Racism and Reproductive Rights
More than 1,300 health and activist groups nationwide have signed on to support what's expected to be a massive march for women's reproductive freedom on Sunday, April 25, in Washington, DC. Among the many new endorsers is the NAACP, which has never publicly supported a pro-choice rally. The group's endorsement is a reflection of the fact that the April 25 event is paying more attention to issues of concern to minority women -- starting at the top.
"The first thing we did was ask that the name of the event be changed," says Loretta Ross, executive director of the National Center for Human Rights Education (NCHRE), the first organization of its kind to focus on human rights violations in the United States. Ross is also the co-director of the April 25 march. "The original name was March for Choice, but that's not a title that resonates with many people of color. So when our collective got on the steering committee, we asked that the name be March to Save Women's Lives, because that's really what's at issue for poor and minority women in this country."
Ross got involved in the march after organizing an annual meeting of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective in Atlanta last year where the issue was discussed. Soon after, representatives from members of the Feminist Majority, NARAL Pro-Choice, the National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood approached SisterSong about being part of the event. The collective asked that two of the seven seats at the steering-committee table be given to women of color, a request which Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, says was immediately forthcoming. Smeal believes that there will be record-setting numbers at Sunday's event, in part because of the tremendous efforts of Ross and other women of color to mobilize across the nation.
"We've cracked something huge -- I can feel it," says Smeal. "The civil rights movement will be there, students from colleges and high schools will be there, women of color will be there. The environmental movement is coming -- the Sierra Club has endorsed the march for the first time. We have more celebrities than I've seen before. We just have much more depth in so many communities."
Silvia Henriquez, executive director of the Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and member of the steering committee, predicts that the focus on reproductive rights as part of a broader context will attract substantial numbers of Hispanic women. "Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnicity in the country, and in the next twenty years millions of Latinas are going to be looking to raise their families in safe, healthy environments with full access to education and healthcare," she says, adding, "it's not that Latinas don't support abortion, or don't care about that issue. They do -- but they tend to think of reproductive rights as part of their overall human rights and those of their families."
The SisterSong Collective will be front and center on Sunday, asking anyone who wants to walk with their delegation in the march (look for the banner that says "Women of Color for Reproductive Justice") to wear red, yellow and orange. Ross made sure to invite the many unseen organizations and advocates who have historically fought for reproductive justice in communities of color, as well as dozens of organizations from the antipoverty and antiracist movements, and those who work on HIV/AIDS, environmental justice, immigrants' rights, violence against women and criminal justice issues. Bringing new faces to the march, Ross hopes, will create more awareness of the ways women of color and white women can differ in their definition of reproductive justice.
"I firmly believe that if the politicians could figure out a way to make abortion illegal for white women but not women of color, they'd be sending limos to take us to the clinics," says Ross. She wants more discussion on the lack of choices for low-income women, believing that many choose abortion precisely because they have no other option. "This collective supports women's right to have an abortion, but we've got to recognize that reproductive justice means the right to have a child as well as the right not to have a child. How many women who want to parent don't because they can't afford it? What social services are there to help them?"
As feminist groups show their willingness to confront the embedded racism and elitism that bar low-income and women of color from exercising their reproductive rights, Ross says, the women's movement will move one step closer toward working together to repeal the many restrictive laws passed in the last thirty years that deny all women full reproductive freedom.
Otis writes for the Nation.