Reproductive justice pioneer Loretta Ross on strategies for the post-Roe South
This past Sunday, Jan. 22, marked what would've been the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark United States Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion. Instead of celebratory marches, though, protesters gathered across the country to raise awareness about new state restrictions on reproductive rights imposed in the seven months since the high court overturned Roe in its Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling out of Mississippi.
Thirteen states — eight of them in the South — now ban most abortions with few exceptions, and more restrictive laws are expected to be up for debate in Republican-controlled legislatures this year. It remains unclear if anti-abortion lawmakers will also take up bills that make having and caring for children easier in the South, a region beset with high maternal mortality and child poverty rates, and where eight states have still refused to expand Medicaid coverage to more residents under the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
"There's a number of things people could be doing, if they cared about children once they are here," observes reproductive justice pioneer Loretta Ross.
Born in 1953, Ross grew up in Temple, Texas. A recent Washington Post profile documented her harrowing personal history: Raped at age 11 by a stranger and then a few years later by a distant cousin, she got pregnant at 16 through consensual sex and was able to obtain a safe abortion in Washington, D.C., where the procedure was legal. But in 1976, she was left sterile by a Dalkon Shield, an intrauterine contraceptive device that was marketed despite being found defective. She later won a lawsuit against manufacturer A.H. Robins.
After getting involved with civil rights movements and tenant organizing in college, she became a leader in the rape crisis center movement and spent time working for the National Organization for Women, where she organized delegations of women of color to attend pro-choice marches. She also worked with the National Black Women's Health Project and the National Anti-Klan Network, and in 1996 launched the National Center for Human Rights Education as a training center for grassroots activists.
The following year, she co-founded the Atlanta-based reproductive justice nonprofit SisterSong, where she worked until 2012. The reproductive justice concept acknowledges that choice can be an illusion for many people of color, while addressing community and environmental factors that impact the ability to have or not have children and demanding equal access to birthing care options like midwives and doulas. Reproductive justice advocates consider issues such as the criminal legal system, economic inequality, and the environment as they work to improve health care services and expand legal rights related to reproductive well-being.
Ross currently teaches about white supremacy and call-out culture at Smith College in Massachusetts. Last year she was recognized for her decades of pioneering work by being awarded a so-called "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. "With her pragmatic approach, political acumen, and strategic vision, Ross provides essential guidance on ways to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in our society," the organization wrote in her prize announcement.
We spoke to Ross on the evening of Jan. 21 — the day before what would have been Roe's 50th year as law of the land. We talked about what she sees coming next from anti-abortion lawmakers in the South and how it's best countered, as well as alternative narratives the South offers on reproductive justice. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tomorrow marks what would've been the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. What would you say to activists who feel defeated since the ruling's demise, given that 12 states, most in the South, have near-total abortion bans?
As a Black woman, I never reposed a lot of confidence that the Supreme Court was going to protect my human rights. While I was disappointed, I wasn't surprised with the Dobbs decision. What it means is that we have to keep fighting for our human rights, that we have to center the most vulnerable women and people capable of being pregnant in our lens to make sure that they keep accessing the services they need. We can't afford an inter-party fight over it.
I think that after the decision, there was a lot of hand wringing about what the women's movement should've done better. They didn't overturn Dobbs because of what we did — they overturned Dobbs because of who they are. So let's be clear that this is not the time to cannibalize each other, but to remain focused on both providing access to services for the people who most need it, and electing politicians who are going to stand up for our rights.
What will the anti-abortion movement's next line of attack be in the South now that it's overturned Roe?
I think they're going to do what Arkansas and Oklahoma have already started doing, and that's criminalizing women who get abortions. They've already introduced bills trying to do that by accusing them of murder. I think they're going to drop the pretense that they care about the well-being of women — we know that's not true anyway — and literally criminalize people who seek abortions and the people who help them out. That's what I think they're going to do [not only] in the South, but nationally. They're going to try to enact a federal ban on abortion at any time and for whatever reasons. I think that's their ultimate end game.
One thing the South, particularly people of color in the South, have done very well for hundreds of years is be strategic about offering resistance to oppression. We never give up, we never give in, and we always resist.
How do you think the reproductive justice movement, particularly in the South, should meet their next line of attack?
Again, we have to fight on every front. We've got to fight on the services front to make sure, by whatever means possible, people can access the services they need. We've got to fight on a legislative front — make sure we do our lobbying and our calls and all of that, to make sure that we can hold back this legislation. But we also have to fight on the political front and get these people out of office, who would take our rights so casually and really weaponize abortion as a way for them to stay in power. I'm not convinced that many of these politicians really care about abortion, but I do think they care about staying in power.
Are reproductive justice organizations based in the South being funded adequately to meet the moment?
There has never been adequate funding for reproductive justice organizations in the South. When I was director of SisterSong, I used to complain about that over and over again, because even though the whole country was getting Dixie-fied, there was a lack of proportionate resources for us to conduct the work in the South.
As a matter of fact, at the end of the 20th century, we found a lot of the mainstream pro-choice organizations divesting from the South — closing down their Southern headquarters and things like that, writing us off as a lost cause. It's been really hard to get funders and foundations who are basically located on the East or the West Coast to prioritize providing adequate resources to the South for us to do our work.
What do you think about the increase in attention being given to abortion funds rather than just national establishment repro organizations?
I think it's an and-and-and strategy rather than an either-or. Because whenever we have to fight for abortion rights, it takes both the national organizations and the more localized organizations to establish partnerships, so that we come at it as a united front.
One of the last fights I had while I was at SisterSong was for a race, gender, and abortion bill in the Georgia state legislature. Back in 2010 was when all those billboards went up saying that "the most dangerous place for an African American child is in the womb." That campaign started in Georgia. It took SisterSong partnering with Planned Parenthood and NARAL, as well as an Asian American organization, to fight that campaign. Planned Parenthood and NARAL lended us their lobbyists, for example. We didn't have the resources to have a full-blown lobbying team. It took another organization, Feminist Majority, to help us develop messaging. We had to be in the front of that message, because our allies, like Planned Parenthood and NARAL, were weaker on responding to a race-based attack on abortion.
We try to be strategic. We don't see it as grassroots organizations versus the big nationals. We have to work together to take on these fights. It really isn't effective or productive for us to turn on each other when each of us brings different strengths to the fight.
Given Southern legislatures' interest in using state law to force people to bear more children, what policies do you think they should pass to make it easier to raise them?
A large number of the Southern states opted out of the Affordable Care Act, so we've got huge numbers of people in the Deep South who don't have health insurance. Let's get basic access to health care improved.
Because of their draconian policies about what can be taught in our educational system, nearly every Southern state is suffering from a shortage of teachers. Gun violence — a child should not have to be going to school and learning drills. But the prevalence of guns in the South makes education a dangerous thing for our children to do. And of course, if you look at infant and mortality rates around the country, the South has the worst numbers. So, there's a number of things people could be doing, if they cared about children once they are here.
Despite the grim state of this issue in the region at the moment, what alternative narratives does the South offer on reproductive justice, a term you helped coin in the 1990s?
One thing the South, particularly people of color in the South, have done very well for hundreds of years is be strategic about offering resistance to oppression. We never give up, we never give in, and we always resist. That kind of implacable determination is characteristic of the South. We don't give in to oppression easily, and we don't just take oppression lying down. We will always resist. We will always fight, even if others would counsel us to not do so.
We just finished celebrating Dr. King's birthday. And you think about how he was told not to fight as hard as he needed to fight — his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" talking about the moderates who counseled him to go slower. We never accepted that kind of incremental fighting. We're going for the whole thing. We're going for our full human rights, because we have no choice. There's a Southern phrase that we have: "at times like these." It's always been times like these. We don't assume that we have any choice.
And I also think there's something extremely Southern about how we don't demonize the opponents. We just outwork them. My boss Rev. C.T. Vivian, when I worked at the National Anti-Klan Network, he was very famous for saying, "If you ask people to give up hate, then you need to be there for them when they do." I fight for my rights, but I don't demonize the people I'm fighting against.
Elisha Brown is a staff writer at Facing South and a former Julian Bond Fellow. She previously worked as a news assistant at The New York Times, and her reporting has appeared in The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, and Vox.