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On Juneteenth weekend, Black activists march for abortion rights

Abortion rights supporters march to the Supreme Court as part of a rally pegged to the Juneteenth holiday weekend.
Sarah McCammon
Abortion rights supporters march to the Supreme Court as part of a rally pegged to the Juneteenth holiday weekend.

As activists gathered in a park just a short walk from the U.S. Supreme Court, Loretta Ross remembered the days before the Roe v. Wade decision.

"Fifty two years ago when I was a first-year student at Howard University, I had an abortion," Ross told the crowd, gathered on an unseasonably cool June afternoon. "It was easier then...than it is right now for our first-year students at Howard University."

Ross is among the founders of what's known as the "reproductive justice" movement, which links reproductive rights to issues of racial and economic inequality. She spoke at a rally on Saturday, planned around the Juneteenth holiday weekend, organized by a coalition of mostly Black-women-led groups.

Until the landmark abortion rights decision in 1973 legalized the procedure nationwide, abortion was only legal in a handful of places, including D.C. Ross said she's watched the movement come full circle as many people struggle to access the procedure.

She told young Black women in the crowd to keep fighting for abortion rights.

"Y'all are the wombs that are at risk; y'all are the bodies that they're trying to eliminate," Ross said. "They're trying to take your vote; they're trying to take your abortion."

Singer Ayanna Gregory performs for a crowd of abortion rights advocates in Stanton Park in Washington, D.C. on June 18, 2022
Sarah McCammon / NPR
Singer Ayanna Gregory performs for a crowd of abortion rights advocates in Stanton Park in Washington, D.C. on June 18, 2022

Activists say access to abortion is essential for the well-being of Black women, who face higher rates of both poverty and maternal mortality.

Kenya Martin, of We Testify – a group of advocates who publicly share their experiences – told the crowd that an abortion saved her life.

"In 2015, I had a life-threatening pregnancy," she said. "It tried to take me out."

Martin said the experience motivated her to become an activist.

Some conservative Black women say they're concerned about the disproportionate abortion rates among communities of color.

Catherine Davis is president of the Restoration Project, a group focused on policy issues affecting Black Americans.

Davis opposes abortion, and said she believes it's too often promoted as a solution for Black women who are struggling to make ends meet.

"Yes, they may be struggling," Davis said. "But not to the extent that they need to take the life of their child."

At the abortion rights rally, which was organized by the reproductive rights groups SisterSong and Black Feminist Future, Leslie Grant-Spann of New York City held a handmade sign that said, "My Human Rights Include My Right to Choose." She said reproductive justice is partly about giving people the resources they need to make truly free choices about having children.

"Many folks are living in communities where they don't have access to housing, gainful employment, safe environmental conditions," she said. "So they are oftentimes faced with having to choose between their own livelihood and the prospect of bringing a life into this world that they cannot sustain."

Data from the Guttmacher Institute and the Centers for Disease Control suggest that Black patients account for close to one in three abortions in the United States. Hispanic women also are over-represented.

Some advocates also worry that as states enact laws criminalizing abortion, people of color will also be disproportionately targeted for prosecution.

With the Supreme Court poised to issue a decision that could soon ban the procedure in some two-dozen states, reproductive justice leaders say they're preparing to do whatever is necessary to help people of color access abortion.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.