Women have had to fight for their rights for generations. A woman’s right to control her body, health, and well-being and decide if and, if so, when she wants to give birth is one of the most challenging and complex battles of this and last centuries. A women’s right to choose has been a long and hard-fought battle spanning generations. Fifty years ago, on January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark 7-2 decision in Roe v. Wade, protecting a woman’s constitutional right to choose. Fifty years later, the Supreme Court reversed that ruling allowing states to limit or eliminate women’s rights to make decisions in their privacy and with the support of their families and medical professionals. The clock has been turned back decades for women’s rights in general and the rights of Black women in particular. The injustice runs deep, as the battles they fought decades ago must be reignited and strengthened for future generations.
Ever since our ancestors were stolen from Africa and brought to the United States in chains, Black women have had to fight for their reproductive rights. During slavery, the enslavers often raped enslaved Black women and forced them to bear children to benefit both the enslavers and the economic interests of the United States. Exploiting Black women’s reproductive labor was a form of racial and gender oppression. In that environment, abortion was a means of resistance.
Black women have been at the forefront of the fight for reproductive freedom and justice. Their contributions have been critical in shaping the conversation around reproductive rights and ensuring that all women can decide about their bodies and lives.
One of the earliest examples of Black women’s involvement in the fight for reproductive freedom dates back to the 19th century. Fanny Jackson Coppin, a Black educator and activist spoke out against the restrictive gender roles placed upon Black women during her time. They insisted that education and reproductive freedom were inalienable rights critical in empowering Black women to fight for their rights.
Throughout the Great Depression up to the 1950s, advocates like Mary McLeod Bethune, a Black educator and civil rights leader, emphasized the importance of family planning and contraception to empower Black women to achieve economic and social equality. As president of the National Council of Negro Women and a member of President Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet,” Bethune championed contraception, birth control, and access to family planning services for Black women.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Black women like Fannie Lou Hamer helped shape the fight for reproductive rights for all women. Ms. Hamer was a passionate civil rights activist and fierce champion of African American women’s right to choose. She used her experience of being forced into a hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent during surgery as proof of Black women’s struggles. This experience fueled her to advocate for legislation and programs to put reproductive choices back in the hands of Black women.
In addition, other Black organizations, such as the Black Panther Party and the National Welfare Rights Organization, also worked to ensure that the broader struggle for civil rights included reproductive rights. Black women leaders in these organizations played a significant role in the landmark Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States in 1973. They worked tirelessly to create their own spaces for reproductive health and raised awareness of the systemic inequalities in healthcare.
In response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, California’s elected officials have vowed to keep California as a haven for all women and their fundamental right to choose. We applaud their work, and now we must keep pushing and raising our voices to reclaim our constitutional right to choose. Black women have been at the forefront of the fight for reproductive freedom and justice. Their contributions have been critical in shaping the conversation around reproductive rights and ensuring that all women can decide about their bodies and lives. The battle is not over, and we will continue to support our wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters in our collective fight against the erosion and degradation of a woman’s right to choose.