Back in 1994, a dozen Black women attended a pro-choice conference in Chicago. They regarded the singular focus on abortion as a blind spot and emphasizing choice as limiting.
What about access to reproductive health services? What about health disparities that led to Black women suffering high rates of maternal death, HIV and fibroids?
When the women huddled in a hotel room at the conference, they concluded that a different framework was needed to address comprehensive health issues for Black women that included abortion and reproductive and sexual health needs. Thus, they coined the phrase “reproductive justice.”
Reproductive justice is grounded in Black feminism and human rights. The four pillars are: the right to have a child or not have a child; the right to parent the children they have with the social and economic supports needed to thrive; the right to live free from violence; and the right to express sexuality in ways they desire.
A distinction exists between rights and justice. The former is about protecting legal rights. Justice is about movement-building and centering the stories and lives of people pushed to the margins.
One of the first public actions the reproductive justice foremothers did was to take out a public, full-page ad in the Washington Post and Roll Call. Hundreds of signatures endorsed a statement about the needs of Black women’s reproductive and sexual health.
Toni Bond was one of those dozen Black women who emerged from that 1994 pro-choice conference with the framework for reproductive justice. At the time, she ran the Chicago Abortion Fund. She no longer lives in Chicago, but she donated her papers in 2011 to the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature at the Carter G. Woodson branch of the Chicago Public Library.
Bond, a Christian ethics and theology scholar, co-founded African American Women Evolving in 1996 with Winnette Willis in Chicago. In 2009, the name changed to Black Women for Reproductive Justice. Activism ranged from teaching girls about basic reproductive health, such as tracking menstrual cycles, to educating women on how to give self-breast examinations to check for cancer.
Bond spent many years in Chicago. I’ve used her archives in my reporting. She once told me, “If Black women can’t be self-determining about their bodies, then we can’t be self-determining as a Black people. The ability of the Black community to be self-determining about its own health care was dependent on Black women being able to be in control of, and be able to make decisions about, when and whether to carry a pregnancy to term.”
Archivists at Harsh have recently curated a display of Bond’s collection in the lobby of Woodson at 95th and Halsted streets. There’s swag and flyers from organizations she founded. Surveys given to Black women about their bodies. Newsletters written about barriers to reproductive health, a breast self-examination kit, notes taken during the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team’s meeting on reproductive health.
The display is merely a sliver of what’s stored in boxes at Harsh, which is open to the public and a reminder that Illinois is known for more than expanding abortion rights.
If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, as is expected this summer, the closest state for a woman from Louisiana to get an abortion will be Illinois. Our state is heralded as a haven for abortion protections. Take a look at a map, Illinois stands out as its neighbors continue to limit abortions.
Experts, activists and scholars continue to dissect and debate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft 100-page opinion striking down abortion. One stand-out argument he makes is about modern developments in society. Alito writes that attitudes have changed about the pregnancy of unmarried women; federal and state laws ban discrimination on the basis of pregnancy; and insurance and government cover medical care associated with pregnancy.
Alito’s words could be interpreted as aspirational, as women still struggle with support around motherhood and child care. And those aspirations sound a lot like one of the pillars of reproductive justice.