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Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls Testimony on Reproductive Justice

April 28, 2016

I want to thank Representatives Bonnie Watson-Coleman, Robin Kelly and Yvette Clarke and the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls.

My name is Marcela Howell and I am the founder and executive director for In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda

In Our Own Voice was created in November 2014 as a national Reproductive Justice policy organization to increase the visibility of Black women and girls at the national and state levels in our ongoing policy fight to secure Reproductive Justice for all women and girls. Ours is a national-state partnership with seven Black women’s organizations: Black Women for Wellness in California, Black Women’s Health Imperative a national organization, New Voices for Reproductive Justice in Pennsylvania and Ohio, SisterLove, Inc., in Georgia, Sister Reach in Tennessee, SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW in Georgia and Women with a Vision in Louisiana.

In Our Own Voice provides an opportunity to have Black women and girls speak for ourselves and present a proactive strategy to advance reproductive health, rights and justice, including the right to safe and legal abortions, contraceptive equity and comprehensive sex education.

Distinguished committee, we applaud your leadership in recognizing the need to lift up Black women and girls. It brings to mind a quote from 1892 said by Anna Julia Cooper, a Black suffrage advocate, “Only the Black woman can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole…race enters with me.”[1]

Black women have always led. Often we were the only ones decrying injustices against us, our families, our communities and in the Diaspora. Indeed, It is this spirit that birthed the Reproductive Justice movement.

In 1994, having participated in the International Conference on Population & Development (ICPD) in Cairo and a number of national conferences in the United States, a group of Black women gathered in Chicago in a moment that would launch a new activist’s Reproductive Justice movement for women. Sharing frustration about the global reproductive health status of Black women and the limitations of a privacy-based “pro-choice” movement when women of color had minimal choices, the Black Women’s Caucus of the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance determined the necessity of adopting a human rights framework for women of color and low income women that addressed issues of bodily autonomy and reproductive decision-making. Adopting human rights, social justice and reproductive rights tenets, these women created a transformational and grassroots-based movement for social change that we call Reproductive Justice.

For us, Reproductive Justice is the human right to control our bodies, our sexuality, our gender, our work and our reproduction. That right can only be achieved when all women and girls have the complete economic, social, and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, our families, and our communities in all areas of our lives. It is this vision that propels our national organization – – In Our Own Voice.

At the core of Reproductive Justice is the belief that all women have 1) the right to have children, 2) the right to not have children, and 3) the right to nurture the children we have in a safe and healthy environment.

Our national research[2] shows that bodily autonomy and empowerment are at the core of Black women’s leadership on these issues and that Black communities are supportive of that leadership. Indeed, when we asked Black women and men if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement “when it comes to abortion, we should trust Black women to make the important personal decisions that are best for themselves and their families,” 85 percent of Black women and men agreed. That agreement cut across gender, age, education, and political ideology, including 82 percent of self-identified conservatives and 81 percent of respondents who identified themselves as being very religious.

Trusting Black women to make our own decisions about our own lives, our own bodies is critical to advancing the vision of Reproductive Justice.

For today’s reality, like yesterday’s history, still depicts Black women in negative images. The historical stereotypes of the “mammy,” the “welfare queen and cheat,’ or the “oversexed” black woman stalks us like shadows. Whether we are rich or poor, highly educated or not; our lives are still reduced to a string of labels – the angry black bitch, the strong black woman who castrates black men; the unfeeling black woman who is indifferent to her family is intergenerational.

As Monique W. Morris described in Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, society’s deeply entrenched expectations of black girls—influenced by racism and patriarchy—often centers a “distinct and narrow stereotypes about black women and girls as hypersexual, sassy, conniving, or loud.”[3] These stereotypes and the reactions of those in authority positions – teachers, counselors, administrators and law enforcement – lead to these young women being mischaracterized, and mislabeled because of how they look, dress, speak, and act. In short, black girls are devalued based on how others perceive them—just 16 percent of female students, Black girls make up more than one-third of all girls with a school-related arrest.

The intersection between a woman’s reproductive health and wellbeing in intrinsically linked to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, and cannot be divorced from our economic circumstances, sense of safety (free from violence, shame and discrimination), or accessibility to health services and education.

A survey by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation[4] reveals that Black women have more trouble paying their bills or getting a loan than white women. And they are trying to regain their footing in a world where more than half feel as though they do not have the skills and education to compete for a job. Black women make approximately $0.63 for every dollar a white man makes. Raising the minimum wage to an actual living wage is critical for women earning economic independence. But equal pay is the other component. All people, regardless of the gender, should be provided paid medical leave, paid sick days and a fair work schedule so that they can affectively parent and care for themselves and their families.

It is also important that we address health outcomes that impact the lives of Black women and girls:

  • The risk of death from pregnancy complications is nearly three and a half times higher for Black women than for white women[5].
  • Unintended pregnancies are highest among the poor, the young and Black women. Black women have more than double the unintended pregnancy rate of white women.
  • Black women are six times as likely than non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with chlamydia, 12 times as likely to be diagnosed with gonorrhea, and five and a half times as likely to be diagnosed with primary and secondary syphilis.
  • Black women are twice as likely as non-Hispanic white women to die of cervical cancer.

Thanks to the advocacy of many women, both in and outside of this room, we have made some progress in our fight for Reproductive Justice:

  • As of August 1, 2012 the Affordable Care Act (ACA) guarantees coverage for all FDA-approved contraceptive services, without cost sharing. This is particularly significant for the 50 percent of women between 18 and 34 who want contraceptive services but struggle to afford them. Under the Affordable Care Act, women’s preventive health care – such as mammograms, screenings for cervical cancer, prenatal care, and other services – generally must be covered with no cost sharing.
  • The Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act, introduced in 2015 by Representatives Barbara Lee, Jan Schakowsky, and Diana DeGette, and over seventy original co-Sponsors (116 co-sponsors today), ensures coverage for pregnancy-related care, including abortion for every woman, regardless of her income or how she receives her health insurance. He bill will remove the Hyde Amendment ban on coverage for abortion care.
  • The 21st Century Women’s Health Act would expand federal funding for everything from birth control to campus rape prevention.
  • The Real Education for Healthy Youth Act of 2016 (REHYA), introduced by Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Barbara Lee, provides for the “overall health and well-being of young people, including the promotion of comprehensive sexual health and healthy relationships, the reduction of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and the prevention of dating violence and sexual assault.” It includes gender, gender identity and sexual orientation-specific sensitivity content and anti-bullying language.

But our fight continues amid ongoing attacks by policy makers and organizations that want to curtail our reproductive rights:

  • Two weeks ago, In Our Own Voice, along with 11 other Black women’s Reproductive Justice organizations, submitted testimony to the House Judicial Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice for a hearing on the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) that prohibits women from having abortions based on the race or sex of the fetus. as a result of race or gender selection.[6] The sponsors of this bill say it is grounded in gender and civil rights. It is completely baseless and offensive.
  • Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws attempt to limit abortion access by imposing onerous standards for abortion providers and offices—most apply standards for ambulatory surgical centers and attending privileges at local hospitals. Guttmacher reports that 24 states currently have laws or policies that regulate abortion providers and go beyond what is necessary to ensure patients’ safety. In Our Own Voice submitted an amicus brief in the SCOTUS Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which is before the justices now. The case is in response to HB2 in Texas that has and potentially will shut down more than 75 percent of all women’s health clinics that provide abortion services in the state. This will be devastating for Black women, low-income women and immigrant women. And could set a precedent for other states.
  • Crisis Pregnancy Centers are directly targeting Black women seeking family planning and other reproductive health services. These Centers do not provide health care but are instead designed to prevent abortion decisions. To meet their goals, they often lie to young women about whether they are pregnant, use deceptive advertising to get women and girls to access their services, give out information that is not supported by facts, and subject women to unnecessary ultrasounds.
  • Religious refusal laws allow individuals or institutions to deny someone contraceptive access by stating that those services violate their religious beliefs. Some institutions, like hospitals and clinics, are allowed religious refusals — meaning an entire hospital or clinic can refuse to provide contraceptive services (including emergency contraceptives in the case of rape or incest), or abortion care within the facility. In March the SCOTUS heard oral arguments in the Zubik v. Burwell case, which challenges the government’s proposed “accommodation” to the ACA contraceptive mandate; allowing religious nonprofits and closely-held for profit corporations to opt-out.

But part of the intersectionality of Black women’s lives means that we must look at reproductive rights and health within the context of economic issues, such as the “Fight for $15” and environmental justice, such as the battles over clean and safe water as we see in Flint, Michigan, and the battles around the over policing or criminalization of our communities that we see under the Black Lives Matter movement.

Our lives are complex. We have always faced the double discriminations of sexism and racism coupled with classism.

The Congressional Caucus for Black Women and Girls is a necessary step toward addressing the inequities that are faced by Black women and girls. And it is an important component in making all our lives better.

Again, I want to thank you for inviting me to this historic hearing and I welcome your questions.


[1] Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. Perennial, 1984.

[2] African-American Attitudes on Abortion, Contraception, and Teen Sexual Health (2013). Belden-Russonello Strategists LLC., Washington DC. February 2013. Accessed 7/1/15

[3] Morris, Monique W. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. The New Press,, March 2016.

[4] Hamel, Liz, Firth, Jamie, Clement, Scott and Brodie, Mollyann. Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation Feminism Survey., January 2016.

[5] In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda. Black Women and Reproductive Health: Fast Facts,, August 2015.

[6] In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda. Written Testimony From Black Women Reproductive Justice Organizations,, April 2016.

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