Beyond Choice, Towards Freedom

A pencil illustration of three black women posing in front of large hanging chains
Illustration by Clyde Gilliam from the original "We Remember" brochure.
Black feminists demanded more than Roe — in 1989.

By Marian Jones

Protecting Roe v. Wade will no longer dominate the abortion rights agenda. But although we stand on transformed terrain, we’re not without guidance. An early document from the reproductive justice movement offers an expansive vision that is well suited to post-Roe organizing.

In the summer of 1989, a group of 16 Black women advocating for equal access to abortion published the brochure “We Remember: African-American Women Are for Reproductive Freedom.” It was a watershed moment for Black women’s history.

The six-page pamphlet was penned by Ms. magazine editor Marcia Gillespie in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, which allowed states to restrict abortion rights. The statement laid out an 11-point definition of reproductive freedom originating from the belief that women should be empowered to make informed reproductive decisions and to access affordable, high-quality contraceptive options and health care. 

“Somebody is trying to say that we can’t handle the freedom of choice.”

The first pro-choice statement put out by a collective of Black leaders, “We Remember” situated the Webster ruling in a long history of Black women’s oppression in the U.S., extending back to slavery. “Now once again,” the document states, “somebody is trying to say that we can’t handle the freedom of choice.” Loretta Ross, one of the co-authors, has said Black women needed “permission to talk about abortion.” They took it. Ross and her collaborators published the brochure, distributed approximately a quarter million copies, and “the rest,” she said, “is history.”

In the early 1990s, Black reproductive freedom activists had uninspiring options for allies. President Bill Clinton expressed only lukewarm support for abortion rights (“safe, legal, and rare” were his watchwords) and his proposed 1993 Health Security Act ignored many of the things Black feminists deemed essential for reproductive health. On the other hand, the pro-choice movement was dominated by white women who seemed determined to silo abortion off from other reproductive concerns like access to housing and health care. Meanwhile, the right’s power on the Supreme Court was growing, as was grassroots violence: the first assassination of an abortion doctor, Dr. David Gunn, occurred in 1993.

During a national conference hosted by the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance in 1994, a group of 12 Black women spontaneously formed a Black women’s caucus. They coined the phrase “reproductive justice” to describe an organizing framework for low-income women and women of color that addressed bodily autonomy, broad reproductive freedoms, and access to money and resources. Using the moniker “Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice,” they launched a nationwide campaign to raise awareness about the reproductive health issues that Black women face.

In 1994, Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice reissued “We Remember” with fresh endorsements. As Loretta Ross said later, reflecting on the reproductive justice framework, “by shifting the definition of the problem to one of reproductive oppression rather than a narrow focus on protecting the legal right to abortion, we are developing a more inclusive vision of how to move forward in building a new movement.”

That movement went on to make many more public interventions. In 1994, the founders raised $40,000 to publish a full-page ad in the Washington Post, making, as organizer Toni M. Bond Leonard once put it to Natalie Y. Moore, “a clear statement about the state of Black women’s reproductive and sexual health and what needed to be included in any proposed plan for health care.” They publicly supported Joycelyn Elders when Clinton asked her to resign as Surgeon General after she expressed support for educating young people about masturbation as a means of preventing the spread of HIV. In 1997, members of the movement founded SisterSong, an organization that enshrined reproductive justice values and committed to “the reproductive and sexual health of women of color and gender-nonconforming people of color.” Today, the reproductive justice framework has been adopted by countless organizations and activists.

While word “choice” appears throughout “We Remember,” Black feminist scholar Kimberly Springer notes that “the statement re-frames the concept of ‘choice’ beyond the issue of abortion, within the context of Black women’s historical quest for freedom.” To this end, the document’s second point is “the right to choose to have children”; number four is “the right to health services to help the infertile achieve pregnancy.”

“We Remember,” and the reproductive justice movement as a whole, challenge us to imagine what a movement for abortion would look like if it was organized around positive rights — to housing, to food, to health care — instead of the negative right to privacy that has now been thrown out by the Court.

Today, Gillespie’s words ring as true as they did in 1989: “We know that abortions will still be done, legal or not.” Making the case for decriminalization is not just a matter of choice but “a matter of survival.”

“Black women used the lessons of the past to point the way forward.”

It’s shameful that people in the U.S. have fewer reproductive rights today than we did when “We Remember” was published in 1989. But in creating a movement focused on an alternative vision of freedom, Black women used the lessons of the past to point the way forward. “We remember who we are,” the statement says, “our history, and our continuing struggle for freedom.”

“We Remember: African American Women Are For Reproductive Freedom”

Choice is the essence of freedom. It’s what we African-Americans have struggled for all these years. The right to choose where we would sit on a bus. The right to vote. The right for each of us to select our own paths, to dream and reach for our dreams. The right to choose how we would or would not live our lives. 

This freedom — to choose and to exercise our choices — is what we’ve fought and died for. Brought here in chains, worked like mules, bred like beasts, whipped one day, sold the next — for 244 years we were held in bondage. Somebody said that we were less than human and not fit for freedom. Somebody said we were like children and could not be trusted to think for ourselves. Somebody owned our flesh, and decided if and when and with whom and how our bodies were to be used. Somebody said that Black women could be raped, held in concubinage, forced to bear children year in and year out, but often not raise them. Oh yes, we have known how painful it is to be without choice in this land. 

Those of us who remember the bad old days when Jim Crow ruled and segregation was the way of things, know the hardships and indignities we faced. We were free, but few or none were our choices. Somebody said where we could live and couldn’t, where we could work, what schools we could go to, where we could eat, how we could travel. Somebody prevented us from voting. Somebody said we could be paid less than other workers. Somebody burned crosses, harassed and terrorized us in order to keep us down.

Now once again somebody is trying to say that we can’t handle the freedom of choice. Only this time they’re saying African American women can’t think for themselves and, therefore, can’t be allowed to make serious decisions. Somebody’s saying that we should not have the freedom to take charge of our personal lives and protect our health, that we only have limited rights over our bodies. Somebody’s once again forcing women to acts of desperation, because somebody’s saying that if women have unintended pregnancies, it’s too bad, but they must pay the price.

Somebody’s saying that we must have babies whether we choose to or not. Doesn’t matter what we say, doesn’t matter how we feel. Some say that abortion under any circumstance is wrong, others that rape and incest and danger to the life of the woman are the only exceptions. Doesn’t matter that nobody’s saying who decides if it was rape or incest; if a woman’s word is good enough; if she must go into court and prove it. Doesn’t matter that she may not be able to take care of a baby; that the problem also affects girls barely out of adolescence; that our children are having children. Doesn’t matter if you’re poor and pregnant — go on welfare, or walk away.

What does matter is that we know abor­tions will still be done, legal or not. We know the consequences when women are forced to make choices without protection — the coat hangers and knitting needles that punctured the wombs of women forced to seek back­alley abortions on kitchen tables at the hands of butchers. The women who died screaming in agony, awash in their own blood. The women who were made sterile. All the women who endured the pain of makeshift surgery with no anesthetics, risked fatal infection.

We understand why African-American women risked their lives then, and why they seek safe legal abortion now.

We understand why African-American women risked their lives then, and why they seek safe legal abortion now. It’s been a mat­ter of survival. Hunger and homelessness. Inadequate housing and income to properly provide for themselves and their children. Family instability. Rape. Incest. Abuse. Too young, too old, too sick, too tired. Emo­tional, physical, mental, economic, social ­— the reasons for not carrying a pregnancy to term are endless and varied, personal, ur­gent, and private. And for all these pressing reasons, African-American women once again will be among the first forced to risk their lives if abortion is made illegal.

There have always been those who have stood in the way of our exercising our rights, who tried to restrict our choices. There prob­ably always will be. But we who have been oppressed should not be swayed in our op­position to tyranny, of any kind, especially attempts to take away our reproductive free­dom. You may believe abortion is wrong. We respect your belief and we will do all in our power to protect that choice for you. You may decide that abortion is not an option you would choose. Reproductive freedom guarantees your right not to. All that we ask is that no one deny another human being the right to make her own choice. That no one condemn her to exercising her choices in ways that endanger her health, her life. And that no one prevent others from creating safe, affordable, legal conditions to accom­modate women, whatever the choices they make. Reproductive freedom gives each of us the right to make our own choices, and guar­antees us a safe, legal, affordable support sys­tem. It’s the right to choose.

We are still an embattled people beset with life-and-death issues. Black America is under siege. Drugs, the scourge of our com­munity, are wiping out one, two, three gen­erations. We are killing ourselves and each other. Rape and other unspeakable acts of violence are becoming sickeningly commonplace. Babies linger on death’s door, at risk at birth: born addicted to crack and cocaine; born underweight and undernourished; born AIDS-infected. An ever-growing num­ber of our children are being abandoned, being mentally, physically, spiritually abused. Homelessness, hunger, unemployment run rife. Poverty grows. Our people cry out in desperation, anger, and need.

Meanwhile, those somebodies who claim they’re “pro-life” aren’t moved to help the living. They’re not out there fighting to break the stranglehold of drugs and violence in our communities, trying to save our chil­dren, or moving to provide infant and maternal nutrition and health programs. Eradicating our poverty isn’t on their agenda. No — somebody’s too busy picket­ing, vandalizing and sometimes bombing family-planning clinics, harassing women, and denying funds to poor women seeking abortions.

So when somebody denouncing abor­tion claims that they’re “pro-life”, remind them of an old saying that our grandmothers often used: “It’s not important what people say, it’s what they do.” And remember who we are, remember our history, our continu­ing struggle for freedom. Remember to tell them that We Remember!

Reproductive freedom means: 

1. The right to comprehensive, age-appropriate information about sexuality and reproduction.

2. The right to choose to have a child.

3. The right to good, affordable health care to assure a safe pregnancy and delivery.

4. The right to health services to help the infertile achieve pregnancy.

5. The right to choose not to have a child.

6. The right to the full range of contraceptive services and appropriate information about reproduction.

7. The right to choose to end an unwanted pregnancy.

8. The right to safe, legal, affordable abortion services.

9. The right to make informed choices.

10. The right to easily accessible health care that is proven to be safe and effective.

11. The right to reproductive health and to make our own reproductive choices.

Marian Jones is an editor at Lux.