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Beulah Osueke, executive director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice. (Photo courtesy of Beulah Osueke)

In celebration of Black History Month, it’s important to take a moment to remember the pioneers of the reproductive justice movement as well as those driving the current movement forward.

Today, activists throughout the nation have taken up the mantle of reproductive rights, fighting barriers to access as well as the fallout from the June 2022 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade and its affirmation of a constitutional right to abortion. 

However, today’s activists stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. The term “reproductive justice” was coined in 1994 by 12 Black women who came together during a conference in Chicago to create a plan to address health care reforms instituted under President Bill Clinton. They felt Clinton’s reforms didn’t go far enough in addressing reproductive health care issues that directly affected Black women.

Those founding mothers of reproductive justice, who later called themselves Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, were Toni M. Bond Leonard, Reverend Alma Crawford, Evelyn S. Field, Terri James, Bisola Marignay, Cassandra McConnell, Cynthia Newbille, Loretta Ross, Elizabeth Terry, “Able” Mable Thomas, Winnette P. Willis, and Kim Youngblood.

The group defined reproductive justice as a “human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent their children in safe and sustainable communities,” according to Ross in her book written with Rickie Solinger, “Reproductive Justice: An Introduction.” 

“We were still fighting for Black women to be able to discuss abortion and also to be trusted as moral agents with the capacity to make decisions about our bodies,” Leonard said at the time, according to Kara James of Black Voice News.

Today, activists in the reproductive justice movement are focused on ensuring marginalized communities continue to be included in work to dismantle policies that create barriers to abortion care and maternal health care and to tackle issues such as environmental injustice and mass incarceration.

Beulah Osueke was recently named executive director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group for Black women and girls with chapters in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Cleveland, Ohio.  

Osueke told the Pennsylvania Independent that even in Pennsylvania, where abortion care is legal up to 23 weeks of pregnancy, there remain ongoing threats to reproductive justice — particularly for Black, brown, LGBTQ, and low-income people. 

Osueke said that reproductive health care barriers affecting marginalized people in the United States date back to when Black people were enslaved. 

“When you think about Black people’s relationship, in particular, to us not having the ability to dictate what happens to our bodies, we’re not just talking about Roe being overturned,” Osueke said. “We’re not just talking about when Roe was introduced, we’re dating all the way back to us being enslaved, and through a government or ruling class lens, not having access to determine what happens to our own bodies.”  

Osueke continued: “So I remember it was really popular to talk about privacy and choice; that messaging always fell flat for Black people because, in this nation, we’ve never had autonomy for our bodies in the way that white women or more privileged identities people assume.” 

Osueke said one of the most vital issues impacting Black women in Pennsylvania is the lack of Medicaid coverage of abortion care: “Anything that the government doesn’t deem as medically necessary isn’t covered by Medicaid. And that directly impacts Black people because close to 50% of Medicare recipients are Black.” 

“So most birthing people who seek abortions already have a child. So we asked the question, why would public assistance prevent somebody from making a decision that they deem necessary for their life, their family, and their overall well-being and livelihood,” Osueke said.  “It’s implying that the government should be able to withdraw support or create barriers for people that are seeking health care because they are low income. … You shouldn’t need private insurance in order to receive a human right.” 

A Pennsylvania law dating back to 1982 prohibits Medicaid coverage of most abortions. In a 3-2 ruling on Jan. 29, the state Supreme Court allowed a lawsuit challenging the law to proceed.

Justice Christine Donohue wrote in her majority opinion, “We conclude that the Pennsylvania Constitution secures the fundamental right to reproductive autonomy, which includes a right to decide whether to have an abortion or to carry a pregnancy to term.”

Osueke said: “I feel like in response to all the despair and hopelessness that might be tempting to cling on to, on the other side of that is hope, ambition, and a very stubborn desire that we deserve more. … We have ancestors that wanted more than what they had, which is why we’re at least able to navigate the reality that we have. And it will be our descendants that benefit from our persistence and resilience that more is out there for us.”  

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