The Reproductive Justice Activist Fighting for Black and Brown Women
An interview with Renee Bracey Sherman on abortion storytelling and the sanctity of our bodies
Renee Bracey Sherman. Photo: The Blackhouse Foundation
With Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent passing and President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace her, the Supreme Court could be weeks away from transforming into a solidly conservative judicial body. Reproductive rights hang in the balance. We have never needed activist Renee Bracey Sherman and her work more.
Bracey Sherman had an abortion at age 19. Aside from her partner, she told no one until several years later. When she finally did, she felt empowered, loved, and embraced. She wanted other people who had abortions to feel this way, too.
Soon thereafter, Bracey Sherman discovered “reproductive justice,” a movement started in 1994 by a group of Black women who saw the need to expand pro-choice activism to something more inclusive and intersectional to address the myriad cultural and institutional forces that affect Black women’s bodily autonomy. After a move from the Bay Area to Washington, D.C., Bracey Sherman founded We Testify, an organization that represents, nurtures, and features the stories of Black and Brown folks who’ve had abortions.
As an advocate for abortion and reproductive health care for Black and Brown folks, Bracey Sherman has continued to speak out, build community, and provide resources to those who need them the most.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
ZORA: What led you to reproductive justice work?
Renee Bracey Sherman: As a biracial Black woman, I feel as if I was born into this movement. Reproductive justice is our lives and what our experiences are. I was never ashamed about my abortion—society told me to be. But I started formally learning about reproductive justice as a framework and doing activism in the movement itself. If you ask folks of color what reproductive justice is, they might not know the term, but they live reproductive justice.
“Black and Brown organizations that focus on reproductive justice are severely underfunded compared to White organizations that focus only on reproductive health.”
While pro-choice advocates focus on reproductive health, which is very different from reproductive justice. What do you see as the difference between these two movements?
Reproductive health doesn’t address racism, and fighting White supremacy isn’t seen as essential and central to feminism. Black and Brown organizations that focus on reproductive justice are severely underfunded compared to White organizations that focus only on reproductive health.
How did you begin helping people tell their abortion stories?
It started nine years ago. I didn’t see myself reflected in the pro-choice movement, and I rarely saw people saying they had an abortion — they were instead debating the merits and legality of abortion. These were usually white people.
Then I attended a lunch with others and we started sharing our abortion stories. It felt so freeing to meet people who had similar experiences. It inspired me to call my mom on the way home and tell her I had an abortion. I then started to wonder what needed to change so people weren’t afraid to say, “Hey, I need an abortion.”
After serving for three years, you quit the board of NARAL in 2017 because there were no non-Black women of color on it. Is it better to disrupt White feminist spaces from the inside or start something new on the outside?
I used to believe you can change things from the inside. I don’t think changing things is possible anymore because of how much you have to lose yourself — mentally, physically, and emotionally — to make that change. I’m tired of fighting White feminist powers-that-be for crumbs of acceptance and inclusion. It takes my focus and energy off the people who have abortions, where my energy should be.
“The anti-abortion movement is rooted in White women’s fear that they will not have enough babies to compete with the number of Black and immigrant babies.”
How did We Testify come about?
I was feeling lonely and wanted to help other folks of color who had abortions feel less lonely, because race, gender, and class impact our decisions differently than White women who have abortions.
I joined the National Network of Abortion Funds in Washington, D.C. In September 2015, during our staff retreat, we visited Frida Kahlo’s garden. Kahlo was an artist who thought about body, disability, and reproduction. She was a storyteller in so many different ways. We Testify was born. [Bracey Sherman and We Testify split from NNAF in January of this year.] We support people in how they want to tell their stories, and help shape them as leaders, and let them know they are loved as the superstars they are. Recently, we started a comics campaign for people who have had self-managed abortions with medication.
In a recent tweet, you said, “[A]bortion [is] a litmus test for the way someone believes on all other issues and the politics around it stem from white supremacy.” Can you talk about the nexus between White supremacy and the anti-abortion movement?
The anti-abortion movement is rooted in White women’s fear that they will not have enough babies to compete with the number of Black and immigrant babies. All of it is based in White supremacy. Anti-abortion laws are a White-people problem. People of color don’t vote for politicians who pass that stuff. For generations, we’ve known what it’s like to have our reproduction taken from us.
The Supreme Court, without Justice Ginsburg, is about to hear a case that could strike down the ACA. If that happens, what would be the impact on reproductive health care?
It’s so catastrophic. I’m out of hyperbolic words. It’s not just that people won’t be able to get contraception or abortions. They’re not going to be able to afford breast pumps or cancer screenings or prenatal visits. Letting Black and Brown mamas die while pregnant or shortly after giving birth — that is a choice. I lost an aunt while she was pregnant, and my cousin’s baby died at 25 days old. I know this heartbreak. Our country is willing to make the choice to let people die.
How worried are you about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade?
The protections of Roe were never a reality for Black, Brown, and low-income populations. They don’t have access anyway. Many people have one abortion clinic in [their] entire state. They can’t afford abortions. Some have been criminalized for self-managing abortions with pills.
If Roe is overturned, we need to ask ourselves what risks we’re willing to take to make sure all people get the care they need.
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