October 2022

Reproductive justice advocates to Black voters: ‘Your body is on the ballot’

By Gaby Galvin

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has dismantled Roe v. Wade in a bomshell decision — and some states have banned abortion completely — reproductive justice advocates are warning Black voters about the link between abortion access, civil rights and democracy.

State laws making it harder to vote and policies that curb access to abortion — or criminalize the procedure — disproportionately harm Black people, especially in southern states. With record numbers of Black women running for office in the 2022 elections, advocates hope that anger over abortion will mobilize Black women to vote and hold local officials accountable long after ballots are cast.

“Reproductive justice means you have the human right to control your body, your work, your family,” said Marcela Howell, president and CEO of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda. “But you cannot exercise that unless you have political (capital, especially) at the state level.”

Color of Change is pressuring local prosecutors to refuse to criminalize people who seek abortions and pushing major tech companies to stop the collection of personal data that enables law enforcement and anti-abortion groups to identify them.

“Facebook has already demonstrated how tech companies serve as accomplices to hateful groups to enact state-sanctioned violence,” said Angel Han, a campaign manager for Color Of Change. 

“In June, they handed over the direct messages of a teenager who had an abortion to law enforcement so that they could criminalize her,” Han said. “When Roe was struck down, tech companies were quick to announce provisions for their workers who may seek an abortion, and yet have continually failed to put in policies — such as limiting data collection and enforcing their hate group policies to anti-abortion groups — that would actually protect Black people.” 

Activists are focused on state-level races, and although several states cut access to abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Georgia stands out. After Roe fell, state Republican lawmakers banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy — an extremely unpopular move among Black voters — and enacted a fetal personhood statute

Black women account for about 40% of abortions nationwide.

Studies show when carrying a child to term, Black people are less likely to have access to quality prenatal care, are more likely to experience pregnancy complications and are three to four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. The risks span income and education levels. 

Activists say it’s no coincidence those same lawmakers in 2021 passed sweeping new voting restrictions that civic groups called a “direct attack” on Black voters. High turnout among Black and other nonwhite voters in Georgia propelled President Joe Biden to the White House and gave Democrats the U.S. Senate majority in the 2020 elections, while abortion rights are at the center of the state’s gubernatorial and U.S. senate races this year.

“This is unprecedented territory. No one really can predict where this all will take us,” said Malika Redmond, co-founder and CEO of Women Engaged, an Atlanta nonprofit focused on voter engagement and reproductive rights. She called the current moment a “crisis” for Black women. 

Both Redmond’s and Howell’s groups have created voter guides for Black women, while the NBWRJA ran billboards reminding them “your body is on the ballot.” Redmond is using social media to fight election misinformation and to direct donations to pro-choice organizations.

Threats to abortion and reproductive health care appear to be resonating. Polls show Black Americans, including those who don’t identify as Democrats, are increasingly supportive of abortion rights during the past two decades, and that the issue could sway roughly 3 in 5 Black voters this cycle.

“This isn’t just about a choice,” Redmond said. “This is about justice and access to the full promise of what this democracy is supposed to be about.”