The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why black women issued a public demand for ’reproductive justice’ 25 years ago

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This story has been updated.

In the summer of 1994, a group of black women gathered to discuss the unique needs of women of color and poor women that were not being addressed in the women’s rights movement, which has historically been framed by the interests of middle-class and wealthy white women. The group called itself Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice and called for an intersectional approach to women’s health care. The women drafted a statement, addressed to “members of Congress,” and collected more than 800 signatures. They publicized the statement via full-page ads on Aug. 16, 1994, in The Washington Post and Roll Call.

“Reproductive freedom is a life and death issue for many Black women and deserves as much recognition as any other freedom,” read the statement, which demanded that health-care reform provide funding not just for abortion but also “the full range of reproductive services,” including prenatal care, contraception and screening and treatment for cancer, STDs and HIV/AIDS. The statement also asserted that the health care plan “must include strong anti-discriminatory provisions to ensure the protection of all women of color, the elderly, the poor and those with disabilities. In addition, the plan must not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.”

Monica Simpson was a high school freshman in North Carolina when the ad was published. Today she is executive director of SisterSong, which was formed a few years after and took on the mantle of reproductive justice. Simpson, 40, who came out as queer when she was in college, had long been active in social justice causes when she learned about the organization while attending a conference in 2007. She said she was drawn to SisterSong and the reproductive justice movement because of their intersectional emphasis. “I didn’t have to compartmentalize or check one of my identities at the door,” Simpson, who joined the Atlanta-based organization in 2010 as a development coordinator, said. The organization, whose full name is SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, focuses on advocacy work, including training community organizers, doing direct action, and hosting regional and national conferences and discussions to give people the tools to advocate for themselves and their communities.

Simpson talked to About US about the renewed attention to the reproductive justice movement. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The movement is 25 years old, but it seems that only recently we’ve started hearing the term. What’s changed?

The leadership of people of color is on the rise in the country. People are understanding that taking a single-issue approach doesn’t help us get to liberation. RJ has always been intersectional because RJ understands that we do not live single-issue lives. Historically it has been large, mainstream, white-led organizations whose voices get amplified, and the tide is changing and more people are understanding that folks of color are working at this and using an intersectional analysis. The voices and experiences of communities of color is what’s making our collective resistance so strong at this moment. It’s also about the political moment that we’re in right now, when we heard Stacey Abrams talk about reproductive justice in her response to the State of the Union and Julián Castro talked about reproductive justice during the first debate. It’s starting to show up in the political arena, and that’s helping bring more people to the conversation around reproductive justice.

What’s the difference between reproductive justice and abortion rights?

RJ is the human right to have a child, to not have a child, to parent the children that we have in healthy and safe environments, to make sure there aren’t food deserts or contaminated water or police bullets, conditions that do not make communities safe for the children we bring into the world. It’s rooted in the human rights framework. Ultimately RJ is about the human right to bodily autonomy and self-determination. It doesn’t just focus solely on abortion, but it also unapologetically centers it. RJ also centers the most marginalized and actively works to dismantle systems of oppression that historically have made it so that a choice is not always possible for marginalized communities.

SisterSong is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against the state of Georgia. What is the goal of the lawsuit?

The federal lawsuit, brought on behalf of reproductive justice advocates, health-care providers and their patients, seeks immediate relief to prevent enforcement of Georgia’s abortion ban before the Jan. 1, 2020, effective date. The Georgia legislature passed House Bill 481 on March 29, 2019, and the governor signed the bill into law on May 7, 2019. We argue that HB 481 bans practically all abortions in the state and disproportionately affects people of color, people struggling financially and rural Georgians, who are least able to access medical care. Georgians face some of the highest rates of maternal and infant deaths in the nation, especially among Black Georgians. We refuse to return to a day where the state is making decisions about our bodies and reproduction.

Public opinion polls suggest that most Americans support access to abortions, so how is it that the minority view seems to be driving the direction, if not winning, on this issue?

This has been a long, very well-orchestrated effort to get us to this place where abortion access is as restrictive as possible and ultimately a rolling-back of Roe v. Wade. This is not by accident. Voter suppression in real. Gerrymandering is real. Our statehouses are being packed with those who are in opposition of our values.

What’s next for the reproductive justice movement?

Now that more people know about this movement and this framework, we are building our ground game and growing our base. We are building solid connections across movements (economic justice, criminal justice, environmental justice) and sectors that will allow us to build more collective power to not only have a strong defensive strategy but that will also help us move more proactively. We just released the Blueprint for Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice, which focuses on our federal policy goals. SisterSong is working on our RJ movement-building platform that will create a space for individuals to get connected to this movement, and it will provide tools and resources to support on-the-ground organizing efforts that we will launch at our national RJ conference, Let’s Talk About Sex, in October in Atlanta.