People crowded together on the top step of the Connecticut Supreme Court, shielded from the pouring rain under the building’s stone portico.
Kamora Herrington stood in the center of the group in front of a large white banner painted with the words “CT Black Women.” She spoke into a megaphone mic, her voice amplified over the street traffic and rain.
“For some sad reason, we live with a whole bunch of human beings who think it’s their job to tell me what I should be doing with my body,” she said. “We need to fight, we need to fight, we need to fight from absolutely every avenue we can think of.”
Herrington and others who attended a recent Black Reproductive Freedom Rally in Hartford were protesting abortion bans and restrictions in states across the country.
But they were also fighting for something more — safe reproductive care and better health outcomes for women of color. These things, advocates said, have been historically absent and ignored, leading to further distrust of a health care system rife with cases of racism, discrimination and deadly outcomes for black people.
Abortion bans will only exacerbate the wedge that exists between the system and communities of color, activists said.
“From the moment that African women set foot on these shores as enslaved people, our bodies were not our own,” said activist Janée Woods Weber. “We were forced into rape and incestual relationships in order to create more black and brown babies to work for white folks. So from the very moment that we were forced to come here, we have not been able to control our fertility, we have not been allowed to maintain our family structures, and when we have, we’ve been vilified and demonized.”
Several states, many in the south, have passed laws that limit or completely block access to abortion, and experts said these policies will disproportionately affect women of color.
The abortion rate for black women in 2015 was about 3.5 times higher than for white women, according to a November report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Wizdom Powell, director of the Health Disparities Institute at UConn Health, said abortion is just one part of it all — eliminating that option may create a negative impact on other services offered by the same health care provider.
“Women also get contraception in those settings, they get counseling about sexually transmitted infections, they get healthy family planning counseling and support,” she said, “and all of those things are at risk, I believe, when you start restricting the places where women can go to receive that kind of care.”
These bans and other types of restrictions on reproductive health care will likely make it more difficult to close gaps in health disparities, Powell said, like lowering higher maternal and infant mortality rates among black women and children.
Because if girls and women feel they’re not able to get safe, reliable reproductive health care that meets all their needs, Powell said that could taint their perception and use of health care services in the long term.
And that’s adding to a history of “medical malice” already known to black women, like forced sterilization and unethical experimentations, Powell said.
“You can see how when compounded together, they could produce a multiplicatively negative impact on reproductive health care and access to black women,” she said, “and also similarly, ring those historical alarms that can lead to more mistrust in health system engagement, and that can be detrimental to women who are already marginalized.”
At the Hartford rally, activists held signs and wore messages that made references to the past. One woman help up an illustration of the document, “We Remember: African American Women Are For Reproductive Freedom.”
“We Remember” was a collective statement by 16 black female political activists — including Dorothy Height, Shirley Chisholm, Maxine Waters and Faye Wattleton — that called for reproductive freedom and choice for black women. It was published 30 years ago in 1989 shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could restrict the use of state funds, facilities and employees for abortion services.
Herrington, who helped pass the mic from speaker to speaker at the Hartford rally, made a connection to her family’s past by wearing a black t-shirt with the Alabama state flag at the center and the name Opelika at the top.
It’s the name of a town about 60 miles east of the state capitol Montgomery, where Alabama’s governor signed one of the most restrictive abortion ban laws earlier this month. Opelika is also where Herrington’s family is from, before they moved to New England with thousands of other African Americans during the Great Migration in the early and mid-1900s.
“And they came up here knowing that we were going to make it better for everyone, so I’m doing what I’m supposed to do—I’m taking care of my sisters and cousins and everyone else other places,” she said.
“Black women have been doing this work forever—countless, hundreds of thousands of us—because it has to be done, and then we’re forgotten to history. We’re a footnote and no one ever thinks of us, no one ever sees us. We need to show up and show out and be loud.”