By Heidi Williamson
On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which declared all persons “held as slaves within the rebellious states are, and henceforward shall be free." The document didn’t apply to the states that remained loyal to the Union, but it was no less a crucial first step towards liberating millions of enslaved Africans in the Deep South. For Black women, life beyond chattel slavery, rape and forced reproduction not only offered the possibility of individual freedom, but reproductive autonomy and bodily self-determination.
The institution of slavery depended heavily on black women’s ability to produce and reproduce. Black women worked in the fields, as well as bore the responsibility of bearing future generations of human beings to sustain the institution of slavery itself. Both were expected and both were delivered. In theory, the Proclamation inched Black women and the larger black community toward legalized humanity. Female slaves had no right to autonomy over their own bodies. This justified slave owners forcing women to breed with other slaves to conceive more children, using rape as a tool of subjugation, using their children to coerce mothers, and usurping mothers’ ability to parent their own children. Upon Emancipation, many Black women were hopeful in what self-determination and rights before the law could offer.
More than a hundred years into the future though, a new emancipation came for Black women. It was not part of a strategy to end a war, nor was it handwritten by the President for the world to see. It was the 1973 Supreme Court ruling on Roe vs. Wade, which held that the right to privacy included the right to choose whether or not to end a pregnancy. This ruling allowed the millions of women seeking abortions to do so safely, and prevented a multitude of deaths as a result. This was especially true for Black women. Simply put: the day Roe was decided, Black women stopped dying.
Black women, particularly the poor, often lacked the resources to prevent unintended pregnancies or provided for additional children. Abortion, for many, was the only option, despite the risk. Though not slaves, black women were in some ways just as vulnerable and reproductively oppressed at the time. Prior to Roe, the maternal death rates for black women seeking illegal abortions in the South were as high as fourteen times that of white women. Often demanding access to contraception, Black women wanted control over their fertility and the right to explore unfolding opportunities. Simultaneously, they had to resist the insidious programs and medical professionals who forcibly sterilized women, promoted contraceptives expressly to limit black births, and enacted punitive policies targeting poor women and families.
Since 1973, the Roe decision has been compromised. The upholding of the Hyde Amendment, which denies federal insurance coverage for abortion, in Harris v. McRae as well as other decisions that created barriers to abortion access such as Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services and Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, have placed hardships on the most vulnerable communities seeking abortions, particularly poor women and teens. It is clear: the right to choose an abortion is NOT the same thing as the ability to obtain one. Celebrating these two anniversaries collectively is critical. It offers us glimpses into the American consciousness when our government attempted to embrace and codify the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These ideals can never ring true until all women regardless of race and class are treated equally under the law and have the ability to determine their own reproductive destiny.
Heidi Williamson is the Senior Policy Analyst for the Women’s Health and Rights program at American Progress. She is also a founding member of the Trust Black Women Partnership, a strong network of African American women organizations and individuals, who mobilize to defend the human right to have a child, not have a child, and parent for African American women in the United States.
This post is part of Still Wading: Forty years of resistance, resilience and reclamation in communities of color, a series by Strong Families commemorating the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade.