Editor’s note: This speech was given by SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective Executive Director Monica Simpson before the Democratic National Convention Platform Drafting Committee on June 17. The hearing was held as part of a process to determine “what should be included in the party’s platform for the July 2016 convention in Philadelphia.” A version of the statement will be sent to the Republican National Committee. We are reprinting it here with permission from SisterSong.
So for identification purposes, thank you for saying who I am. I’m really excited to be here as a volunteer and advocate to provide information to the drafting committee about the importance of reproductive justice and to highlight how the platform might address the priorities, experiences, and struggles of women of color.
So I grew up in the rural South, in a town with only one stoplight, in a town where racial divide was blatantly drawn by railroad tracks that split the town from the haves and the have-nots. I remember being forced to sign the prom promise that locked us into abstinence-only sex education, where we were given that [information about sexual health] only over one course period. And unfortunately, this is still the case.
Also in my church, the place where most Black people in my Southern community received political education, every young woman except three of us were pregnant before graduating high school. The nearest abortion clinic for those who were strong enough to endure the shame of their community and the church was 30 miles away. There were no sidewalks, or public transportation system, to get a person there, even if they wanted to have one.
Most felt stuck within the town limits, where the jobs were basically nonexistent. The then-newly built private prison that needed to be filled was a constant reminder of the criminal justice system that separated so many young mothers from the fathers of their children.
In this story, you can see how the overlapping issues like race, economic barriers, faith, and criminal justice can make it difficult and sometimes impossible for marginalized communities to access the services that they need. This is what intersectionality looks like. And it’s because of these types of stories like mine that Black women came together to establish the reproductive justice movement, now 20 years ago.
Reproductive justice, distinct from reproductive health and rights, is a movement-building framework that envisions liberation for the most marginalized. We believe that reproductive justice will be achieved when all people have the economic, social, and political power and means to make decisions about their bodies, sexuality, faith, and family with dignity and self-determination. As you can imagine, we have a long way to go.
To ensure the health and safety of women of color, I urge you to address the formidable barriers that prevent us from getting the care we need, deny our decisions, and lead to shameful disparities. [Together], we must complete the work to ensure health care for all by expanding Medicaid nationally and passing the Health Equity and Accountability Act. This act eliminates health disparities, and the one issue [to] address most importantly to us and our work right now is the issue of maternal mortality.
Black women are dying during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period at [rates] nearly four times higher than white women. This is a public health crisis and a national shame. We must stop it in its tracks and the avalanche of state laws that push access to safe and legal abortion out of reach for people of color by those struggling to make ends meet. This is—this will be helped by ending the Hyde Amendment that puts a ban on insurance coverage for abortion, and passing the Women’s Health Protection Act which removes barriers to access.
Of course, our ability to make real decisions about pregnancy cannot be separated from the economic realities in our lives. And furthermore, everyone needs to feel safe, especially mothers and pregnant women. But unfortunately, pregnant women dealing with substance abuse are being overly criminalized in states like Tennessee. Women like Marissa Alexander in Florida [were] imprisoned for protecting [their] family and women like Purvi Patel and Kenlissia Jones were criminalized for ending their pregnancies.
The intersection of criminal justice and our reproductive lives is real and something that we cannot ignore.
Now more than ever, women of color are standing up for the issues that matter to us and demanding change, and we are voting. Change in policies, change in the political discourse, and change in leadership are needed to ensure that our communities are no longer ignored. Like the platform as a whole, this is not a one-note plan. One of my sheroes, Audre Lorde, said we cannot have single-issue movements because we do not live single-issue lives. To ensure that all people and all families have the opportunity to thrive, our political platforms must be intersectional, so that the most marginalized are centered and that our whole lives are honored.
This speech has been lightly edited for clarity.
Watch the full video, including the Q&A following Simpson’s speech, here: