When Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed last week as the first Black woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court, many of us rejoiced as we saw yet another crack in the symbolic glass ceiling that has historically kept women, especially Black women and women of color, from reaching our full potential.
This week is Black Maternal Health Week, and while I am still elated for what Judge Jackson represents, I can’t help but feel disheartened by the barriers and inequities that still exist for Black women and Black trans and nonbinary people seeking agency over our reproductive health.
The founders of the Reproductive Justice movement were acutely aware of these challenges. While supporting the goals of the reproductive rights movement, which focused on the legal right to access abortion and contraception, they sought to advance a broader, more inclusive and holistic vision that included the right to have children, start families, and parent in safe and healthy communities.
I think about these principles a lot in my role as Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. When we were founded nearly five decades ago, our primary focus was protecting the parental rights of LGBTQ people at a time when being part of this community was often considered disqualifying. We still retain a core focus on family law today, while also playing a leading role in mobilizing the LGBTQ movement to fight against the ongoing, relentless attacks on abortion rights. We don’t see these as distinct or separate bodies of work – this is all about securing the rights of every person to make their own decisions about whether, when, and how to become a parent and create a family.
At the same time, we are all too aware of just how dangerous it is, and has always been, to give birth in this country when you are Black. While there has been progress combating the discrimination and inequities that uniquely affect Black women and Black trans and nonbinary people who give birth, we still see shocking racial disparities when it comes to maternal morbidity and mortality. Not only is there a long history of forced sterilization of Black women and other women of color, Black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from a pregnancy-related cause.
It is also well established that the LGBTQ community experiences very significant health disparities, and when we seek to become parents, those disparities persist. These adverse outcomes are further exacerbated for Black LGBTQ women, people with disabilities, and others who face multiple intersecting barriers.
Black women deserve better. This is an intersectional crisis and will require an intersectional
solution. These disparities are created by systemic racism and gender inequality. This is just as much an issue of economic justice as it is a breakdown of our health care system. Eradicating racial disparities in maternal health will require policy solutions, direct service support, ongoing education efforts, and structural change. And when we do this, we increase the health and safety of all people giving birth, creating families, and living in the world.
Thankfully, a diverse group of lawmakers in Congress is trying to do their part. Congresswoman Lauren Underwood, Congresswoman Alma Adams, Senator Cory Booker, and members of the Black Maternal Health Caucus have introduced the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021, a set of twelve proposals that build on existing legislation to comprehensively address every dimension of the maternal health crisis in America. NCLR strongly supports the Momnibus and we hope to see it become law.
Let’s work toward a day when we can look back on the time when Black maternal mortality was a national crisis. Let’s make that a sad part of our history, and create a future that will support us all.