The country awaits the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that challenges Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. In Texas, residents still live under the restrictions of Senate Bill 8, a law that bans most abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected. The Supreme Court ruled, in December, that abortion providers can challenge SB 8 but that enforcement of the law can continue as providers pursue their case. This decision further fueled speculation that the court is on its way to overturning Roe v. Wade, which established that abortion is protected under the right to privacy guaranteed by the Constitution. Now, with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s elevation to the court, reproductive justice organizers are wondering how the bench’s shifting composition will impact the movement for universal abortion access.
But Black reproductive justice activists are tired of speculating. For decades, Black communities have been misled by the myth of “representation,” or the idea that the ascension of Black individuals to the most powerful political institutions in the land will result in the cultivation of grassroots power among everyday Black people. Such a belief has undermined the political agency of poor and working-class Black folk. The confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice who mirrors their racial identity while those same people are deprived of a myriad of constitutional rights is not a sign of progress but is instead a false promise.
The validity of the Supreme Court as a democratic institution is itself important to question. The members of the court are unelected appointees with lifetime tenure, limited ethics oversight, and the immense power of judicial review. For Black people in Texas, celebrating the confirmation of someone who shares the racial and gender identity of those disproportionately affected by the state’s decidedly anti-democratic restrictions on reproductive health to an institution that is not democratically representative feels more ironic than triumphant.
If history is any indication, it’s unlikely that the presence of a Black woman on the Supreme Court will dramatically shift reproductive health outcomes for Black people. Roe itself did not assure access to abortion for Black people. Though white feminists celebrated the 1973 decision as a guarantor of reproductive freedom, a slew of other civil injustices and human rights violations stood—and continue to stand—in the way of Black people’s ability to exercise reproductive choice. And for Texans, municipal efforts to curb abortions, such as the successful campaign for “sanctuary cities for the unborn,” have made it clear that even when judicial rulings support abortion access, there is ample potential for on-the-ground erosion of legal rights. Nor is Judge Jackson’s commitment to reproductive justice all that clear. During her confirmation hearings, Jackson signaled a kind of conservatism in judicial reasoning that might appeal to Republican lawmakers, and her record offers few clues as to which way she will lean on cases related to reproductive justice.
These realities inform the recent development of the Black caucus within Texas’s Trust Respect Access coalition, a network that pushes for policies to protect abortion rights in the Lone Star State. The new caucus is necessary not only because of Texas’s increasing hostility toward Black pregnant people, whether they seek to terminate their pregnancies or carry them to term, but also because of the failure on the part of non-Black activists and the nonprofit-industrial complex to address the issues facing Black pregnant people. While Black women account only for 11 percent of live births, they make up 31 percent of maternal deaths in Texas. A state morbidity review from 2013 found that 89 percent of those deaths were preventable. And yet this is not an issue that’s championed by Black lawmakers or white reproductive justice activists. Though Black people make up 30 percent of those seeking abortions in Texas, there are many abortion access organizations in the state’s nonprofit sector that can’t claim a single Black board member, staffer, or volunteer. These are issues that the appointment of a Black woman to the Supreme Court, for all its historical significance, can’t fix. No matter who fills the next vacant seat on the court, Black reproductive justice advocates know that we will have to support our communities alone.
Black organizers, especially in Texas, are incorporating doula work, HIV awareness campaigns, restorative justice practices, abortion funding, community care projects, gender-affirming culture work, as well as pushing for affordable housing, food subsidies, and basic income distribution to transform the material conditions that limit Black people’s capacity to access the full spectrum of reproductive health care. This work requires deep, in-person relationship building within Black communities as well as digital outreach that allows organizers to cross state lines to build broader solidarity among Black people. Black reproductive justice advocates are creating a power base that can rival that of conservative populism. These efforts are informed by an awareness that political power is actually concentrated among everyday people. When the masses are mobilized, politicians and political institutions will follow their lead—not the other way around.