Things your civics teacher didn't tell you: The fight for bodily autonomy

guest column

This guest column is part of a series of three OP-Eds about abortion care access in North Carolina submitted by members of the Reproductive Health Care Post-Roe (2023-2024) Bass Connections project. More information on the project and provider testimonies can be found on the project’s website.

Life-giving has long been legally regulated. North Carolina has a history of limiting birthing decisions, like restricting midwifery and abortion. Passed by just one vote over the governor’s veto in May 2023, the recent SB 20 abortion restriction is the latest wave of a legal culture that enforces a medical reality in which Black communities lose mothers and infants at disproportionately high rates. As Loretta Ross, founder of the reproductive justice (RJ) organization SisterSong asserted, “When politicians, judges, and policymakers … restrict access to various kinds of reproductive health care, they are building on the past” that victimized enslaved women through sexual violence and profitable birth. Politicians have long inflicted harm on Black birthing people, highlighting the importance of engaging in political resistance and uplifting the tireless work of reproductive justice advocates. 

In recent history, the state of North Carolina coerced the sterilization of young, minoritized women. These were traumatic systems that Black women champions for racial justice like Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker had to navigate, as they worked to improve our systems of health and democracy. As marginalized communities advance just values, legislators respond through manipulative legislation. Ironically, the democratically elected officials seem to succumb to corruption to suppress alternative community-based systems that embody the core tenets of democratic procedures. 

The most recent act of suppression of communities’ reproductive autonomy has been the non-democratic enactment of North Carolina’s abortion restriction, SB 20. This law prevents providers from following accepted best medical practices by banning abortion past 12 weeks and paternalistically enforcing an arbitrary 72-hour wait time in between insensitive abortion "counseling" and an abortion procedure. Ironically, state legislators pushed the legislation through in 48 hours — less time than it mandates pregnant people to wait (72 hours) in between appointments. 

The passage of this bill can only be described as a deceitful undermining of our democracy to strip our basic right to bodily autonomy. Republicans took advantage of abortion as a hot-button topic to circumvent democratic norms. One elected official betrayed her political promises, making a back-door deal to switch political parties and vote against her constituents’ values. In keeping with this political shadiness, SB 20 was stealthily introduced as a conference committee report in order to skirt the committee process, which would’ve required the bill to pass through the health subcommittee. This decision meant there was zero public commentary from those who can get pregnant or medical experts, no debate and no possibility of amendments to the bill — necessary checks of the legislative process. 

Furthermore, the decision also ignored best medical practices and community interests by restricting many birthing people to the dangerous reality of forced pregnancy. This goes directly against the efforts of Black women-led organizations, such as SisterSong, which have long worked to democratize and improve both health systems and government. 

In response to each legal restriction like SB 20, Black community organizers have provided care for Black mothers in North Carolina through a dynamic, persisting culture across generations. Despite the expertise and impact of the leaders, they were excluded from the SB-20 “legislative process.” It is imperative to build on these voices which are often intentionally and systematically sidelined when engaging in advocacy. To learn more about this network of community organizers, I interviewed community organizers in Durham on ways community-based responses counteract white supremacy and sexism-deforming maternal health. 

Black feminists like Audre Lorde have long emphasized that the liberation of everyone is contingent upon the liberation of the highest targets of oppression. Southern Black and Brown working-class women who organize for social justice demonstrate that the strongest and most resistant community-based alternative systems are created by these groups who have been innovating to not just survive but thrive with under-resourced realities for centuries. 

This is why the mother organization of Reproductive Justice (RJ) operates from its home in the South (North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky). As Simran Singh Jain of SisterSong reminds us, the South is where the most impacted by reproductive injustice live, but it’s also the site of resilience. SisterSong emerged to oppose “a hostile Conservative government that’s holding people hostage.” The RJ movement originated in the South because, “That’s where every major social movement in this country has come from … that’s where the power is.” 

SisterSong’s North Carolina Coordinator Maya Hart underlines the history of reproductive advocacy in the South. Hart, a doula, explains that doulas and midwives are crucial to the safety of members of oppressed communities. These key community health workers have provided 12 generations of birthing care to the Black community, passing down ancestral traditions of midwifery to birthing people forced to live under violent circumstances. They are inspired by “the history of resistance in the South” which has been embodied by RJ advocates historically “since before we even had the language for it.” 

Camille, Policy Director for the Carolina Abortion Fund, and a doula, is an example of the connections among these generations. She spoke to me about how family lineage connects her to the present day. Her “great-great-grandmother was a slave midwife” and lived to be 110, witnessing multiple eras of birthing care in the South. This included white authorities who sought to undermine the birthing work of Black women (many in rural areas) by excluding them from that work, “so there could not be midwives.” Despite the midwives' health outcomes exceeding those of white physicians, the latter tried “to push them out of their work and medicalized the field” in order to have economic control over reproductive care. Like many midwives, she brought both Black and white children into the world safely, so she had the first integrated funeral in Jim Crow South Carolina when she passed. 

These women — Adair, Hart, Ross, among other RJ leaders — all exemplify the key role of Black women as community advocates who have challenged oppressive power structures to provide better care for all. Impressive innovation for community-building which is already taking place in the state could enact larger scale impact if policy efforts worked in conjunction with community needs rather than counteracting the progress of social justice organizing. 

The history in North Carolina of both Black midwives and Black women pushing for civil rights is a testament to the community systems of care established by and for Black women stretching back to enslavement. Despite malicious restrictions enacted by the far-right that echo Jim Crow medicine and government, marginalized communities — groups who have never been properly served by formal institutions — are actively building on a history of thriving to create alternative systems of care. Despite the efficacy, ingenuity and bravery of these Black leaders from the South, national conversation — especially from Democratic politicians — dismisses the South as culturally and socially “backward.” This misread allows the harmful actions of reactionary politicians to dominate the narrative. The “backwardness” is simply the response of reactionary politicians to generations of powerful Black-led freedom efforts through Reconstruction and Fusion political eras, to the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements of today. 

As you engage in political conversation and advocacy, I urge you to uplift this nuanced and powerful history of resistance. North Carolina’s present and past echo what voting rights activist Nsé Ufot points out: “The darkness we’re experiencing, it’s not dusk, it’s dawn … we are headed into what full participatory democracy could look like.” There are many ways to translate your concern about our rights to bodily autonomy to action. There are many RJ organizations creating an impact in the Research Triangle to learn from and support with our dedication and resources as community members. Even right here on campus, our Bass Connections team has drafted a Call to Action that can inform your ideas of ways to lift your voice up.

Maite McPherson is a Trinity senior and a member of the Reproductive Health Care Post-Roe (2023-2024) Bass Connections Project.


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