Black Women's Expansive Vision of Reproductive FreedomRoundup
tags: abortion, African American history, reproductive freedom
Ashley Farmer is an Associate Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, is the first intellectual history of women in the black power movement. Follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer.
When Elaine Brown took the helm of the Black Panther Party in the early 1970s, she declared that she “would support every assertion of human rights by women—from the right to have an abortion to the right of equality with men as laborers and leaders.” Brown stated her pro-abortion stance a year after Roe v. Wade was codified but when it was still unclear how the law would affect Black women. She also began to shift the Party’s focus toward holistic health care practices, claiming that Black women needed more than a Supreme Court decision to have access to safe abortion and exercise their reproductive choice. This approach was in line with Black Panthers’ support of the principle of self-determination—the right to determine one’s life and future.
During the Black Power movement, self-determination became a rallying cry across the African Diaspora. Black women activists seized on this principle and shaped it to fit their reproductive rights and needs. They created a network of ideas, programs, and advocacy that supported Black women’s ability to determine if and how they wanted to have children, how to manage their health should they choose to have an abortion, and how to protect themselves from legal ramifications when they did. Living in a world where it was unclear if abortion would ever be legal, activists constantly imagined a future that was not rooted in the law. They built an expansive and holistic understanding of reproductive rights, rooted in Black women’s right to self-determination. Their organizing provides a path forward amid the end of Roe.
For the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA), reproductive education was a central tenet of self-determination. The Alliance developed out of a Black women’s caucus in the Student Non-Violent Coordination Committee (SNCC), and championed a globally minded, women-centered form of Black Power politics. Many TWWA members had personally experienced or witnessed the devastating effects of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions. They saw a direct correlation between efforts to keep women “ignorant” about their bodies and the state’s effort to deny them options when determining their reproductive choices. The Alliance set up health workshops to educate members about female anatomy, birth control, and the reproductive process. Members reprinted the information disseminated in these workshops in their newspaper, Triple Jeopardy, to promote the wider reach of reproductive health information. TWWA leader Frances Beal explained that members were liberating themselves “from the vagary of biology.” She argued that education would result in women being better able to choose at what point and in what capacity they wanted to engage in childbearing.
The TWWA also partnered with organizations like the Black Panther Party to help support Black women’s reproductive health. Even as they gained a reputation as a brash, patriarchal organization, the Panthers created health care options to support the reproductive health of women. A key prong of the Party’s mission was to protect Black people from the harms of the state. Chief among them was the racist health care system that left Black people segregated, without adequate health care resources, and blamed them for their own poor outcomes. In 1968, the Party established People’s Free Health Care Clinics in local chapters across the country to meet the basic health care needs of their communities. Panther women like Audrea Jones managed, staffed, and fundraised for the clinics in an effort to provide Black women with comprehensive care and empower them to take control of their health care decisions—reproductive and otherwise. As women took over Party leadership in the early 1970s, they transformed the organization into a space that actively advocated for abortion rights, supported Black doctors who provided abortions, and fought against the Hyde Amendment, which limited federal funds for abortion. Panther leaders also published articles on reproductive health and connected fair housing, employment, and welfare rights to a woman’s right to choose.
Note: This essay is part of Black Perspectives' forum on “Black Women and Reproductive Rights.”
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