I’ve spent most of the last 11 years searching for the words to justify the abortion I had at 17. And I’ve been trapped in a painful cycle of self-criticism and discomfort ever since.
Don’t get me wrong; I know that abortion was right for me. But the “love the sinner and hate the sin” support I experienced at a “crisis pregnancy center” was just insidious enough to convince me that good people didn’t terminate pregnancies. And if I held any lingering doubt of that truth, I’d be certain after encountering the clinic protesters—who waved signs touting both the sanctity of life and elevated rates of abortion in the Black community on the day of my appointment.
The fact I participated in what many pro-Black groups suggest is part of a eugenics-based plot to slowly eradicate the Black community—on Martin Luther King Jr. Day no less—was the icing on the cake.
I believed I’d singlehandedly invalidated MLK’s vision for racial equality. The suggestion that Black women’s reproductive agency was the worst thing to happen to the Black community would infect my thoughts for over a decade. And no amount of academic or professional advocacy could stop the “freeze” instinct I’d feel starting from my gut and covering my entire body any time I believed abortion might come up.
This was before I understood that internalized white supremacy was at the base of my belief that my abortion indicated a personal and moral failure. The racial justice platforms I’d studied viewed Black women as more of an asterisk than an expectation. And I certainly didn’t have the analysis to highlight the irony of a society that stigmatizes Black girls and women for having abortions when they’re already doing what they can to navigate a racist and patriarchal society. I just knew I’d “made a mistake” and had to make an unfortunate but necessary decision.
The births I’d have later would teach me more about the unwinnable scenario of Black motherhood than my abortion ever could.
When I decided I was ready to mother, I checked all the right boxes: I was married, insured, and educated.
But I was still Black, so none of that was enough to protect me from the stereotyping and removal of agency that caused me birth trauma. Doctors didn’t listen to me. They treated me as a vessel instead of a person. And I had retained placenta with both pregnancies. (If left untreated, retained placenta can be life-threatening.)
I was traumatized, yet, ironically, the trauma I suffered validated the abortion I’d had years before. In a moment of awakening, I finally understood that no amount of strategic planning could protect me from a white supremacist society that was pro-fetus and pro-birth, no matter how many thousands of Black women died during childbirth.
I couldn’t see myself in mainstream conversations about racial or gender justice. I wanted to process how social perceptions and politics impacted my personal experiences. I needed the language to communicate why the importance of access to abortion and trauma-free birthing experiences were interrelated. Likewise, I knew pregnancy was the first step in a lifetime of efforts to protect my children from a racist world. I found all of that in the reproductive justice framework. I finally had the language to describe reproductive oppression.
The seeds of reproductive oppression were established when enslaved women were raped and forced to birth. It was also visible in the way myths of Black hypersexuality and efforts to secure America’s capitalist culture necessitated that Black women be denied the marginal social protection that accompanied white motherhood. Black women continue to dream of a world where we control our reproductive destiny, and that undoubtedly includes abortion.
But the ability to parent and protect our children aren’t secondary considerations. Black women’s struggles couldn’t be oversimplified in gendered or racialized frameworks, as our reproductive nightmare was required to solidify everyone else’s American Dream.
I would be remiss to suggest my modern struggles are as egregious as those experienced by enslaved women. Yet Black women are still disproportionately vulnerable to violence—sexual or otherwise—and we’re still fighting for reproductive agency and the ability to protect our children.
Reproductive justice illuminated natural parallels between the early-stage patriarchal-capitalist system—which designated Black women as dual sites of production who were expected to subsidize society with their labor and their wombs—and the late-stage patriarchal-capitalist system that continues to exploit Black women today. Like then, the role of Black parents is devalued. And while the source of the systemic violence separating families of color has transformed to immigration policies, foster care, incarceration, and police violence, the extraction and exploitation remain the same.
Instead of supporting policies that deconstruct the system of white supremacy that deteriorates our quality of life, the anti-choice movement appropriates the language of the civil rights movement and further stigmatizes Black womanhood.
An adequate reproductive justice framework requires breaking down the anti/pro-choice binary. It means a conversation that goes beyond birth and explores how our institutions create co-vulnerabilities and what abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “a risk for premature death” that continues after birth. It requires challenging an immigration system that traumatizes families in overt and covert ways. It asserts that all people deserve access to quality health care, education, and family leave policies regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or citizenship status. It means taking issue with a culture that demands individuals’ birth at all cost and replacing it with real pro-community policies. Lastly, it requires proclaiming there is no such thing as “choice” until Black women can choose to mother—or not—without the weight of multigenerational systemic racism influencing their decision.
I’ve absolved myself of shame and the weight of feeling I’ve disgraced my community through my abortion. Instead, I’ve decided other social movements—namely male-centered racial justice efforts and white women’s feminism, which continue to ignore that Black women and girls deserve more than the siloed platforms they are offered—have failed me by refusing to acknowledge the nuanced needs and vulnerability to gender-based systemic violence that I face as a Black femme.
And while I’ll never know Dr. King’s specific perspectives on abortion, they don’t matter. I’ve proudly committed myself to a new dream.