By Atima Omara
This weekend, I will join individuals and organizations from across the country for the March for Black Women. And Black women have many reasons to march: ongoing attacks on voting rights; racial profiling and police brutality; mass incarceration; state and gender-based violence against Black cisgender and transgender women; and attacks on our reproductive autonomy, to name just a few.
I am marching as a Black Millennial (or possibly “xennial”) woman who came to politics because of my commitment to women’s health and rights. I am marching because weeks ago, I watched Charlottesville, the town that shaped my activism in my college years, be torn apart by white supremacists emboldened by a President who wants to legislate away the civil rights of people who look like me.
I am marching because Black women still fight for equality in one aspect of self-determination: when and if to bear a child.I am the daughter of Black immigrants to the United States, and the granddaughter of two women who had many children with little say in the matter because they didn’t have access to birth control. I know that for my grandmothers it was a daily struggle to provide for their families. Given a choice, the size of their families may have been different. But I’ll never know for sure, because they never got the chance.
Having children can dramatically change the course of a person’s life. This is why many Millennials, a generation hit hard by the 2008 Great Recession, list having a child and getting a house as big life decisions they have placed on hold. It’s why women who choose abortion typically cite cost and the ability to take care of children high on their list of reasons for getting an abortion. Decisions about pregnancy and parenthood are steeped in the basic economics of living—a fact lost on many politicians, usually men, and even those who profess pro-choice values.
Earlier this year, Senator Bernie Sanders unleashed a torrent of criticism when he made apparent that his willingness to compromise on reproductive rights. And DCCC Chair Rep. Ben Ray Lujan further stepped into it when he said later there would be no litmus test for abortion” for 2018 House candidates. I am especially baffled when polling from Pew Research Center from late last year found the highest levels of support for legal abortion since 1995, especially amongst those who identified as Democrats.
As a Black woman, I am especially floored that anyone could suggest that my ability to decide when and if I have a child should ever be on the chopping block. As an American, and student of history, I know well the horrific history of slavery in the U.S., including the daily violation of bodily autonomy endured by enslaved Black women. Black women as slaved suffered sexual assault to bearing the children of those who enslaved them, to being ordered to produce more children to fill the fields with more laborers for the slave owner.
Sound familiar? Maybe something like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale?” The Handmaids’ sole job was to endure sexual assault to produce children for the rich and powerful. Viewers of the television show who viewed “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a shocking dystopia would do well to remember that nearly everything in the show directly reflects the actual experience of Black women in this country’s history.
Let me be clear. We don’t all have to agree on abortion—each of us should be able to make for ourselves the deeply personal decision to end or continue a pregnancy. But women cannot enjoy true equality in this country so long as our decisions are subject to debate or the whim of political dictates. This is doubly true for Black women.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, the unintended pregnancy rate among women with an income below the federal poverty level is more than five times that among women with an income at or above 200% of poverty. Low-income women simply don’t have the same access to sexual health information, affordable contraception, health insurance, and reproductive care as women with means. The result is more unintended pregnancies, and consequently, a greater need for abortion care.
Fair wages, decent working conditions, and access to reproductive health care, including abortion, help ensure that women and families can be healthy and live with dignity. Black women account for 27.6 percent of all U.S. abortions, although they make up just 14.9 percent of the U.S. female population.Unfortunately, Black women experience added barriers to getting the reproductive care we need for all the reasons listed.
Factor in overzealous anti-abortion state politicians who’ve passed thousands of laws in states targeting reproductive health care with needless restrictions, shutting down clinics Black women rely on for care, and banning abortion, and it’s clear that women are blatantly being denied their legal right to make decisions about their health care. It might be enough to make you want to march, too.
Every woman should have access to the full range of reproductive healthcare, including birth control, abortion, pre-natal care, and childbirth. Being able to control our own decisions is the foundation of freedom and essential to economic opportunity.
At this point in our nation’s history, we must hold close our rights, including the right to make our own decisions about pregnancy and parenting, the right to live free from discrimination and violence, and the right to peacefully protest, especially when our other rights are under threat.
Who’s going to March?
Atima Omara, a political strategist, award-winning leader and advocate, is a Democratic National Committee member, and Immediate Past President of the Young Democrats of America. She previously served as Vice President at the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, a research based advocacy organization focusing on reproductive health and rights and is former board member of the DC Abortion Fund, and current board chair of Planned Parenthood Metro Washington Action Fund. She is a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.