Jan. 22, 2013, marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in 1973. The court based its ruling on the idea that for government to outlaw abortion would violate a woman’s constitutional right to privacy.
This was a historic triumph for women’s rights, won by the influence of a cresting feminist movement. Still, it was always a limited victory. The court said that while states could not ban abortion, they could restrict it — giving the right wing an opening that they have taken ferocious advantage of.
And, as important as the right to abortion is, it is only one aspect of reproductive justice — especially for women of color. Reproductive rights mean the right to free, safe abortion on demand; access to safe birth control; no forced sterilization; accurate, inclusive sex education in the schools; and social support like childcare, workplace leave, and well-paying jobs for parents, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered parents.
Women of color in the U.S. have always resisted laws and practices denying them reproductive choice. Because they are more likely to be poor — over 23 percent of women who are Black, Latina, or Native American live below the poverty line — and because they experience racism as well as sexism, their stake in being able to control their own bodies is magnified. These facts also make women of color the strongest defenders of all aspects of biological self-determination.
Early fighters for reproductive choice. In the days of slavery, African American women, whose children would be born into bondage, sometimes covertly used traditional methods to prevent and end pregnancies, which were often the product of rape. In the early 1900s, Black women in Harlem were active in the movement for birth control.
And, in the 1970s, a lawsuit and grass-roots organizing by Chicanas in Los Angeles were key to ending, in most of the U.S., an official policy of forced sterilization of women deemed racially, mentally, or physically “inferior.” As an internee in the U.S. concentration camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, my own mother narrowly escaped this fate when a proposal in Congress to sterilize women of Japanese heritage in the camps failed by just one vote.
The campaign to legalize abortion in Washington state is an excellent example of militant, multiracial organizing, one that resulted in success three years before Roe v. Wade. Black women from anti-poverty programs joined with Radical Women members to form Abortion Action Now. They linked the need for abortion to an end to forced sterilization, demanded affirmative action and free 24-hour childcare, and recognized that without justice on the job and in the home, there is no equality.
These ideas resonated with working women and men who marched, rallied, and spoke at public hearings. The pressure forced legislators to put legalized abortion to a public vote; it passed decisively.
Continuing to take the lead post-Roe. The right wing has never given up its crusade to eradicate the right to abortion.
When Roe first went into effect, poor women could use federal Medicaid funds to cover the cost of terminating a pregnancy. But this ended quickly when the Hyde Amendment, which denies Medicaid funding for abortion, took effect in 1977.
This ban caused the death of Rosie Jiménez, a young Latina mother who was six months away from her college graduation when she was refused funding for an abortion in Texas. She turned to a back-alley butcher and died from septic shock in October 1977.
Every year, thousands of poor women are forced either to have a child they cannot support, driving them deeper into poverty, or to risk their lives with unsafe terminations. And every year, politicians from both sides of the aisle reaffirm the Hyde Amendment.
Meanwhile, reactionaries use every means imaginable to make abortion unobtainable, from legal restrictions to firebombings of clinics and assassinations of doctors. Eighty-five percent of U.S. counties now do not have an abortion provider.
In March 2006, after South Dakota’s legislators passed an abortion ban, Oglala Sioux President Cecelia Fire Thunder announced that she would defy the ban and open a Planned Parenthood clinic on tribal land. She paid for her courage with impeachment by the tribal council. But her bold leadership was a pivotal schooling in how to fight back and helped set the stage for a massive voter rejection of the ban later that year.
Also in 2006, in July, Operation Save America (formerly Operation Rescue) announced they were going to Mississippi to shut down the state’s last abortion provider, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
Michelle Colon, an African American social justice activist, put out a call to come to Mississippi to defend the clinic. The response she got included young Black women, lesbians, students, and Radical Women. The reproductive justice troops, who outnumbered the anti-choicers, went door to door to gather support, held rallies and a press conference, and sent the misogynists packing. However, the state governor continues to maneuver to close the clinic.
In 2010, 65 billboards equating abortion with genocide suddenly sprang up in Atlanta. They showed a tearful Black child next to the words “endangered species.”
Outraged by this attack on Black women, SisterSong, a national group of women of color for reproductive justice, worked with others to found the “Trust Black Women” coalition. The coalition organized a successful campaign to educate about the dangers of racialized anti-abortion tactics, and their leadership inspired protests in other states where the billboards appeared.
Forging ahead. Reproductive justice activists of color must contend not only with the right wing, patriarchal politicians, and sexism in their communities and society broadly. They deal with leaders of the mainstream feminist movement who are often unwilling to fight for the reproductive issues that most affect women of color, like forced sterilization, unsafe contraceptives, and denial of public services to undocumented immigrants.
These more conservative feminists also rely, in vain, on Democratic Party politicians to protect women’s rights.
For feminists, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade is not a time for self-congratulation. It is a time to take to heart the lessons of the struggle for reproductive justice and renew the fight.
As Michelle Colon says, “The war is in the streets, and folks who don’t have anything are the best activists. We must incorporate all women into the movement or else we will lose.”
Let’s celebrate Roe v. Wade by getting back to movement-building.
Send feedback to San Francisco unionist and past National Radical Women Organizer Nancy Reiko Kato at firstname.lastname@example.org.