By Kalena Murphy
Raising Women’s Voices in the South
In October, RWV staff and coordinators attended the Annual Community Catalyst Convening in Atlanta, GA. How do reproductive justice (RJ) advocates keep going in Southern states where abortion is under increasing attack and progress is slow on priorities like expanding Medicaid? Kwajelyn Jackson, Executive Director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center (FWHC, our RC in Georgia), shared her experience in the opening plenary. “When we are up against the wall, when we are facing things that feel insurmountable, that’s when people are activated,” Jackson said, describing a “turnout like we’ve never had before” when Georgia’s legislators and new conservative Governor enacted a law banning abortion after just six weeks of pregnancy. While her organization joined a lawsuit that secured a preliminary injunction preventing the ban from going into effect, many people who need reproductive and trans health care provided by FWHC don’t know that. So, she said, “We’re working to let people know we are still here. We are still providing care.”
Organizing Women Voters for 2020
Southern states have made progress in successfully engaging Black women voters on issues that matter to them and their families. Cassandra Welchlin of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable (RWV’s coordinator in that state) described how her organization reaches infrequent Black women voters through organizing in child care centers owned and used by Black mothers. The children learn about voting and participate in mock elections, while their mothers learn about issues and voting rights (like the right to take time off work to vote), Welchlin said, describing child care centers as “powerhouses.” The roundtable is one of six RCs doing non-partisan integrated voter engagement work this year with women, LGBTQ people and their families around health care related issues. Other RCs engaging voters in their states include COLOR, reaching Latinas in the Denver area, Montana Women Vote, West Virginia Free, the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, and New Orleans’ Women With a Vision.
Red States/Blue States: The Diverging Repro Landscape
RCs face increasingly divergent policy landscapes for reproductive health care, depending on where they work. Two RCs — Kathy Waligora of Everthrive Illinois, and Lakeesha Harris of Women With a Vision (WWAV) — shared their experiences in a workshop at the convening. I was proud to join RWV co-founder Lois Uttley to offer national perspectives and examples of RC’s efforts to advance reproductive health care.
Waligora described that governor J.B. Pritzker (D) took office in 2019, promising to make Illinois a national leader in abortion access. Fulfilling that promise, he signed the Reproductive Health Act into law, repealing abortion restrictions and requiring private insurance plans to cover abortion services along with contraception, infertility treatments, and maternity care. Illinois also became the first state to adopt a policy to extend Medicaid coverage for a full 12 months postpartum, once funding is identified. Looking ahead to 2020, Waligora said a key priority is to repeal the Parental Notice of Abortion Act of 2013, which requires health care providers to alert a family member before providing abortion care to anyone under 18, which can expose young pregnant people to domestic violence and other problems.
By contrast, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) signed one of the nation’s most egregious abortion bans, despite being a Democrat. “Blue does not always mean being on the same side as RJ advocates, in Louisiana and elsewhere,” explained Harris. “You should not assume that a Democrat is with you.” It’s disappointing that “our Democratic governor signed one of the most radical abortion laws in the South,” banning abortion after just six weeks of pregnancy. Harris noted that Democratic lawmakers also passed previous abortion restrictions, including a 2014 law requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges. Legal challenges to the law are headed to the U.S. Supreme Court; advocates fear that, if these laws are upheld, most state abortion clinics will close. WWAV helped organize protests against the abortion ban, and helped seek support for RJ from local officials (for example, New Orleans officials passed a resolution opposing the state ban).
I described our RC’s work in other Southern states opposing abortion bans and advancing reproductive health coverage and access, where possible. For example, WV Free, which narrowly lost a 2018 ballot amendment fight over a Medicaid abortion coverage ban, was able, in 2019, to help expand pregnancy-related Medicaid coverage by increasing income eligibility limits from 185% to 300% of the Federal poverty limit.
How can progressive state residents help people affected by abortion restrictions in conservative states? One way is to support the National Network of Abortion Funds, which collects donations to help defray the expenses of pregnant people who must travel to other states to receive abortion care. Uttley noted that New York City’s Council recently appropriated $250,000 to help pregnant people from other states travel to New York, where abortion services are more widely available.
Advocates in Texas Addressing Maternal Mortality
Representatives from the Afiya Center (our RC in Dallas) described efforts to address maternal mortality disparities suffered by Black Texans. The Rev. Deneen Robinson spoke on a plenary session about Medicaid, while Helen Zimba described the Center’s work training doulas.
Robinson discussed the Center’s advocacy for legislation to extend Texas’ pregnancy-related Medicaid coverage to a full 12 months postpartum. “In Texas, Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than white women, or women of any other race,” Robinson said. Extending Medicaid would help more Black mothers gain access to critical life-saving care at a time when a startling number of pregnancy-related complications occur. Thanks in part to the Center’s advocacy, the Texas House of Representatives passed the bill last year, but it didn’t pass the Senate. The Center and other advocates will keep working on the issue in the 2021 legislative session. Robinson counseled, “Don’t be dismayed in the work. Count every victory. Give yourself time to celebrate before moving on to the next task.”
Zimba described the Center’s work training doulas to help guide pregnant Black women through the prenatal, birthing, and postpartum periods. In 2019, the Afiya Center helped launch the Southern Roots Doula Collective, offering full spectrum doula care to women of color and low-income women. Since then, the collective’s doulas have aided in the delivery of eight healthy babies.
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Kalena Murphy is the NWHN’s Senior State Advocacy Manager for RWV.