Interview with reproductive justice activist, Renee Bracey Sherman
By Rachel Lee
Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive justice activist, writer, and expert on abortion storytelling and the representation of people who have had abortions in media and pop culture. After having an abortion at the age of 19, she has become an outspoken advocate ensuring the voices of people who’ve had abortions are central to the conversation and eradication of abortion stigma. As a member of Echoing Ida, a Black women’s writing collective and project of Forward Together, Renee has written extensively on abortion access, Black women’s health disparities, and digital harassment. Renee’s work has been featured on the BBC, The Guardian, The Washington Post, EBONY Magazine, TIME, The Atlantic, Glamour, Cosmopolitan and more. In 2014, Renee authored Saying Abortion Aloud: Research and Recommendations for Public Abortion Storytellers and Organizations, a guide to abortion storytelling, and in 2015 she co-authored Speak Up & Stay Safe(r), a multilingual digital guide on handling online harassment.
Currently, Renee works at the Senior Public Affairs Manager at the National Network of Abortion Funds where she manages We Testify, a leadership program dedicated to increasing the spectrum of abortion storytellers in the public sphere, particularly at the intersections of race, class, and gender identity, and shifting the way the media understands the context and complexity of accessing abortion care. This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.
What were you doing before you started working with reproductive justice? How did you get into this field?
I had an abortion at 19. I was dealing with a toxic relationship and boyfriend, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next in my life, but I knew I didn’t want to have a child. I told myself, “I’m not going to be a parent right now, and I’m going to focus myself and get my life where I want it to be.” [After I had my abortion] I took a sociology class focused on HIV and AIDS. I learned about white supremacy and intersectionality as frameworks, and they felt like my life and explanation for things I’ve felt. That was my first foray into reproductive justice, but it wasn’t called that. The class looked into the intersectionality of people with HIV and AIDS who were People of Color, poor, living in certain areas, or identify with a certain gender or sexual orientation, and their ability to access services. I had a professor who was HIV positive, and his willingness to share his story with us in class had a profound impact on me. I had never met anyone who was open about their status and could have regular conversations about it. In college I volunteered in some LGBT organizations in Chicago and learned about the lived reproductive justice and intersectionality before I could put words to it.
After I graduated, I moved to California and worked with an LGBT news organization. We worked on a gender omnibus bill and the beginnings of the law that now requires LGBT history to be in schools. Working with young people to help them lobby and prepare their stories to share with legislators was really inspiring. Queer young people are some of the fiercest young people I’ve met – they’re willing to put themselves out there to make change in a way I’ve never seen. There were young people who were talking to conservative, anti-LGBT legislators who would constantly misgender them in meetings on purpose and made it clear they didn’t care [about the young people’s lives]. As a part of the AmeriCorps program I was in, I had to do a shadow day in a social justice field we weren’t working in, so I decided to work in abortion. I met people who had abortions and were talking about it openly, and I asked myself, “how is it I can ask these young people to share their story with politicians if I’m not willing to do that myself?” That’s when I started sharing my abortion story.
A lot of people shared their stories with me: my co-workers at the LGBT center, friends, family members; it was a rewarding experience to go from having my abortion alone in a clinic and not knowing anyone who had had an abortion, to now knowing a lot of people who have had abortions. I started writing about my story and I joined a Black women’s writing collective called Echoing Ida. We were trying to change the conversation about reproductive justice to center it on women of color – a lot of media is written by white folks about communities they are not a part of, and it’s important for us to tell stories about our own community – so I started writing about Black women’s abortion access.
Why did you focus your efforts on storytelling? What do you focus on when you work with storytelling, and how do the narratives you hear differ or overlap with the traditional narrative we’re told about people who get abortions?
I work with over 30 brilliant storytellers in the We Testify program, and we do it to put a face on who has abortions. When I first started sharing my story in the LGBT community, I knew more queer and trans folks who have had abortions than I knew straight, cisgender women, so I fully believe in broadening the circle about who can get pregnant and their ability to make autonomous decisions about their pregnancies. When I looked at the demographics of who has abortions and why, what I was seeing on television and print media didn’t represent my experience or the demographics nationwide. A lot of the spokespeople put up to talk about abortion are white women, or people who haven’t had abortions. I decided to start training folks – if we need to change who we want to see talking about an issue, we need to do an investment in those communities to make sure they have the resources they need to speak up and speak out.
Story sharing also gives a different view of why people have abortions. People assume it’s because [all people who have abortions] don’t want to be parents, but 60% of people who have abortions already have a child. It’s not always about avoiding parenthood, but about being able to spread the resources, love, support, and time you have with the children you already have. A lot of people who have abortions are spiritual or religious, but a lot of the narrative around abortion focuses on Christianity and its opposition to abortion.
What’s also important that goes with the storytelling is photos of people who have had abortions – not headless bellies of a person who’s nine months pregnant, or someone crying in a bathroom corner, but regular people of all races, all genders, from all across the country saying they have had an abortion. People having abortions now can look at media and see themselves represented, and feel less alone. I would have felt less alone if I could look online and see a Black woman talking about having an abortion, and what it was like. It would have meant the world to me, and I want to be able to create the media I always wanted to see.
Could you speak more to your work with abortion access in communities of color and your background in that?
The majority of people who have abortions are people of color, and it’s not always represented in the media that we see. In community we want to be able to see ourselves in billboards, ads, stories. We’re also trying to complicate the narrative as to why the demographics are what they are. It’s more than just people of color being less likely to have access to contraception or insurance, but the historical narrative of who has been able to access abortions, under what circumstances [they have been allowed to access abortions], and how that’s still reflective today. We want folks of color to know that it’s okay to want an abortion. Anti-choice activists do a lot to try to seem it’s worse for a Black woman to have an abortion than a white woman because they believe abortion is slavery. They’re ignoring the basic history than enslaved Black women were having abortions because they knew an abortion was better than having their children born into bondage. To compare abortion and slavery in that way is not only ahistorical, but just so disgusting and diminishes the impact racism has on our ancestors and on us now.
Anti-choice folks are starting to use the language around Black Lives Matter to say Black lives in the womb also truly matter, yet we can’t get those same people to come out and support Black kids being shot in the streets by police. They will not fight for Black children’s right to life unless it’s under the guise of controlling women’s bodies. It’s frustrating they are using our own history and fight for civil rights to deny us human rights. We need to make sure Black women and all of women of color are able to speak out and affirm their need for abortion access, in addition to accessing whatever they need to be parents. It’s not as if [conservative, anti-choice politicians] support that my cousins, who are single parents or had kids as teenagers, “support life.” I want to make sure the pro-choice community is standing up for my right to an abortion just as hard as they should stand up for young parents, single parents, and poor families. Sometimes people support abortion access because they think poor folks shouldn’t be having kids they can’t afford – just because you’re in poverty, that shouldn’t limit the size of your family. It should inform your decision, but it shouldn’t stop you from having the family that you want.
One of our storytellers, Alejandra, is being held by ICE in a detention center in Arizona and has been there for two weeks now because she is undocumented [after this interview was conducted, she has been released]. When she had an abortion last year, she flirted with the idea of parenting but decided against it, because the same people who are trying to deport her would be the same people who would force her to have this baby, then separate her from her baby. This shows we cannot have a conversation about abortion access without talking about immigration, the historical function of bodies of color, and the constant cuts to welfare policy. It’s more than just a legal right to abortion, but whether you have the access to things you need, and if, when, and how you become a parent.
You talked about the gross, racist rhetoric politicians, both on the national and local level, are using about abortion. This is a difficult time to be an advocate for reproductive justice, with the Trump administration really attacking abortion rights. How has the nature of your work changed over the last two years?
It feels like [threats and cuts to abortion access] has been happening so intensely since 2010, it’s hard to think just about the last two years. For me, the mandate has become clearer and clearer over the last two years: we cannot talk about abortion in a silo. The last two years has shown me we need to be unequivocally following the leadership of People of Color who have had abortions, and not just lip service – they need to be in leadership positions, making decisions at the table, paid for their work and time, and deeply respected for their expertise. Every time I see there is a less-than-stellar decision made in the pro-choice community, like a panel [on reproductive justice] with all-white people or a policy that didn’t factor in the impact for communities of color, like putting a reproductive health facility 500 feet away from an ICE detention center. When those decisions are made, they are clearly made without people of color at the table. That is crucial in the work we do going forward. Even if we got a bill passed tomorrow that said abortion is accessible whenever you want and it’s free, people would still have a hard time dealing with stigma and accessing the care they want – it has never just been about legality, but about access. When you center the needs of people who had abortions, then you will be able to get at the core of all of those issues. We have a storyteller who is trans and talking about his journey of how he now has become pregnant. That is a narrative that is not talked about in the reproductive community. For a Black trans man living in the south, how can we make sure he has the resources he needs to build a family he wants?
Do you see a lot of differences between the goals of American reproductive justice movement and the international movements that have sprung up?
I went to a conference about global abortion stigma by inroads (the International Network for the Reduction of Abortion Discrimination and Stigma) in Croatia. There were about 100 folks from all around the world working on abortion stigma reduction work: some were practitioners of abortion, some were making abortion more accessible in communities, some were doing storytelling work, like me. When it comes to abortion, [the US is] exporting our anti-choice ideology and laws to other countries. In Croatia, abortion is legal until 10 weeks, like much of the EU, and there are abortions laws left over from when Croatia was a part of the former Yugoslavia. Like in the US, they’re getting more protestors outside of the hospitals where abortions are performed.
I never feel as ridiculous when I have to explain the concept of health insurance to someone from a country with a national health system. Having to explain not just that abortion isn’t covered through private or public health insurance, but that we don’t have a national paid sick leave policy, parental leave policies, and it’s all just dependent on not just whether you have a job, but who your employer is and whether they believe in science, and how much power your insurance company has. So many conservatives in the country talk about the government getting between you and your doctor, but are also willing to allow for-profit entities, like your employer or your insurance company, to come between you and your doctor.
One Polish activist was surprised when I mentioned the women of color who have been put in jail for self-managing their abortions. Abortion is legal in our country if you follow all of these steps, like waiting out the waiting period, talking to a doctor instead of a nurse, going back for all these appointments and jumping through all these hoops of stigma and punishment before you get real access to care. If you don’t and circumvent the system by taking abortion pills on your own (which is incredibly safe – abortion is one of the safest medical procedures), you will still get punished for it. Many women took matters into their own hands because they couldn’t get to a clinic.
Most people around the world have abortion via medication abortion, but in the US, it’s quite expensive and highly regulated. Medication abortion is close to half of how all abortions are conducted, but it’s still not widely understood or recognized as another type of abortion. A lot of people say that abortion after 24 weeks is barbaric by using Europe as an example, but many European countries pay for abortions, have them in hospitals, and they’re readily accessible.
What are some of the future projects you’re hoping to work on and directions you’re hoping reproductive justice will move in?
The reproductive justice movement is doing really well, but I’m hoping the reproductive rights movement would move closer to the priorities of the reproductive justice movement. Reproductive health, rights, and justice are three very different frameworks, and I would like to see rights take a more human rights framework and make sure race is a part of the conversation in a meaningful way. After going to Croatia, I’m interested in learning from my colleagues all around the world. I realized just how many human rights violations the United States has been making – I always knew that, but I thought of them mostly as outside the country in how corporations treat employees, and wars. From detention centers, to the lack of clean water in Flint for years, to the lack of a right to an education here – I’m interested in finding ways to collaborate with folks around the world to make sure the US is on par with technological and human rights advances that are other countries have made. We’re lagging behind severely, and communities of color are deeply suffering for it.
I would love to see our movement stand up for young people’s right to parent better than we have. Gloria Malone, a teen mom activist, said we often leave young parents, who also deal with a lot of stigma [in comparison to young people who have abortions], to the side sometimes. A lot of abortion rights organizations are fighting to make sure people can parent and have all the resources they need. All Options, a pregnancy resource center in Bloomington, Indiana, has an abortion fund and decision counseling, but the #1 thing they give out is diapers. Models like that would be amazing to grow across the country.