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Reproductive Justice and Black Women’s Activism


Reproductive Justice and Black Women’s Activism

This post is part of our forum on “Black Women and Reproductive Rights.”

Black Women on March to Defend Reproductive Rights in Bradenton, Florida (Anastasiia Shadrina /

In September 1986, former Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) member and pediatrician Melanie Tervalon spoke to an audience about the history of racism in the United States and how it shaped Black women’s perspective on the abortion rights movement. Differing from mainstream white feminists’ advocacy of reproductive rights, Black women organizers called for a more expansive definition of bodily autonomy that extended beyond access to safe abortion and contraceptives. As Tervalon articulated then, “there are a wide range of issues included under the heading of reproductive rights—right to quality prenatal care, right to bear healthy children, right to protection from sterilization abuse, right to protection from experimental and unnecessary surgery, right to information about sex…and of course, rights to safe and affordable abortions.” Tervalon’s argument was an early iteration of what we now know as reproductive justice, a framework coined by Black women activists in 1994. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Tervalon, along with Vicki Alexander, organized around these ideas and spearheaded a local campaign in Oakland, CA, against infant mortality of Black babies. Their activism and intellectualism remind today’s community organizers, educators, politicians, and health care workers that grassroots struggles are central to challenging national and state repression of people’s bodies.

Around the time Tervalon gave her 1986 speech, she was also leading the Coalition to Fight Infant Mortality (CFIM) in Oakland, CA. The Coalition was a nine-year running, community-led project that investigated Black and Brown women’s maternal health throughout the 1980s. In the spring of 1978, shockingly high infant mortality rates in Alameda County of Oakland became a focus of public attention. Outraged community members and health activists announced at a press conference that 26 babies out of every 1000 babies died…

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