February 22, 2024


Future Depends on What You Do

Abortion Rights are Racial Justice | THIRTEEN

A woman with long hair and arm tattoo stands for a portrait along side a waterway with what might be an elevated railway seen in the distance.

Writer and advocate Senti Sojwal.

The first time I had a pregnancy scare, I was 20 years old on a study abroad program in Havana, Cuba. I spent my days in Spanish class and also interviewing sex workers, hotel staff, journalists, and researchers for a paper on Cuban women and the tourism industry and the exotified image of the mulatta in the Western imagination. My classmates and I spent our evenings drinking rum on the streets of Vedado, smoking oceanside cigarettes on the malecon, and dancing in nightclubs till the sun rose. I felt young and alive and gave in, easily, to everything around me. I had a brief fling. We weren’t safe. My period was late, and one night, two friends and I gathered in a circle around my pregnancy test like witches performing a seance. The thought of having a baby was absurd, hilarious even. I didn’t have a college degree, a job, a plan for my future, or any savings to speak of.

I knew then, as I know now, that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is mine and mine alone. That my future belongs to no one else but me. That my family should be built in my vision, on my timeline, if and when I determine it so. Women of color taught me that reproductive freedom is more than individual choice, and that a liberated world is one in which each of us has the power to determine our lives for ourselves.

I am lucky to have called the reproductive justice movement my political home for over a decade, ever since those days as a young college student thirsty for meaning, organizing for gender equity and whose world was opened up by brilliant feminist thinkers like Loretta Ross, Audre Lorde, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and many others for the first time. The Black women-led reproductive justice movement teaches us that we can only achieve reproductive justice through an intersectional lens: by analyzing power systems, centering the most marginalized, and joining together in solidarity, as all our struggles are connected.

In a post-Roe America, achieving reproductive justice feels farther away than ever. With this devastating attack on abortion rights, it’s people of color, the working class, immigrants, queer and trans people, and others on the margins that continue to suffer the most. Abortion rights are racial justice – and we’re in the fight for our future.

Reproductive Control is a Longstanding Tactic of the State to Uphold White Supremacy

The United States’ long history of reproductive coercion is cruel, devastating, and unmistakably racist. Many know that the roots of gynecological practice are entrenched in harrowing racism. J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” conducted medical experiments on enslaved Black women without anesthesia before perfecting his techniques and using them on white women who were sedated. In the 1950s, the first large-scale human trial of contraceptive pills was conducted in a public housing project in Puerto Rico. The eugenics movement advocated for and achieved the compulsory sterilization of the “feeble-minded,” poor people, and people of color, by the tens of thousands. In the 1970s, thousands of Native women were sterilized without their consent. These abuses go on and on throughout history and continue, in many forms, today. 

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As with many national conversations about race and racism in this country, Asian Americans have long been invisibilized in ongoing reproductive health, rights, and justice discourse. Though Asian Americans as a group remain vastly under-researched, the data we do have is clear: racist and sexist false stereotypes about Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI)  women have been used to justify bans on abortions and excuse racial profiling of our communities, and we remain critically underserved when it comes to reproductive health care access and education.

Throughout our country’s history, the reproduction and fertility of people of color have been utilized and manipulated to benefit a narrow white male political agenda hellbent on diminishing the power of others. The overturning of Roe is another step in the harrowing playbook of advancing white supremacy through reproductive control and diminishing our right to determine our own lives.

Attacks on Abortion are Devastating for Women’s and Maternal Health Overall

Women with sunglasses holds homemade sign that says Keep abortion legal accessible safe. Behind her a building with columns is blocked by temporary tall fence. Men with neon yellow vests stand at points along fence.

Day after Roe v Wade was overturned, a protest at the Supreme Court. Photo: Victoria Pickering

People of color have more abortions in the United States than white people, a consequence of systemic barriers to health care and health education. Research shows that when abortion access is banned or restricted, maternal mortality rates rise and access to other critical reproductive health care like natal support and birth control becomes even more limited. The health of women of color, especially Black women, is an ongoing and appalling crisis in this country. The maternal mortality rate in the United States grew by 136 percent in the years between 1990 and 2013 – one of the worst rates in the developed world. Poor people of color experience the brunt of this devastation and preventable death, with Black women facing a maternal mortality rate three times that of white women.

Abortion access is a critical mental health issue, too. The landmark Turnaway Study, led by demographer Diana Greene Foster, found that women who were denied abortions had more anxiety and lower self-esteem when an abortion was denied when compared with those who were able to have a wanted abortion. It’s clear that investing in the health and prosperity of our communities means investing in and expanding access to abortion.

Abortion is Critical to Economic Justice

Women in a row at march stand and hold printed signs. One says Only the Struggle Has Won. Other says United to Defend Women's Rights.

Reproductive justice NOW march in Philadelphia, May 7. Photo Joe Piette.

The Turnaway Study also showed that women denied abortions were four times more likely to live in poverty four years later, and were three times more likely to be unemployed than those who were able to obtain an abortion. Forced pregnancy means that pregnant people often lose out on job opportunities, struggle to continue their education, and face higher debt rates. In a country that fails to support mothers and families, this comes as no surprise. With a majority of workers having little to no access to paid family leave, the sky high costs of childcare, and mothers earning only 75 cents for every dollar paid to fathers, to be a mother in this country is to be punished economically, especially as a person of color. When we can control if, when, and how we reproduce, we have greater control over our lives and our economic stability. When we control our bodies and our futures, we benefit and so does our society. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

woman in orange sweatshirt holds cardboard homemade sign that says Hands Off My Body in orange. She is walking in street with crowd of other people holding signs. Some wear N95 masks.

Reproductive Justice NOW march Philadelphia, May 7, 2022. Photo Joe Piette

When the vast majority of Americans want to safeguard our right to abortion, yet our elected leadership and highest court in the land sides with an extreme right wing minority and puts our health at risk, our nation is in peril. We must fight tooth and nail to ensure that abortion access is protected and expanded at the state and local level, and organize to expand the Court in a way that truly reflects our values the needs of our communities. We must resist dominant narratives that abortion is a “women’s issue,” that some abortions are worthier than others, and that the language of “choice” is enough without ensuring access is available, too. Abortion rights matter for each one of us, and are critical to building the world our communities deserve. 

All those years ago, sitting in a circle with my friends on a faraway island, I breathed a sigh of relief when only one stripe appeared: I wasn’t pregnant. I want to live in a world where every person facing that heart-stopping moment can have the security of knowing that no matter what the stripes determine, their future still belongs to them, and they will have access to the care they need, whatever it may be, on demand, without apology.

Abortion is a human right and social good – and an attack on abortion is an attack on people of color, our families, our futures, and our own self-determination. We deserve so much better. 

Abortion Rights and Reproductive Justice Advocates

Young adults in bright yellow and orange shirts hold signs and gesture with their arms upraised.

Organizers at a rally in support of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York. Photo courtesy Planned Parenthood of Greater New York.

Here are some amazing organizations doing abortion rights and reproductive justice work in New York you can support and learn from:

Ancient Song Doula Services

The Audre Lorde Project

The Black Feminist Project

Black Women’s Blueprint 

National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice

New York Abortion Access Fund (NYAAF)

New York State Association of Licensed Midwives

Planned Parenthood of Greater New York

Reproductive Health Access Project

Voces Latinas

By Senti Sojwal
Writer, Digital Strategist & Reproductive Justice Advocate
Media Relations Director, The Center for Popular Democracy
Co-Founder, Asian American Feminist Collective

Community Connections examines issues and ideas of meaning to diverse communities throughout New York City and across the United States. Presented by The WNET Group, home to America’s flagship PBS station.