Reproductive rights are civil rights

The murder of Dr. George Tiller, who provided medical care for women seeking abortions, was an act of domestic terrorism because it was meant to threaten and intimidate women who seek safe and legal abortions, their families, and the healthcare professionals who assist them.

Tiller’s murder created yet another touchstone for an issue that has received new urgency since President Obama’s recent commencement speech at Notre Dame and the nomination of pro-choice Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet, amazingly, in the days after the attack, I am struck by how few black voices have stepped into the storm to condemn anti-choice violence and rhetoric. That’s unfortunate, because being pro-choice shouldn’t be just a white feminist thing. It’s a black thing, too.

Reproductive rights are civil rights, and we only have to look at the numbers to see how we are disproportionately affected by race, class and gender inequality. For instance, Black women have abortions at three times the rate of white women. Our rates of infant mortality are nearly double than for white newborns. Black women are four times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than white women. Reproductive justice means closing those gaps through the advocacy of healthy reproductive options for black women, including the right to safe abortion.

I know the fear of walking into a women’s clinic with friends and as a patient myself, and I know the anguish of terminating a pregnancy. These sorrows can be minimized by reducing the number of unintended pregnancies in our communities. However, the answer does not lie in the racialized rhetoric of sexual respectability. You know the argument that demonizes unmarried black mothers as promiscuous and simply tells women to “close their legs.” Let’s be clear about the hypocrisy perpetrated in the name of sexual respectability. Those who would condemn black and brown women for out-of-wedlock sex celebrate Bristol Palin with a cover story in People magazine. No disrespect to young Bristol, but it has never been the case that this nation championed the life choices of a black teenage mother because she chose to keep her child rather than have an abortion.

The politics of pregnancy, birth and motherhood have racial implications, and the more we engage these complexities the more effective we will be in addressing the realities of our sexual and reproductive lives. What we need is real sex education, not abstinence-only programs for young people, and easy access to multiple forms of contraception, including the increased availability and affordability of the morning-after pill. Our community leaders and religious leaders should fight for reproductive justice by advocating these solutions, because “close your legs” is not choice, it is not activism, and it is not justice.

One my heroes, Fannie Lou Hamer, joined the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi after suffering at the hands of a “Mississippi appendectomy,” a euphemism for the practice of state-sanctioned sterilization that was forced on women of color throughout the 20th century. Her outrage over this abuse was critical to her development as an activist, and for her, civil rights included the right to control her fertility.

For black women, choice has meant protection from sterilizations and court-ordered birth control enforcement. Choice has also meant access to superior prenatal health care, safe housing and nutrition that would allow us to raise healthy, happy children if we desire. And, in many cases, it has also meant the choice to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Too often, the mainstream pro-choice movement sidelines our multiple ideas about choice, which may contribute to our relative silence when abortion rights are violently threatened. Even so, we must not be deterred. Faye Wattleton understood this, and as the first black woman to head Planned Parenthood, she brought our interests to prominence and risked her life doing it. Members of groups like Sister Song Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective understand this, and they organize with groups of women to fight for reproductive health and sexual rights.

Our desire for real choice must continue to include our vocal support for abortion rights. If we stand up and tell our stories, join forces with others, express our outrage at Dr. Tiller’s murder and share our support for pro-choice jurists, Black women can redefine the meaning of reproductive justice.