As activists gathered in a park just steps from the U.S. Supreme Court, Loretta Ross recalled the days before the Roe vs. Wade decision.
“Fifty-two years ago, as a freshman at Howard University, I had an abortion,” Ross told the crowd, gathered on an unusually chilly June afternoon. “It was easier then…than it is now for our freshmen at Howard University.”
Ross is among the founders of what is called the “reproductive justice” movement, which links reproductive rights to issues of racial and economic inequality. She spoke at a rally on Saturday, scheduled around the June 19 holiday weekend, organized by a coalition of groups led primarily by black women.
Until the landmark abortion rights ruling in 1973 legalized the procedure nationwide, abortion was only legal in a handful of places, including DC Ross said she had seen the movement come full circle as many people struggled to access the procedure.
She told young black women in the crowd to keep fighting for abortion rights.
“You’re all the wombs that are at risk, you’re all the bodies they’re trying to eliminate,” Ross said. “They’re trying to take your vote; they’re trying to take your abortion.”
Activists say access to abortion is essential for the well-being of black women, who face higher rates of poverty and maternal mortality.
Kenya Martin of We Testify – a group of activists who share their experiences publicly – told the crowd that an abortion saved her life.
“In 2015, I had a life-threatening pregnancy,” she said. “He tried to get me out.”
Martin said the experience motivated her to become an activist.
Some conservative black women say they are concerned about disproportionate abortion rates among communities of color.
Catherine Davis is president of the Restoration Project, a group focused on political issues affecting black Americans.
Davis opposes abortion and said she thinks it’s too often presented as a solution for black women struggling to make ends meet.
“Yeah, maybe they’re struggling,” Davis said. “But not to the point of having to take their child’s life.”
At the abortion rights rally, organized by reproductive rights groups SisterSong and Black Feminist Future, Leslie Grant-Spann of New York City held a handmade sign that read, “My human rights include my right to choose”. She said part of reproductive justice is about giving people the resources they need to make truly free choices about having children.
“Many people live in communities where they don’t have access to housing, gainful employment, safe environmental conditions,” she said. “So they are often faced with having to choose between their own livelihood and the prospect of bringing a life into this world they cannot support.”
Data from the Guttmacher Institute and the Centers for Disease Control suggest that black patients account for nearly one in three abortions in the United States. Hispanic women are also overrepresented.
Some advocates also worry that as states enact laws criminalizing abortion, people of color will also be disproportionately targeted for prosecution.
With the Supreme Court set to issue a ruling that could soon ban the procedure in about 20 states, reproductive justice leaders say they are preparing to do whatever is necessary to help people of color to access abortion.