An illustration of a Black woman in various stages of her pregnancy. In the last drawing of her, she is holding a baby.

Access Denied

Why Jennifer Sarduy Had to Start Her Own Birth Justice Movement

Robin Marty talks with the Re-Birth Equity Alliance founder about the dearth of representation and intersectionality in the reproductive justice movement.

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This Q&A first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Parlour, our members only newsletter. An exclusive salon where we invite guest editors to curate the discussions we’ve been having about the issues most important to us, it features special content including essays, Q&A’s (like the one below), recommended reading from around the web, plus organizations to support and ways to take action.

I first met Jennifer in 2018, through an anti-abortion activist I had become friends with who was having a fund-raiser for her fledgling pregnancy center. Jennifer was then leading Birth Texas, an organization working toward better maternal outcomes in childbirth in that state. I made instant assumptions that, because this was a “birth”-based organization in Texas, I was walking into a specifically anti-abortion space—and I wasn’t completely wrong. But Jennifer had made it her mission to change that space, to open it up to the women of color doing the work on the ground, to provide the community a better opportunity to get to know and understand the concepts of reproductive justice, and to integrate abortion as an unavoidable and integral part of the patchwork of reproductive processes that people who can get pregnant will potentially experience in their lifetimes. I was invited to keynote their statewide conference and discuss places where abortion opponents and abortion-rights supporters can find common ground to work together. Less than a dozen attendees came to the speech. Birth Texas dissolved just a few weeks later.

This is Jennifer’s story.

Robin Marty: So how did you first become drawn to birth justice, and what made you decide then that abortion needed to be a part of the overall conversation when it comes to birthing issues?

Jennifer Sarduy: For me personally, I like to look at a complete picture, and when we look at the reasons that people are dying surrounding birth, especially in the Black community, those reasons are varied, and they’re not the reasons that we like to put into the box of what we traditionally think of as birth issues. Abortion is not going anywhere, and unsafe abortion causes women to die, so I think that it’s important that we make these topics available to people who wouldn’t normally talk about them. We need to talk about them.

As far as Birth Texas, I got into that particular line of work because I had a really traumatic birth experience. It’s a story that you’ve heard a million times: an unnecessary caesarean, then I was really close to losing my life on that table, to hemorrhage, to all of these medical risks that are so common and so poorly addressed.

Now in Birth Texas, in Texas in general, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a doula. There are doulas everywhere. There are midwives everywhere, and unfortunately only 2 percent of those midwives are Black, so these outcomes that you’re seeing throughout North Texas are really being driven by quality of care (Texas has seen an alarmingly high maternal mortality rate, and the rate for Black women is twice that of the overall rate itself).

When the people that are helping birthing families do not represent them, do not look like them, are not educated about their specific needs, it really affects the community as a whole. What I saw coming into Birth Texas is just me being a Black woman, talking about Black women dying and being surrounded by white women, who really just didn’t see how it affected them, and sometimes still don’t. And so I saw a need for a bridge there, and to find a way to speak to these women, and also to prioritize Black women. That is really where my heart is and where I wanted Birth Texas to go.

When Birth Texas dissolved as an organization, it really was a situation in which white women that I was working with were unwilling to give up power to a Black woman. [That] power structure is where all of our problems start and end. I decided to start an organization, Rebirth Equity Alliance, that would allow for that greater bridge building and really prioritize and center on women of color and families of color and their needs, and also seek to educate all of these white birth workers on how they can be of more assistance, and listen to them as well. If you’re listening only to respond, you’re really not getting the message.

Marty: This idea you were introducing—that abortion, maternal care, better birth outcomes, and overall health care are interconnected and can’t be separated from each other—is a key tenet of the reproductive-justice movement, and while it was new to the Birth Justice crew, it was already being practiced by RJ groups in Texas for years. But when you tried taking this integrated approach, you didn’t just make birth-justice advocates angry that the conference discussed abortion, you also made abortion-rights activists on the Birth Texas board angry because the conference was fund-raising for a “crisis pregnancy center” too.

Sarduy: Yes, so correct. The Afiya Center does a lot of work surrounding caring for the whole individual, and I think that is really where you’re going to meet the most needs, especially in communities with the lowest quality of care. When we set out to model our work over meeting those complete needs, and spoke to Cessilye [Smith] and Bethany [Sticker], the founders of Abide Women’s Health Services, the organization that we were doing fund-raising for, we really wanted to focus on meeting these complete needs. Unfortunately for so many of us, we’re not listening to each other, and so this work becomes very black and white, where it’s “abortion” or “not abortion.” I wanted to focus on meeting those needs because if we’re only focused on one word, we’re doing everyone a disservice.

We need to talk about abortion, but we also need to address those health needs. We need these centers. If a crisis pregnancy center was doing all of the right things, and actually supporting people and providing services regardless of household scenarios [such as gender, race, religion, sexual orientation] and really supporting whole people, I feel like there’s space for that in this work as well as space to support organizations that fund abortion. We should be funding all of this work because all of it together is how we’re going to create change and [achieve] reproductive justice.

Marty: That’s actually one of the things that I talk about in my book—the idea that there’s nothing wrong with a pregnancy center or a crisis pregnancy center. What’s wrong with the situation is when it’s a center that is not helping people meet all of their needs, or is discriminating as to who they are going to help, or in some way trying to work with and deceive or hamper people who actually decided they want an abortion. There is plenty of room for non-judgmental, honest pregnancy centers that go about supporting people who have pregnancies that were unplanned but carried by people who want to continue them. That’s something that we, as people who endorse all reproductive choices, should be supporting.

Sarduy: Absolutely.

Marty: If Roe is overturned, not only will there be no abortion in Texas; there will basically be no abortion in the entire Gulf Coast region. We’re talking about people who would have to travel 10 or 12 hours by car in order to get to an abortion clinic. I know this is already happening for people who don’t have the resources to access an abortion, but this is going to obviously get much, much worse. What do you see as your role in this problem through Rebirth Equity? What sort of dangers are you expecting, and what sort of things are you doing already to plan for this and to try and mitigate maternal loss of life?

Sarduy: You can outlaw it, and that will cause more women to die because abortion is not going anywhere. When we legally have all of these extra barriers, and all of this travel time and undue burden on people who need to get an abortion, we are really going to have to stand firm on our community support. We’re going to have to make that extra effort and physically, not just on social media, physically help people to get the services they need, and to care for them as a whole person. I think that our role at Rebirth Equity Alliance, in addition to providing that physical support, that real support, is educating people who don’t want to talk about abortion, and not pushing them to change their mind. So much of the time, when we’re speaking, we’re speaking to try to change someone’s point of view. But what we really need to do is humanize the person who is going through this. I think that is our role—to use education and humanize people that we often water down to just this one moment in their lives. I think if we can see everyone as humans, and as our equals, we’ll be much better off for it.

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