Commentary Race

Advancing Reproductive Justice for Black Women and Women of Color in Cleveland

Jasmine Burnett

Recent efforts by reproductive justice organizations in Cleveland, including New Voices Cleveland, show that women will not stand idly by and watch their rights be taken away or have others—be it mainstream media outlets, anti-choice organizations, or anti-woman politicians—dictate their health and safety needs through racist billboard campaigns.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A politically hostile and anti-woman sentiment is playing out in Ohio, where local and state legislators are using women’s access to reproductive health care as a tool to jockey for power. We are seeing varying degrees of this in states across the country, but the anti-choice movement’s “war on women” most recently came to a head in Ohio following the tragic death of Lakisha Wilson, a 22-year-old mother who had sought an abortion during her second trimester at Preterm, which provides abortions through 22 weeks’ gestation.

After Wilson’s death, the media and anti-choice organizations began stirring the anti-abortion discussion at the local and state level, but it was the response from women of color and allied organizations that is setting a precedent. Their work fighting back against these attacks shows that women will not stand idly by and watch their rights be taken away or have others—be it mainstream media outlets, anti-choice organizations, or anti-woman politicians—dictate their health and safety needs. It’s a model that other groups around the country should follow, especially in the coming year, when newly elected GOP lawmakers will be fighting hard against them.

On March 21, a Preterm clinic employee dialed 9-1-1 and reported to the dispatcher that Lakisha Wilson, who had been 19 weeks pregnant, was not breathing. The medical staff at Preterm immediately performed CPR. The ambulance arrived three minutes later and transported her to University Hospital, where she died on March 28, a week later, of “cardiopulmonary arrest immediately following elective abortion of intrauterine pregnancy.” The Cuyahoga County medical examiner determined there was no medical error in her procedure at Preterm. (According to a study published in Obstetrics and Gynecology, abortion is 14 times safer than childbirth.)

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When Lakisha Wilson entered Preterm in March, she had made the same choice that one in three women will make over the course of her lifetime. (Six out of ten of those women, like Wilson, are already mothers.) Four months after her death, however, Ohio Right to Life erected billboards aimed at spreading “awareness about the racial crisis of abortion” through racist campaign ads—not the first time anti-choice organizations erected billboards aimed at shaming and stigmatizing Black women seeking abortion.

The ads said things like “Stand by me,” and “Fatherhood starts in the womb,” presuming that abortion is the result of male irresponsibility. Additionally, the messages reinforced negative tropes about Black fatherhood, such as that Black fathers are conditioned to be absent, and that Black fathers are the only men impregnating women outside of marriage. These are extensions of anti-choice myths about Black women and Black motherhood.

In response to the ads, New Voices Cleveland, a grassroots organization working as part of New Voices Pittsburgh to advance reproductive justice for women and girls of color in the Rust Belt region through education, training, and advocacy, wrote an open letter calling on the groups responsible for the billboards to stand down. But Clear Channel, the media company that hosted the billboards, completely ignored its call for justice, as did Ohio Right to Life.

“The fact that they did not respond, reach out, or attempt to have a conversation with us, shows how much they do not value Black women,” said Maria Miranda, a member of New Voices. (Miranda is also director of development at Rewire.) “Black women said these billboards were offensive and [the groups] ignored it. This speaks volumes to their abilities to engage Black women on this topic. They say they care about Black communities but don’t want to talk to Black women who disagree with them.”

Because of my experience battling the racist anti-abortion billboard campaigns in 2011, through the Trust Black Women partnership, I know that developing a strategy in which allies stand with, but not in front of, women of color is integral to this work. The reproductive justice framework, specifically, centers the voices and experiences of women, girls, and the people who are most affected by white supremacy in the United States.

It is with this in mind that New Voices Cleveland was joined by NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio, and Preterm Clinic to retaliate against these anti-woman, racist attacks. They began working together to engage community members in a more positive way around reproductive health care, by launching efforts to de-stigmatize abortion and address health disparities by race and class that affect whether or not a family will receive quality care, if any at all. I assisted in this work, serving as a consultant organizer for New Voices Cleveland.

The themes they are adhering to as part of this collaborative work include: creating an ethos of collective work, responsibility, accountability, and trust among partner organizations; building a shared voice on reproductive justice issues in Greater Cleveland and in the State of Ohio; coordinating “first-response” work to political and legislative fires; and supporting collaborative efforts over the long-term for advocacy, organizing, and communication strategies. Our pro-active position is crucial because for too long the human rights and progressive movements have only been able to respond defensively to attacks from anti-choice extremists and political conservatives. We are clear that our values have always been rooted in true liberation and in acknowledgement of the difficult decisions that families have to make. These themes are placing the state’s leading reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations in a position to lead and bring in more allies and partners that share these values for Ohio women and families.

The context for these circumstances is informed by the politics of the state government: under Gov. John Kasich’s leadership, the legislature is now a conservative super majority in an otherwise purple state. Further, “Gov. Kasich has politicized the Department of Health by appointing Mike Gondiakis, president of Ohio Right to Life (an attorney, not a health-care provider), as a member of the state medical board,” explained Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, in a phone interview.

The political relationships that are brokered on the bodies of women and their families situates reproductive health needs in a conservatively biased, ethically challenged position. “[The right has] looked for opportunities to exploit and abuse their power to close clinics, not for medical reasons, but simply to placate their political base, like the anti-choice movement,” Copeland added.

Overall abortion is a safe medical procedure that has been legal since Roe v. Wade 41 years ago. However, even after the Cuyahoga County medical examiner determined that there was no medical error when Lakisha Wilson took her final breath, mainstream media outlets published articles that attempted to position abortion as an unsafe procedure.

Celeste Ribbins of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio explained to Rewire that it was “really unfortunate how the media coverage [about Lakisha Wilson] has shamed [women] and their decisions. Abortion and women’s health care are complex issues, so I think that it has been oversimplified in some of the coverage.” Ribbins added that “the information has been presented in a way that does not help women who may be contemplating what to do about their pregnancy make a truly informed decision about their health” and that her group will help a woman “no matter what, based on all of her options, and she will be educated on those options, whether that be to parent, adopt, or end the pregnancy.”

Nancy Pitts, director of development and communications at the Preterm Clinic, emphasized the safety of abortion procedures and the supportive environment her clinic offers to clients, despite what anti-choicers have instilled in their followers. She said Preterm is “a place of complete human dignity and complete human respect.”

“It’s a process coming into the heart of Preterm,” she explained, “Everyone has to go through a metal detector and we have a security guard on duty, but once you get inside, we create a welcoming, nurturing space … in a way that honors people, their experiences, values, feelings, and needs.”

Pitts added that because of the state’s 24-hour waiting period law, “we have two waiting rooms …. We know that people spend a lot of time here so we try to create a space where they can be comfortable.”

For now, Preterm continues to meet the needs of the community’s most vulnerable. But as the results of this year’s elections show, the fight to protect women’s reproductive rights, health, and safety in the state is far from over. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, as this reproductive justice work in 2014 is demonstrating, women of color leadership and allied organizations in Ohio will not stand by while the rights of Ohio women and families are dialed back to the 1950s and 1960s when birth control was not readily available or affordable and when the only abortions women had access to were those that were unsafe. We will mobilize our allies and convene our partners that are invested in advancing the human rights of Ohio women and families.

The collaboration with NARAL Pro Choice Ohio, New Voices Cleveland, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio, and Preterm Clinic is only the beginning of our strategy to attain reproductive justice for women and girls of color and our families in Ohio, which includes fighting for access to quality care for women even before they become pregnant. While we don’t know more about the events leading up to Lakisha Wilson’s death, we do know Black women are less likely to have access to preventive care services, which is literally killing them.

“I never met Lakisha, I only know her through the circumstances of her death, but boy did she spark something from the anti-choice folks,” said Maria Miranda. “At the same time, she sparked the voices of Black women to say, ‘Wait a minute, not in her name will you shame the choices that we have to make for our families.'”

“A woman I will never know is part of this history-making moment in Cleveland around getting Black women’s voices amplified, and there’s something very powerful about that,” she added.

There’s also something very powerful about the ways in which Cleveland groups have collaborated around making change in the state. The response from a coalition of women’s health organizations was a vital step in advancing reproductive justice for Black women and women of color in the state. Now, advocates must continue to fight back against these racist, anti-choice attacks. As my experience in Cleveland has demonstrated, the way to do this, and ultimately achieve human rights for all, is to put the needs of the people most affected at the center of this work.

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