How Black Feminists Defined Abortion Rights

Written by
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
March 15, 2022

As liberation movements bloomed, they offered a vision of reproductive justice that was about equality, not just “choice.”

It will probably be months before the Supreme Court decides, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, whether to overturn Roe v. Wade. But, in this latest round of attacks on Roe, a novel line of argument has emerged: that forced pregnancy and parenthood no longer constitute a hardship for women. Lawyers representing Mississippi, the appellant in the lawsuit, describe a world that has fundamentally changed over the past fifty years, in which the burdens of parenting have been lifted and women have been empowered to have it all—to assume a career while still raising families. As for those women who would prefer not to parent, they now have the option to simply terminate their parental rights.

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A member of the Third World Women’s Alliance demonstrates, in 1970. Photograph from Getty

In a legal brief, Mississippi described a fantasy land, where “many (largely post-dating Roe) laws protect equal opportunity—including prohibitions on sex and pregnancy discrimination in employment,” where the law guarantees parental leave, and where there is “support to offset the costs of childcare for working mothers.” The brief continued, “Sweeping policy advances now promote women’s full pursuit of both career and family.” In an interview with a local television station, the state attorney general, Lynn Fitch, added, as a flourish, “Fifty years ago, for professional women, they wanted you to make a choice. Now you don’t have to. Now you have the opportunity to be whatever you want to be. You have the option in life to really achieve your dreams, your goals, and you can have those beautiful children as well.” These would be wild claims under normal circumstances, but, in the midst of the pandemic, when child-care costs have been rising dramatically and when intermittent and impromptu school closures have forced nearly two million women out of the workforce, they are ludicrous.

According to the legal regime in Mississippi, the ability to give up one’s child for adoption cinches the final loophole in the logic of banning abortion. Justice Amy Coney Barrett added her own gloss on this claim through her questioning of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization’s lawyers, suggesting that safe-haven laws, which allow women to relinquish their infants, mean that “the obligations of motherhood” no longer “flow from pregnancy.” She continued, “It doesn’t seem to follow that pregnancy and then parenthood are all part of the same burden. And so it seems to me that the choice, more focussed, would be between, say, the ability to get an abortion at twenty-three weeks, or the state requiring the woman to go fifteen, sixteen weeks more and then terminate parental rights at the conclusion.”

The powerful men and women championing an end to abortion seek to recast an unwanted pregnancy as an inconvenience for “professional women.” But rich women have always had a bounty of choices when deciding to end a pregnancy and when deciding to have children. Fitch, who likes to use her own story as a single mother of three as evidence that women can have it all, was able to afford day care and a nanny. It should go without saying that these are not options for poor and working-class women, who without access to abortion will lose their right and ability to control their own destiny. In 2014, three-quarters of abortion patients qualified as low-income or poor, according to the Guttmacher Institute. That year, Black and brown patients accounted for more than half of abortions performed.

That Dobbs originates in Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, twists this fairy tale into a cruel joke. In Mississippi, nearly half of women-led households live in poverty, almost twice the national average; twelve per cent of women in the state lack health insurance, compared with eight per cent nationally. Barrett’s blithe suggestion that pregnant women simply “go fifteen, sixteen weeks more” ignores, among many burdens, that pregnant women in Mississippi die at higher rates than their peers in most states, including Louisiana and Georgia. And because this case is no longer just about Mississippi, it also ignores the fact that Black women are three to four times more at risk of dying in childbirth than white women.

For poor and working-class women, a disproportionate number of whom are Black and brown, overturning Roe won’t mean that abortions will end. It will mean that safe and sound abortions in health-care facilities will move further out of reach. This dilemma has been a permanent feature of the modern movement for abortion rights. One study found that eighty per cent of deaths caused by septic abortions in New York City in the nineteen-sixties involved Black and Puerto Rican women. In Georgia, between 1965 and 1967, the Black maternal death rate was fourteen times that of white women. During this period, nurses reported that “sticks, rocks, chopsticks, rubber or plastic tubes, gauze or cotton packing, ballpoint pens, coat hangers, or knitting needles” were administered to terminate pregnancies. For these women, access to abortion was not abstract—it was a matter of life and death.

If the Roe decision had simply affirmed that access to abortion was elemental to the social equality of women, it would have become something closer to an incontrovertible right. Instead, the Justices explicitly disagreed with the appellant’s claim that “the woman’s right is absolute and that she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses.” The twenty-one-page decision, written by Justice Harry Blackmun, considers when life begins, the potential harm experienced by unwanted children, and the right to privacy between a physician and a patient, but there is nothing about the equality of women and the ways that forced pregnancy impairs its actualization.

Within a few years, new legislation began to restrict poor and working-class women’s right to an abortion. The passage of the Hyde Amendment, in 1976, eliminated Medicaid funding of abortion except in cases in which the mother’s life is at risk. The impact was immediate. The number of abortions financed by Medicaid dropped from three hundred thousand a year to a few thousand.

In Roe, the Supreme Court claimed to want to make a dispassionate decision, one not influenced by the larger debates concerning abortion. “Population growth, pollution, poverty, and racial overtones tend to complicate and not to simplify the problem,” Blackmun wrote. In this way, the Court’s decision reflected the narrowness of the mainstream women’s movement, which viewed abortion as the singular way to measure women’s right to control their reproductive lives. In both cases, the broad range of factors constraining women’s equality was ignored, because doing otherwise would open larger and more complicated issues involving pay, family structure, social provision, and a more capacious consideration of reproductive rights. It would also require accounting for the ways that women’s equality had different meanings for women who were not white or middle class. Black, Puerto Rican, and Chicana women had different constraints and burdens in their daily lives that meant they would have different approaches to achieving liberation.

When the National Organization for Women formed, in 1966, it patterned its mission after the civil-rights strategy of changing the legal framework of discrimination. Yet even as NOW demanded a dramatic expansion of rights for women, it largely overlooked the concerns of poor and working-class women of color. This was made plain in 1969, when NOW’s president, Betty Friedan, gave an address at a conference that marked the formation of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. She said, “As the Negro was the invisible man, so women are the invisible people in America today: we must now become visible women who have a share in the decisions of the mainstream of government, of politics, of the church—who don’t just cook the church supper but preach the sermon; who don’t just look up the Zip Code and address the envelopes but make the political decisions; who don’t just do the housework of industry but make some of the executive decisions. Women, above all, who say what their own lives and personalities are going to be, and no longer listen to or even permit male experts to define what ‘feminine’ is or isn’t.” These were certainly examples and sites of sexism, but Friedan ignored the possibility that “woman” was not a universal category as she prioritized the problems of white and middle-class women as the most urgent. And if there was any confusion over whom she was addressing, Friedan went on to explain that NOW’s purpose was to “break out of the confines of that sterile little suburban family to relate to each other in terms of all of the possible dimensions of our personalities.”

The chasm between middle-class white women’s demands and aspirations and those of poor and working-class women of color began to be addressed by the emergence of Black feminists in the late sixties. These women, who included Toni Cade Bambara, Frances Beal, Alice Walker, and Barbara Smith, argued that real equality could be achieved only by expanding the parameters of what constituted “reproductive justice” to include the entire context within which decisions about having or not having children were made. Organizations like NOW mobilized predominately white women to fight for abortion rights, but they often ignored or minimized the glaring issue of coerced or forced sterilizations, which was critical to women of color. According to a national study conducted by Princeton University in 1970, twenty-one per cent of married Black women had been sterilized. As the legal scholar Dorothy Roberts has observed, “The dominant women’s movement has focussed myopically on abortion rights at the expense of other aspects of reproductive freedom, including the right to bear children, and has misunderstood criticism of coercive birth-control policies.”

For Black feminists, many of whom had become radicalized through their involvement in the civil-rights movement, the persistent racism and sexism that they experienced compelled them to question the totality of American society, not just their place in it. In 1969, Beal penned one of the pioneering documents of Black feminism, a pamphlet titled “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.” Beal wrote, “it is idle dreaming to think of black women simply caring for their homes and children like the middle-class white model. Most black women have to work to help house, feed, and clothe their families. Black women make up a substantial percentage of the black working force and this is true for the poorest black family as well as the so-called ‘middle-class’ family.” This double burden, Beal continued, was ignored by many Black men, who may have seen the “System for what it really is” when it came to their own subjugation but, when it came to women, seemed to be reading “from the pages of the Ladies Home Journal.” This inattention compelled Black women to organize their own groups, set their own agendas, and develop their own strategies—what the Combahee River Collective would later describe as “identity politics.”

By the time Beal wrote “Double Jeopardy,” she and several other Black women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were leaving the group because of increasingly divergent ideas about the role of women in the Black movement. Among Black men in the movement, there was a pervasive belief that Black women should follow the men’s political lead. As Beal wrote, “To assign women the role of housekeeper and mother while men go forth into battle is a highly questionable doctrine for a revolutionary to maintain. Each individual must develop a high political consciousness in order to understand how this System enslaves us all and what actions we must take to bring about its total destruction. Those who consider themselves to be revolutionary must begin to deal with other revolutionaries as equals. And, so far as I know, revolutionaries are not determined by sex.”

This was more than a debate over the women in radical politics. Beal and her women comrades were chafing against the influence of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on the state of the Black family, which included a thesis that the emasculation of Black men led them to retreat from their natural role as patriarchs, causing Black women to take leadership of their families. In his view, this gender confusion led to the collapse of Black family life, spawning criminality among men and producing unruly children. Moynihan wrote, “At the center of the tangle of pathology is the weakness of the family structure. Once or twice removed, it will be found to be the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or antisocial behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation.”

Moynihan was criticized for essentially blaming Black women for the poverty and hardship that shaped the lives of their families. In a speech a year after the report was published, the SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael said, “To set the record straight, the reason we are in the bag we are in isn’t because of my mama, it’s because of what they did to my mama. . . . We have to put the blame where it belongs.” But, for many other Black men, Moynihan provided a framework in which they could understand their marginalization and attempt to repair the damage—by reasserting their rightful positions as patriarchs. Assuming this role meant denouncing birth control and abortion as tools of genocide that compromised the future and freedom of Black families. In 1971, the comedian and activist Dick Gregory wrote a cover story for Ebony that began, “My answer to genocide, quite simply, is eight kids—and another baby on the way.” Gregory, who never quotes his wife in the article or even mentions her name, goes on to claim that birth control and abortion both had been designed to “limit the black population,” describing them casually as methods of genocide. Speaking to the U.S. Commission on Population Control, in 1971, the Reverend Jesse Jackson said, “Virtually all the security we have is in the number of children we produce.”

For Beal, a single mother of two children, and other Black feminists, reproductive freedom, including access to birth control and abortion and the right to have children on their terms, was the most basic element of self-determination in a society where their choices were heavily circumscribed by racism, gender, and class position. As a result, Black women activists not only took up the immediate questions concerning reproduction but they also raised issues about child care, employment, welfare, and the other material necessities that could help women take care of their children and choose to bring them into the world. By focussing on the plight of poor women, they made it easier to see that the struggle for abortion and reproductive freedom was about equality, not just privacy or even “choice.” Their insights into the ways that poverty and other forms of oppression limited their life chances compelled them to demand reproductive justice—which also involved the right to raise children in healthy environments where their and their parents’ basic needs could be met. It is a standard that certainly was not achieved with Roe, but is needed now more than ever.