 42 Years Later

by W.J. Hall

As a black woman, I was once ambivalent about abortion; often silent and never expressing any true feelings or opinions. Never wanting to claim a side, I walked the middle road; besides, I thought it was a white woman’s issue and feared being labeled ‘pro-choice’. I knew abortion was very real but it was taboo among friends, family, and colleagues. It wasn’t until I saw several Black women struggle to make sound reproductive decisions according to their best interests that I realized that my silence contributed to degradation of our rights.

As we have reached the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I reflect on the divisive and polarizing effect of abortion rights on US politics. The politicization of the womb has brought pro-life and pro-choice advocates to blows over abortion access, contraceptive methods, and mother v. fetus rights. The ongoing fight over women’s rights and reproductive justice has been littered with (mis)information and (mis)representations which have left much damage in its wake.

Often time, public representation of this debate has been lily white and void of women of color. Instead, we are left to deal with the political fallout. With anti-abortion bills being proposed in several state legislatures, now is the time to bring the voices of women of color to the forefront. Although Black women are not monolithic in morals, values, and beliefs, we must find our voices within the current reproductive justice debates.

And our voices truly do matter.

Our voices matter because we are often reminded how Black and Hispanic women account for 30% and 25% of abortions in the US, respectively. Our voices matter because we have bore witness to media campaigns suggesting our wombs are the most dangerous place for our children. Our voices matter because many of us still find it difficult to secure adequate reproductive health and contraceptive services. Our voices matter because we are falling short on conversations regarding the social contexts in which abortions happen for Black women.

Socio-economic factors are often major reasons women consider abortion. Almost 42% of women seeking abortion services had incomes 100% below the federal poverty line ($11,670 for a single person with no dependents), while 27% had incomes between 100-199% of the poverty line. Considering the economic climate today, black women are more likely to experience income and housing insecurity. Also, nearly 61% of women seeking abortion are already mothers. So it is never appropriate to assume that women who have abortions are just “looking for an easy way out”. Besides, abortions aren’t readily available for many women seeking them. Money and access to a safe clinic are hurdles that women must cross before even considering it an option. And these options are not easy for many.

Although low-income women of color tend to be a focus for reproductive justice conversations, it would be remiss to label abortion as a poor woman’s burden. Several college-educated, middle-class Black women have sought, and continue to seek, abortions for varying personal reasons. Thus, we must also be careful not to perpetuate the narrative of the ‘irresponsible’ woman. Sometimes condoms and other methods of contraception fail. It is no secret that over half of the pregnancies in the US are unintended. Further, when faced with an unintended pregnancy, every woman isn’t beaming with the joy of impending motherhood. Some women can’t afford children. Others may not want children. Some may want them, but not right now. While others many not want any more.

Let’s not forget how many women have endured blogs, tweets, and Facebook statuses accusing them of government-sanctioned black genocide and the degeneration of the black race. It was as if they are given ultimatums: Make a decision in your best interests or the interests of your race. It is unfair to hold Black women’s bodies responsible for healing the historic traumas inflicted on the Black community. That is a heavy burden to bear, a burden that is often overlooked in broader reproductive justice discourses.

How could I remain silent? Black women’s realities are valid. These stories, experiences, and decisions matter. They should not be lost in the broader conversation.

We are beginning to color this conversation as Black women are coming forth with their stories. A few high-profile black women have gone public with their experiences with abortion at varying points in lives. Most recently, Nicki Minaj shared her story of an abortion while in high school. These women were brave in owning their truths in such public, and often judgmental, spaces. However, there are many more who are silenced and shamed for their decisions.

Abortion is a very personal matter and every woman is not out to make a political statement with their decision. But, the silencing and shaming must end. In 2015, we need more voices, more representations, and more efforts to include women of color in the broader reproductive justice discourse. Despite one’s stance on abortion, reproductive injustice impacts all our lives. We must push back against the policing of black female bodies and make way for reproductive and sexual autonomy. While abortion is not a decision that every woman will make, we must respect a woman’s right to make that decision. And in the end, we should trust that Black women are more than capable of making decisions in our best interests.

Photo: Shutterstock

W.J.Hall is a PhD student living and studying sexual and reproductive health and human sexuality in North Carolina. You can follow her weekly musings on sex in real life at lifebeyondthesheets.com.

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