Vanishing abortion rights parallel what’s happening to affirmative action: a policy that what was once seen as a pillar of the racial justice movement in the ’60s and ’70s has diminished over the years as the Supreme Court has retreated from its role of ensuring for the majority equal access to opportunities that a fiercely committed minority of Americans would rather see denied. Another parallel: Affirmative action’s mostly Black supporters, like the mostly white supporters of Roe, have had a hell of a time keeping up the fight to save it, to say nothing of building on its legacy. These days I rarely hear Black people talking about saving affirmative action. But there is at least a new, encompassing racial justice movement — Black Lives Matter — that draws on virtually every Black justice campaign that has come before, including affirmative action. It has not been lost so much as reconstituted.
Does BLM hold lessons for how to reinvigorate opposition to abortion bans? BLM certainly has the capacity to articulate newer demands for Black justice, especially those that focus on gender equality and the health of Black communities as a whole. Black activists have already had a crucial, if little-implemented, role in the abortion fight: They proposed the idea of “reproductive justice” back in the ’90s to broaden abortion rights into a framework that addresses not just reproductive rights, but access to abortion and contraception, and guarantees for the well-being of the children who are actually here. BLM’s political umbrella includes reproductive rights, and it has been in the fray: Last fall, it ran one campaign calling on President Joe Biden to expand the Supreme Court, and more recently ran another to help raise money for a women’s center in Texas.
At this point, Black women — Black people, period — seem well-positioned to carry forward a truly pro-life message, one that values the life of the pregnant person, one with a clear narrative and sense of shared destiny that the mostly white pro-choice movement always lacked. The fact that Black women account for a disproportionate number of abortions makes their leadership even more relevant, and urgent.
Still, even if all Black women took up the mantle, the fight can’t simply be ours. But political power has not belonged to all of us equally. White women have not used their power to truly join forces with women of color and strengthen their own argument that abortion is not just acceptable, but essential.
But the feminist movement seemed to consciously avoid this. That may partly be because it’s insisted, per Roe, that abortion is wholly private. That’s true, but it’s a view that’s privileged in its narrowness, not to mention politically limiting. White women have also avoided joining forces with Black women because, I think, women affirming control of their own sexuality in any way is an ancient but powerful taboo, one that still holds sway across color lines. White abortion supporters, Wattleton says, badly missed the opportunity early on to unify women, and all Americans, to cast abortion rights as a common national interest, rather than fight battles in individual states. We should learn from history. Many white people in the 1850s thought that such a piecemeal approach could work with slavery. But in the run-up to the Civil War it became increasingly clear that slavery was a problem of human rights that went to the heart of what America was about. It was never about what the states could do or not do, it was about what the nation was. We are at that moment again.
There was a recent opportunity to make the common-interest case. As BLM boosted Black justice movements, the feminist movement was similarly reinvigorated by #MeToo back in 2017. But maintaining abortion rights was simply not part of that campaign. The great takeaway of #MeToo is that it is women’s stories, similar but collectively powerful, that turned a hashtag created by a Black woman into a full-on movement for all. In 2020, the racial justice movement that BLM (also started by Black women) had been building for years with stories and images of police-abuse victims was suddenly personalized, and universalized, by a barbaric eight-and-half-minute story caught on video and viewed by the world. Though of course the tragedy was unplanned, its powerful effect on the public imagination holds myriad lessons, perhaps even a road map to action.