Credit: Charlotte Cooper/ctrouper on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)–A young African American woman suffering from seizures is rushed to the emergency room of Manhattan‘s Bellevue Hospital. The doctor informs nursing student Curlene Jennings-Bennett that the patient is a mother of five. She can’t afford to have a sixth child. After an exam, she’s hurried into surgery.
Instead of the usual pink color, the patient’s uterus, now infected, has turned black and needs to be removed. It’s clear to the obstetric-gynecological residents that she’s had a back-alley abortion. A few hours later she is dead. It is 1956.
Today, Jennings-Bennett still remembers it so clearly.
“It was heartbreaking. Whoever tried to do that abortion on that woman probably used a knitting needle and by the time she got to the hospital it was too late to save her,” the 77-year-old retired nurse, now living in Arizona, recalls. “Many girls these days just don’t realize the degree of trauma that women experienced back then.”
Jennings-Bennett’s recollection reminds me that I have always had access to quality reproductive health care in New York City.
My annoyance over the backlash against abortion rights and the overwhelming debates between those supporting and opposing reproductive choice prompts me to occasionally tune out. But when I look closer at my reaction, I’m hit with a revelation: I’m privileged.
Me, a black female in America? And my childhood friends–black and brown from Queens and Brooklyn, and one white from Manhattan’s pre-gentrified Lower East Side–are privileged?
Yes, if you consider that we grew up in the 1990s and access to reproductive health care wasn’t an issue we had to debate. There were no barriers that I remember in getting condoms and birth control, and no shame if one of us chose to have an abortion.
My friends were all born in the late 1970s or early ’80s and most of us would fall under the category of women of color or children of immigrants. We each began accessing reproductive care in New York City at different times and for different reasons. But we all knew how to get to Planned Parenthood or another clinic.
Despite some counselors’ best efforts to be non-judgmental, we non-white girls had to sit through pep talks colored with their generalizations about our “struggles.” We were turned off by incomplete narratives of how it was so hard being a non-white, non-upper income, non-average urban American teen. In “well-meaning” eyes, we were victims, but apparently we just didn’t know it.
If you are guilty of this, this woman of color forgives you. Degrees of privilege come with different sets of baggage. I don’t feel guilty about the degree of my own privilege. Instead I feel grateful for women of color who came before me and made my relative sense of entitlement possible.
One of them is Loretta Ross. I heard activists for reproductive justice talking about her at the Applied Research Center’s Facing Race conference in November. So I figured I’d call her myself.
Ross, 59, has been working to end violence against women and promote reproductive justice in the United States and abroad since the 1970s.
She is a co-founder and former national coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, a coalition of 80 women-of-color organizations across the country. Ross travels the country educating women of color and our allies about reproductive health justice. She’ll be teaching at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., this month.
Pregnant at 15 in the mid-1960s, she is a survivor of incest. She chose to keep her child. By 23, Ross was sterile. She was one of the first black women to win a suit against A.H. Robins, manufacturer of the Dalkon Shield that sterilized thousands of women worldwide through defective IUDs.
Ross says the term reproductive justice emerged in the late 1980s from the feeling that traditional reproductive rights movements lacked the perspectives of women of color and didn’t directly address the specific barriers that diverse communities face.
“As women of color, it’s important to leverage another paradigm,” Ross says. “That’s why we’ve shifted to the human rights factors. Whether it’s racism or constitutional limits; all of these are limits to the human to live in safe healthy environments. We created a paradigm that is inclusive, based on a shared humanity without denying our individual identities and experiences.”
Summer of 1979
Which gets me back to that nurse, Jennings-Bennett.
This time it’s the summer of 1979, on Staten Island, a borough in New York City. Jennings-Bennett suspects her 15-year-old daughter Leah is pregnant.
After a week of denials, Leah admits she is pregnant. Jennings-Bennett makes a phone call one night to a physician colleague at Beekman Downtown Hospital (now known as New York Downtown Hospital). By dawn the next day, mother and daughter wait silently for a bus to the ferry that takes them to the shoreline of downtown Manhattan. By 7:30 a.m., they are at the hospital and by 9:30 a.m. Leah’s in the recovery room with her IUD implanted. They grab a quick lunch and are back on the ferry before the 5 p.m. rush.
“You have to understand that I was processing this as a 15-year-old,” recalls Leah, now 48. “My mother and I had different perceptions of my response to the pregnancy. Many years later I was grateful for the guidance when it came to access, but the emotional healing took a little longer to get through.”
Leah’s story sums up the struggle to reach Ross’s flexible paradigm: “A shared humanity without denying our individual identities and experiences.” Leah’s mother sternly did what she thought was best for their shared humanity, but the individual daughter still felt denied.
Anika Rahman, president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation, joins Ross in the push to support the reproductive health concerns of women of color throughout the U.S.
“Women from many different communities have been raising the issue of access in their own ways for years,” Rahman says. “It is crucial to realize that we cannot speak about ‘women of color’ as though they are one homogenous group because their experiences and needs are so varied.”
One of the groups the Ms. Foundation helps fund is California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, which successfully fought to remove an anti-abortion billboard campaign targeting Latinas in 2011. The billboards, in Spanish and English, said “The most dangerous place for a Latino is in the womb.”
Similar attacks were launched against black women that same year. The Ms. Foundation has also worked with the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, whose testimony was key to blocking an anti-abortion bill before Congress.
“The Ms. Foundation was among the first to recognize the need for the women’s movement to broaden its approach — and to support local and state advocacy led by women best positioned to identify the pernicious barriers to reproductive health they faced and craft solutions to overcome them,” Rahman adds.
Today in the United States, there are still too many women–some immigrants, some in rural areas throughout the South and Midwest–who are stuck in the realities that some of us grew up thinking were over. They don’t have the privilege of readily available, accessible reproductive health care.