Sunday, January 22nd, 2023, should have marked 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court issued one of its most momentous decisions; the Roe v. Wade ruling that a Texas statute criminalizing abortion in most instances violated a woman's constitutional right to privacy. Instead, Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022, and the fight for reproductive rights was again on.
As we begin Black History Month, it is worth reflecting on the origins of reproductive justice and the historical impact of Black women. In fact, Black women coined the term “reproductive justice” in 1994, providing a framework for social movements across the country. It is often said, “Educate a woman, educate a nation.” Black women throughout history have been prime examples of influencing and mobilizing their communities to achieve social, racial, and health equity.
Just like much of American History, where Black’s contributions across the business, scientific, educational, and cultural sectors has been systematically washed, our influence in human rights efforts is also often underrepresented. Our brothers and sisters have always been at the frontlines of movements, from civil rights to women's rights to Black Lives Matter and many more. Fighting for reproductive health and social justice has always been part of our Black History.
This heritage in Reproductive Justice crystallized in 1994 when Toni M. Bond Leonard, Reverend Alma Crawford, Evelyn S. Field, Terri James, Bisola Marignay, Cassandra McConnell, Cynthia Newbille, Lorretta Ross, Elizabeth Terry, ‘Able’ Mable Thomas, Winnette P. Willis, and Kim Youngblood, gathered in a hotel room in Chicago to plan, plot and strategize on President Clinton’s healthcare reform effort.
The Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice (WADRJ), as the twelve women would become known, felt Clinton’s reform did not address critical issues, including systemic biases and racism, that directly, and continue to, disproportionately affect Black women's choices around reproductive care. Through their joint efforts to combine ideals of reproductive rights and social justice, the term “Reproductive Justice” was born and defined “as the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” WADRJ launched the Reproductive Justice movement by publishing a historic full-page ad with more than 800 signatures in The Washington Post and Roll Call.
Additionally, in partnership with the Women of Color Partnership Program of the Religious Coalition of Reproductive Choice, the WADRJ republished their “We Remember” pamphlet featuring 29 more signatures as a way for government leaders, afraid of backlash from their constituencies, to initiate conversations around abortion access and supporting the right to choose. One of the original twelve women, Toni M. Bond Leonard, stated at the time, “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.”
Reproductive Justice isn’t just about abortion access, though it is critical. It’s about ensuring access to women and people of color that face barriers to receiving contraception, comprehensive sex education, STI prevention and care, alternative birth options, adequate prenatal and pregnancy care, domestic violence assistance, mental health services, legal aid, and so much more.
Planned Parenthood Los Angeles’s Black Health Initiative was established to address the same issues that WADRJ fought for almost 30 years ago. We stand on the shoulders of the sistas before us to defend the needs of women of color and under-resourced individuals. We must continue to bring to light the needs of our communities to be heard, seen, and advocated for in our healthcare systems. Reproductive Justice, and the movement it inspired, are Black History. I strive every day to advocate for equitable health outcomes for our communities.
To learn more about Planned Parenthood and the services offered through the Black Health Initiative, please visit https://www.plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-los-angeles.
[Kara James is a Nurse Practitioner with Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, providing trauma-informed direct clinical care to patients since 2015. As an evidenced-based clinician and activist, Kara’s work is framed through racial equity and anti-racism. She also played a vital role in creating the Black Health Initiative in 2020 to promote holistic well-being and health in Los Angeles’ Black communities.]