“The general public can help us [fight for reproductive justice] by listening to us, believing us, and educating themselves on anti-blackness. Systems are made up of people. It’s people who got us into this mess, and it’s people who will get us out.”
Black Mamas ATX Executive Director Kelenne Blake
*This blog has been updated to reflect legislative changes as of 5/22/2023
What does reproductive justice look like in a state where our right to abortion has been stolen?
The reproductive justice framework was created in 1994 by a group of Black women who saw the need for a more holistic approach to reproductive care — especially within a larger feminist movement that’s historically been predominantly led by white people, resulting in their experiences driving how we talk about and act to preserve reproductive rights. This is despite an ongoing maternal mortality crisis that’s made Black people who give birth twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white birth givers.
The demands of reproductive justice should be a given: “The human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”- SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective
In truth, while Roe deserved to be protected, it was never enough to meet the demands of reproductive justice or provide equitable access to abortion care for Black, rural, LGBTQIA+, and other historically underrepresented communities. Long before its fall, Black-led organizations were building a world that could someday offer us more freedom over our bodies and our families’ futures than we have ever known.
We’re excited to share a conversation about reproductive justice and state legislation working to address the maternal mortality crisis with a local leader in the movement — Black Mamas ATX Executive Director Kelenne Blake.
Here’s what Kelenne had to say:
Can you give me a brief overview of Black Mamas ATX’s mission and the services you offer?
We exist because of the disparities that Black women experience around birth. Our mission is to make sure that Black women survive and thrive during childbirth, and we do that by providing free doula support in the Austin area. In addition to doula support, we sponsor free mental health support so that clients can attend as many sessions as possible. In addition, we do workshops and meetups — that’s the survival work that helps us address outcomes for Black people who give birth both before and after. All of this is evidence-based! We know that prenatal care and supportive communities improve health outcomes for families.
You can learn more about Black Mamas ATX’s mission here.
In your own words, what does reproductive justice mean to you? How does this framework go beyond abortion access?
To me, it means being able to have children or not have children at the time of our choosing, to parent those children in safe communities, and to do that with the support of a safe community. That’s definitely more than abortion access and contraception access. That also looks like addressing anti-blackness and police brutality in our society.
I mean, think of that mother whose son — Ralph Yarl — knocked on a door and was then shot recently. That violence violated her right to reproductive justice. Addressing structural racism is part of reproductive justice, and addressing internalized racism within our society is as well.
How has systemic racism within our medical system and country contributed to the disproportionate maternal mortality and morbidity rates among Black women and people who give birth?
There’s a historical context and a current-day context. When there was segregation and no access to hospitals for our communities, there were Black midwives who helped. But when racism and capitalism in the medical system eliminated that support, we were forced to depend on a racist medical system.
Now, implicit bias is so pervasive that it doesn’t matter if a Black woman has commercial insurance or is a famous Tennis player — their lives are in danger [in our current medical system]. We’re not listened to.
On top of that, it’s often assumed that if you’re Black, you’re unable to pay. In a capitalist healthcare system that is based on racist ideologies, someone’s ability (or perceived ability) to pay affects their care. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.
Additionally, Black women and Black birthing folks’ pain is not recognized. This is partly due to decades of doctors and nurses being taught that Black people don’t feel as much pain.
There’s an overhaul happening within education and the medical system that could impact these disparities — but doulas, midwives, and community-based responses to the problem are still not given due respect. Midwives and doulas hoping to gain authority in that space are sometimes treated combatively or as a threat in the medical field. This happens even with research proving that outcomes for low-risk births are significantly better with doula services.
What does your organization’s role usually look like when crafting legislation that best serves the needs of Black women and people who give birth? Can you tell me a bit about the bills you hope will pass this session?
As a 501c3 organization, our role in crafting legislation is mostly figuring out which bills are being pushed forward, identifying which ones are best for Black birthing folks, and giving representatives educational context as to how those bills affect our clients.
We’ve also seen bills introduced that address the composition of the Texas Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee, like HB 460, which would ensure that a representative from the community with lived experience can serve on the committee and even guide what it reports on.
Additionally, community doulas helped to write and shape HB 3394, which would allow birthing people to use Medicaid for doula services. This work took place in community with the Maternal Health Equity Collaborative through the work of members who co-founded the Texas Doula Association. Doulas all over Texas wrote the bill, which truly centers the need for doula services.
Black Maternal Health Week just ended last month. Any highlights you’d like to share? How do you feel these weeks help to highlight the importance of your organization’s work?
There was stuff happening all over the country, but they weren’t just focusing on how hard this work can be. We had a celebratory event with storytellers who shared how joyous birth can be when there’s support. Maternal Health Equity Collaborative had a community baby shower; over 200 people participated in that and received items for their newborns. I loved that there was a lot of recognition and celebration of Black joy and collective care.
What can the general public do to support this legislation and your organization’s work 365 days a year?
The general public can help by listening to us, believing us, and educating themselves on anti-blackness. Systems are made up of people. It’s people who got us into this mess, and it’s people who will get us out.
Many organizations in the Maternal Health Equity Collaborative are changing these harmful systems, and our presence is changing narratives in the community. Figure out who is doing this work and support them. We’re usually the least funded and the least able to sustain our work – you can help with that! That can look like connecting us to someone you think should know about our work, sharing about us on social media, or encouraging your neighbors and families to do the same.