By: Sarah Hodin, Project Coordinator II, Women and Health Initiative, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
On October 24, 2016, the Women and Health Initiative and the Women, Gender & Health interdisciplinary concentration at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health hosted a seminar featuring Monica Simpson, Executive Director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. She began her talk, titled “Trust Black Women,” with a story of how she became an advocate for reproductive justice.
“We all have a story to tell,” she said. Monica grew up in a small, conservative town in North Carolina. Almost every girl in her church community became pregnant before graduating high school; when the choir director died from AIDS, everyone said it was pneumonia. Sex was not discussed in her community, and having an abortion for an unplanned pregnancy was never considered an option. When she was a student at a historically black college, Monica supported a friend who confided in her about her plans to terminate her pregnancy, despite the staunch anti-choice climate. These experiences among others fueled Monica’s passion for reproductive justice, including standing up for a woman’s right to self-determine.
The scope of “reproductive justice” extends beyond access to contraceptives and abortion. SisterSong, which was founded in 1997, developed a list of four basic principles of reproductive justice that ground their work in the United States.
According to the SisterSong reproductive justice framework, every individual has the human right to:
- Decide if and when they will have a child and the conditions under which they will give birth.
- Decide if they will not have a child and their options for preventing or ending a pregnancy.
- Parent the children they already have with the necessary social supports in safe environments and healthy communities, and without fear of violence from individuals or the government.
- Bodily autonomy free from all forms of reproductive oppression.
There is a long history of infringements on these rights, especially among communities of color. Beginning in the early 1900s, well before World War II, more than 20,000 people in the United States were sterilized without their consent. This forced sterilization was a part of a wider eugenics movement, which aimed to control the growth of “undesirable populations”—people of color, immigrants, poor people, single mothers and people with physical and mental disabilities.
A century later, women of color continue to experience violations of the principles of reproductive justice. In 2010 and 2011, anti-choice activists targeted black women, claiming that “the most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb” and that “black children are an endangered species.” Furthermore, even though abortion is legal in the United States, the Hyde Amendment, Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws and other restrictions can make accessing abortion services nearly impossible for many women—particularly women struggling financially and those living in rural areas and politically conservative states.
In 2012, Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison and separated from her newborn baby after firing a warning shot in the air during a violent beating from her abusive husband. Florida’s “Stand-Your-Ground” law that was used to defend George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin was not upheld in Marissa’s case. Fortunately, with support from SisterSong and many other organizations, Marissa was eventually freed and regained custody of her baby.
Forced sterilization, restrictions on abortion access and systemic racism in the criminal justice system are just a few examples of threats to reproductive justice that disproportionately affect women of color. These cases illustrate that improving maternal, sexual and reproductive health requires a holistic understanding of the daily lives of women, which includes considering the broader historical context and addressing the economic, social, legal and political issues that affect them every day.
Check out the MHTF blog series and topics page on maternal health disparities in the United States.
Learn about the Trust Black Women Partnership created by SisterSong.
Watch Monica Simpson of SisterSong speak in the Advancing Dialogue on Maternal Health Series at the Wilson Center.
Read what Monica Simpson has written for The Huffington Post and Ebony.