#BlackLivesMatter, and Black Health Matters, too: Reproductive Justice

by Anna Katz, 2017-2018 Campus Leader at Duke University

This November, I had the privilege of attending the first annual Black Health Matters Conference at Harvard University.  Given my work as a NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina Campus Leader and love for all things sexual health, I was particularly looking forward to Saturday’s panel Who and How: Sexual Health Activism for Our Most Underserved Communities.  As I ponder what shape my budding career might take, I am always thrilled to hear the varying ways activists approach this critical work.  With panelists working in academic, government, and the nonprofit sector, the event promised to offer several unique perspectives on sexual and reproductive health.

But perhaps most exciting was the opportunity to attend a reproductive health event that centered and amplified the voices of four Black women leaders in the sexual health field.  Mainstream reproductive rights activism historically sidelined women of color, trans women, poor women—virtually anyone who didn’t reflect middle- and upper-class white leadership.  Frustrated with this marginalization, a group of Black women created Repro Justice Repeal Hyde Art Projecttheir own movement, coining the term “reproductive justice” in 1994.  Now a national leader in reproductive justice, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective defines reproductive justice 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.”  To ensure that these rights are universally recognized, they believe, we must analyze power systems, address intersecting oppressions, center the most marginalized, and build coalitions across issues and identities.

In doing this work, we must first contextualize sexual and reproductive health activism within a history of reproductive oppression.  Our nation has a broad and shameful history of sexual and reproductive coercion of Black folks and other communities of color, contributing to an abiding distrust of health practitioners and organizations like Planned Parenthood.  From the forced reproduction of enslaved African and African American women to the coercive sterilizations of the American Eugenics Movement, from J. Marion Sim’s surgical experimentation on enslaved women to the non-consensual extraction of Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cells, from contraceptive pill trials on Puerto Rican women to the infamous “Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” folks of color have continuously been stripped of bodily autonomy, often for the purpose of “advancing” reproductive science.  The generational trauma of such violating practices cannot be minimized; as activists, we must acknowledge our nation’s ugly histories and recognize where the mainstream reproductive rights movement has failed the most vulnerable.  The panelists echoed SisterSong’s push for centering those who have been marginalized and emphasized that paying lip service to historically subjugated groups is not enough. “Activism is a doing, not a saying,” explained panelist Jill Smith, HIV/STI Project Manager at the Maryland Department of Health.

I am proud to be working with NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, an organization that is committed to serving all North Carolinians and prioritizing those disproportionately impacted by harmful policies.  In an attempt to echo this commitment on Duke’s campus, I am building partnerships with groups that tend to be excluded from reproductive health conversations.  I am thrilled to be kicking off next semester with a sexual and reproductive health trivia night in collaboration with The Bridge, an online community for Black and Latina women.  Through such coalition-building, perhaps we can build an on-campus reproductive justice movement that is truly inclusive and intersectional.

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