Black Feminism Insists That We Not Treat the Attack on “Roe” as Isolated Issue

This latest threat to end the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision comes as yet another blow to women in general — and Black and poor women in particular, as well as trans and nonbinary abortion seekers. The recent leaked draft opinion indicating the conservative court plans to overturn Roe occurs in the context of a larger right-wing backlash that is gendered and racialized. It would be politically dangerous and sorely misguided to view Roe in isolation. Black feminist politics insist that we do the opposite.

Black women have been the canaries in the coal mine on so many fronts. Low-income people — disproportionately women of color, and even more disproportionately Black women — in large numbers have experienced restricted access to abortion since the passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1976, which prevented the use of federal Medicaid funds for this important health procedure. The erosion of access and attacks on clinics in the south has further made it hard for some of the most vulnerable women to get abortions.

As Black feminists, we understand that not only is abortion a racial justice issue, but so is the right to have and parent children free of state-sanctioned and vigilante violence, free of heteropatriarchal and transphobic mandates, and free of the economic burdens caused by low wages, lack of affordable housing and child care, and lack of access to high-quality schools. Understanding that these are not separate struggles is what we mean by intersectionality.

Bodily sovereignty should be a basic right, but Black women in the Americas have never had that right. During slavery, Black women were told our bodies were not our own, a message enforced by the state and private interests through a violent regime of terror. Even today, Black women are more likely to be raped, brutalized and killed with impunity. To force unwanted pregnancies on anyone is a dystopic outrage. To do so while systematically denying access to essential resources to adequately raise and care for our children is beyond outrageous. But this is where we are.

It is important that we see this attack on Roe in a larger political context of growing carcerality and control of our lives, and growing repression and violence toward marginalized and historically oppressed communities. The idea that punishment is the intervention of choice of this state is reflected in our system of mass targeted incarceration. The fact that pregnant patients and health care providers will be criminalized, prosecuted and jailed for making a decision that should be wholly personal is consistent with a prison-industrial complex that has always had the patriarchal ethos of domination and violence at its core.

Under racial capitalism, class is always a key variable. If Roe is indeed overturned, poor people with unwanted pregnancies will suffer the most. Rich people with unwanted pregnancies will have a harder time but will be able to use privilege and money to get abortions when needed, as many did before Roe. For those without cars, bus fare or the ability to take even a day off work without a financial hit, the decision is excruciating and the choices almost nil. This is the “afterlife of slavery,” to quote writer and academic Saidiya Hartman. It is an extension of the heinous racist and misogynous practices begun centuries ago.

Social justice activist and scholar Dorothy Roberts’s new book, Torn Apart, outlines how Black families are devalued and violated by some of the same forces that profess to be so concerned about the sanctity of the fetus. These same passionate advocates are less concerned about the sanctity of the lives of Black children, who are brutalized and criminalized in large numbers.

Our response to the threat to overturn Roe has to be swift and broad-based. It is happening already but needs to grow. Reproductive justice groups, and Black reproductive justice groups in particular, have taken bold initiatives to thwart this attack, even though it comes as no surprise. We have to stand up, speak out and fight back with every fiber of our beings, but we also have to do so while contextualizing this fight among the many interrelated fights for justice and survival.

Many groups, including both organized ones and spontaneously formed ones, have taken to the streets and shown up on the steps of the Supreme Court, and at the doorsteps of anti-Roe Supreme Court justices. In Los Angeles, California, a militant protest led to arrests after protesters expressed their rage at this pending decision and refused to be silenced or pushed off the streets.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris also have to be pressured. It is Black women voters who were the decisive force that elected this administration. To allow the reversal of Roe without every ounce of executive power being exerted to prevent such an outcome would be a betrayal.

This is above all a political struggle — which includes legislative efforts to codify Roe into law, the first attempt at which has failed. It is a struggle in the streets, through protests and direct-action tactics. But it is also an ideological struggle in our communities.

This struggle is in the streets and the courts but also in our communities and families. In the Black community there is an ongoing debate that is advanced by a vocal minority of primarily male preachers who contend that abortion destroys Black life. This skewed and offensive framing cannot go unchallenged. It is not a view that is widely shared, even though it is frequently amplified. Janette Robinson Flint of Black Women for Wellness reports that 78 percent of Black women oppose the reversal of Roe, and 85 percent of Black women say they would support someone they love to have an abortion. Notably progressive faith leaders like Rev. Raphael Warnock have defended the principle of reproductive justice, despite pressure to do otherwise.

The bottom line is that we have to support groups like SisterSong, Black Women’s Health Imperative, the Women’s March, Black Women’s Blueprint, Black Feminist Future, and others. Groups that do not exclusively work on gender and reproductive justice are also mobilizing responses. The Movement for Black Lives coalition’s Table to Abolish Patriarchal Violence is engaged in ongoing work to combat all forms of gender and sexual violence through political education, narrative strategies, direct action and leadership training.

The reality is that Black liberation is about claiming, fighting for and defending Black humanity and freedom, including bodily autonomy, which has been so consistently stripped from us; from our ancestors during enslavement, and our caged and incarcerated family today. Forced pregnancy is the flip side of forced sterilization endured by Black and Puerto Rican women in despicably experimental projects that were an extension of the racist, sexist and pseudoscientific eugenics movement in the 20th century. The notion that the state should control pregnant people’s bodies has to be rejected unequivocally by all of us.

As hard as we fight this attack and others, we may (and some say, will likely) lose this round. But no victory is ever complete, and neither is any defeat, if resistance is mustered. Mutual aid, community-based care, collective financing of health procedures wherever they can be safely performed, coupled with continued electoral strategies, movement building work, and struggles with one another for a holistic transformative vision, has to be our response in this moment. Forward ever. Backward never.