Black History Month: A Black activist discusses the ongoing battle for reproductive rights

Shanay Watson-Whittaker, director of Michigan campaigns for Reproductive Rights for All

In celebration of Black History Month, it’s important to take a moment to remember the pioneers of the reproductive justice movement as well as those driving the current movement forward.

Today, activists throughout the nation have taken up the mantle of reproductive rights, fighting barriers to access as well as the fallout from the June 2022 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade and its affirmation of a constitutional right to abortion. 

However, today’s activists stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. The term “reproductive justice” was coined in 1994 by 12 Black women who came together during a conference in Chicago to create a plan to address health care reforms instituted under President Bill Clinton. They felt Clinton’s reforms didn’t go far enough in addressing reproductive health care issues that directly affected Black women.

Those founding mothers of reproductive justice, who later called themselves Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, were Toni M. Bond Leonard, Reverend Alma Crawford, Evelyn S. Field, Terri James, Bisola Marignay, Cassandra McConnell, Cynthia Newbille, Loretta Ross, Elizabeth Terry, “Able” Mable Thomas, Winnette P. Willis, and Kim Youngblood.

The group defined reproductive justice as a “human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent their children in safe and sustainable communities,” according to Ross in her book written with Rickie Solinger, “Reproductive Justice: An Introduction.” 

“We were still fighting for Black women to be able to discuss abortion and also to be trusted as moral agents with the capacity to make decisions about our bodies,” Leonard said at the time, according to Kara James of Black Voice News.

Today, activists in the reproductive justice movement are focused on ensuring marginalized communities continue to be included in work to dismantle policies that create barriers to abortion care and maternal health care and to tackle issues such as environmental injustice and mass incarceration.

Shanay Watson-Whittaker, director of Michigan campaigns for Reproductive Freedom for All, formerly known as NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the Michigan Independent that although people are grateful for the passage of Proposal 3 in 2022 and the state’s Reproductive Health Act, which enshrines the right to reproductive freedom in the state Constitution, there’s still work to be done within the Black community.

Restrictions and bans on abortion disproportionately impact Black women. According to reporting by Side Effects Public Media, over 38% of patients who receive abortions are Black, but Black people make up only 13% of the population of the United States. 

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in April 2023 found that Black pregnant people are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white pregnant people. 

According to Data USA, 13.4% of Michigan’s population of 10.1 million is Black, and most live in the cities of Highland Park, Benton Harbor, Detroit, Muskegon Heights, Inkster, Saginaw, Flint, and Southfield.

“For a lot of our folks in our communities, they live in rural Michigan, northern Michigan, the closest place to get reproductive care is in Saginaw. So that’s about a seven-and-a-half- to eight-hour drive,” Watson-Whittaker told the Michigan Independent. “If you’re a single person with children and you’re living in one of those rural communities, you have to think about child care. If you’re working class, you’re losing a day’s worth of wages. … Those barriers in place make it harder for people to receive reproductive care, and we’re thinking about them constantly.”

Watson-Whittaker said that Reproductive Freedom for All is focusing its efforts on telling the personal stories of Black, brown, and Indigenous people to illustrate the impacts of barriers to reproductive health care. 

She said sharing personal stories normalizes abortion care: “I share my own personal story as a person who lived in a shelter in New York City. I didn’t have resources, I didn’t have family. I didn’t have anybody to turn to.”

Watson-Whittaker regularly shares her own experience of having an abortion when she was 17. “I chose to terminate that pregnancy and I don’t regret that decision at all,” she told a group of abortion rights activists in June 2022.

“I don’t know if I’d be here today if I didn’t have the opportunity to make that choice,” she said.

With nine months to go before the 2024 presidential election, Watson-Whittaker said she hopes people remember that abortion is still on the ballot.“Restoring Roe is still on the ballot. That is what is at stake today in America. … Michigan is a shining example of what we can do when we work with people from all backgrounds as a coalition and coming together,” Watson-Whitaker said. “I have faith that Americans understand that issue-based organizing, issue-based voting is important, regardless of who’s at the top of the ticket.”

Correction Feb. 13 at 11:10 a.m.: A previous version of this story referred to the organization Reproductive Freedom for All as “Reproductive Rights for All.”