Vice President Kamala Harris Visits Grand Rapids for her ‘Fight for Reproductive Freedoms’ Tour

The stark reality that Black women face the most dire outcomes in pregnancy-related matters is a truth we can no longer afford to ignore. This critical issue, deeply rooted in the fabric of our nation, has persisted for far too long, spanning years, decades, and even centuries. It’s a glaring testament to the systemic neglect and undervaluing of Black women’s health, particularly in the realm of reproductive care. This enduring struggle underscores the urgent need for change—a call passionately echoed by Vice President Kamala Harris during a pivotal roundtable on reproductive health care in Grand Rapids on Thursday. Beside her, a loyal ally in this fight, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, has been at the forefront, advocating tirelessly for a health care system that prioritizes women, especially in the wake of efforts to dismantle Roe v. Wade. Their united front was further bolstered by the presence of influential figures like U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-Grand Rapids), and leaders from various Michigan-based nonprofit organizations dedicated to this cause.

The journey to this critical juncture, where the United States grapples with the erosion of constitutional protections for abortion, is intrinsically tied to the enduring battle of Black women for reproductive sovereignty. A historical struggle that has shaped the contours of this debate and highlighted the indispensable need for autonomy in reproductive health decisions. “This is not a hypothetical point;” said Harris. “Women have been having miscarriages in toilets in our country and have been denied access to emergency care because of what has been happening. In the top ten states with maternal mortality there are abortion bans. I have often challenged the folks in those states who say that abortion bans are in the best interest for women in children, why have they been so silent on an issue like maternal mortality?”

Vice President Harris expressed her gratitude towards Governor Whitmer and other Michigan luminaries for their unwavering commitment to safeguarding abortion rights within the state. Yet, she issued a stark reminder of the continuous battle ahead, highlighting the significant impact of elections on reproductive health care access. Harris’s words at the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids were a clarion call to remain vigilant, especially in the face of a concerted conservative push for a national abortion ban that could severely compromise the freedoms currently enjoyed by Michiganders.

“The people of Michigan cannot sit back and take comfort without also understanding that elections matter and that there is a full on conservative effort to pass a national ban, which would mean the people of Michigan would not be as safe,” Harris said.

Vice President Kamala Harris is actively touring the country, advocating strongly for reproductive rights, and her recent visit was no exception. She launched this nationwide tour just last month, positioning herself at the heart of a critical debate. This comes at a time when the political climate is intensifying, especially with former President Donald Trump suggesting a stringent policy—a 16-week national abortion ban, a position he has been reluctant to openly support until recently. Trump’s campaign activities, particularly in Oakland County, hint at the escalating tensions as Michigan prepares for its upcoming Tuesday presidential primary.

However, Vice President Harris was quick to remind us that this is not new terrain. The current predicament, marked by a significant increase in lives lost since the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade in June 2022, is a direct result of deliberate choices made at the highest levels of government. Harris pointedly attributed this crisis to the previous administration’s explicit agenda to appoint Supreme Court justices poised to revoke the safeguards established by Roe v. Wade, casting a long shadow over our collective journey towards reproductive justice and autonomy.

Yet, according to Harris, Trump’s maneuvers aren’t the headline here. The real story, she points out, is etched in the consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court’s seismic shift in June 2022, overturning Roe v. Wade. “One must then ask how did this happen and who’s to blame? Well, I’ll answer that question,” she said. “When you look at the fact that the previous president of the United States was clear in his intention to hand-pick three Supreme Court justices who will overturn the protections of Roe v. Wade… That’s what got us to this point today.”

Harris didn’t mince words about what’s at stake: “This is an issue that is about fundamental freedoms and liberty, and it is an issue about harm, real harm that is happening to people every day.” It’s a chilling reminder of the freedoms unraveled a stark contrast to the American promise of liberty and justice for all.

Governor Whitmer echoed the urgency of the moment, lauding Michigan’s proactive stance in enshrining the right to abortion and reproductive health care into the state constitution in 2022. Michigan’s defiance in the face of adversity, especially after Roe’s fall, highlights a state determined to uphold what Whitmer dubs a “zombie law” from nearly a century ago. Her triumphant repeal of the 1931 abortion ban last spring was a significant blow to archaic restrictions, paving the way for broader access and rights.

The state’s Democratic leadership isn’t stopping there; they’re dismantling harmful Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers, TRAP laws, aiming to extend reproductive freedoms far and wide, especially to those in rural communities. This legislative momentum underscores a resolute Michigan, standing tall for “reproductive freedom for all,” a mandate voiced by voters in 2022.

When you take a deep look at the struggles of reproductive health through the Black lens, the truth is alarming to say the least. The legacy of controlling Black women’s bodies is a dark and enduring chapter in America’s story, a narrative starkly highlighted by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which rolled back the clock on Roe v. Wade. From the days of bondage, where Black women’s bodies were commodified to fuel the growth of an emerging economy, to modern instances where poverty becomes a barrier to abortion access, the struggle has been relentless. Black children are taken from their mothers at rates that speak volumes of systemic bias.

The fight for bodily autonomy has been a long-standing one, with women at the forefront long before this nation was formally constituted. For Black women and other women of color, this fight has been steeped in a history of grave injustices that echo through time.

The era of slavery stripped Black women of any semblance of control over their bodies, reducing them to mere property, valued for their ability to be sexually exploited or to produce more enslaved individuals. The dehumanization was so complete that women were advertised and traded with the explicit intent of generating more laborers, an appalling practice reminiscent of livestock trading.

Consider the harrowing legacy of J. Marion Sims, hailed as the “Father of Gynecology,” who conducted experiments on enslaved Black women without anesthesia between 1845 and 1849. These heinous acts, performed in a makeshift hospital at his Alabama residence, have led to widespread condemnation of Sims within the scientific community for his egregious ethical violations.

The courage of Black women in the aftermath of the Memphis Riot of May 1866 marked a pivotal moment in breaking the silence around sexual violence. In the wake of this devastating three-day conflict, which saw the loss of lives and the destruction of Black property, five Black women came forward with accounts of rape. Their testimonies before Congress, alongside those of other survivors, catalyzed the passage of the 14th Amendment, making their voices some of the first to publicly confront sexual assault.

The story of Fannie Lou Hamer is a testament to the systemic assault on Black women’s reproductive rights. After being subjected to an unwanted hysterectomy under the guise of a fibroid surgery, Hamer discovered this practice was alarmingly common among Black women in her community, leading her to coin the term “Mississippi Appendectomy.” Her advocacy underscored the grim reality that a Black woman’s body has historically been subjected to control and manipulation. Today, Black women remain at a higher risk for fibroids, which unsurprisingly leads to a higher prevalence of recommended hysterectomies among them compared to their counterparts. This raises an important question: why is the extreme measure of removing the reproductive organs more commonly proposed for Black women?

The term “reproductive justice” was birthed in 1994 by twelve visionary Black women who sought to redefine the narrative around reproductive rights. This collective, known as the Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice (WADRJ), emerged in response to healthcare reforms that failed to address critical issues, laying the groundwork for a movement that would transcend their community. Nearly three decades have passed since this group of Black women first introduced the term setting the foundation for a broader movement that transcends race and class. Yet, as this concept becomes central to the nationwide struggle for reproductive rights, one can’t help but question why the original architects—the 12 pioneering women who boldly articulated this framework—are seldom acknowledged. Why is it that their groundbreaking contribution is often overlooked in the larger narrative of the fight for reproductive freedoms?

This framework, rooted in the understanding that reproductive health is intertwined with social, economic, and political factors, asserts that reproductive rights are indeed human rights. It champions the cause of the marginalized, including people of color, low-income individuals, and the LGBTQ+ community, advocating for comprehensive access to sexual education, birth control, abortion, and maternal healthcare.

“So many young women in America now have fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers,” Harris noted. “This is a very real issue.”

In the ongoing quest for reproductive justice, Black women have been at the helm, leveraging their voices and lived experiences to shine a light on the systemic barriers that impede their reproductive freedom, a testament to their resilience and unwavering spirit in the face of adversity.

As the nation watches, the U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming deliberation on March 26 over mifepristone, a cornerstone in abortion care, looms large. And with the Alabama Supreme Court’s recent ruling equating frozen embryos to children, causing a standstill in IVF treatments, the landscape of reproductive rights faces yet another precarious juncture. “On the one hand, the proponents are saying that an individual doesn’t have a right to end an unwanted pregnancy and on the other hand, the individual does not have the right to start a family,” Harris said. Harris’s journey, her words, and Michigan’s bold strides serve as a clarion call in these tumultuous times, reminding us all of the relentless fight for autonomy, dignity, and justice.

 

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