WASHINGTON— Shakya Cherry-Donaldson was on a girls trip with 10 other Black women when she learned about the bombshell news.
The Supreme Court was preparing to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
“There was a collective mourning,” Cherry-Donaldson said. “We were triggered into this screaming conversation with each other about what is about to happen.”
One friend wanted to start a new underground railroad.
“I was just like, that’s not going to work. Everybody’s going to go to jail,” Cherry-Donaldson said.
Instead, Cherry-Donaldson, the executive director of the Black women’s advocacy group 1000 Women Strong, is working to educate – and mobilize – voters in several battleground states. Using funding from Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century’s Bridge Together initiative, the group is working in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Nevada to educate Black women about reproductive justice and how to harness their political power during this year’s midterm elections.
She’s not alone.
In the 10 days since the draft of the Supreme Court opinion leaked, activists and their allies are frantically working to mobilize Black women to fight back through organizing, educating and voting in November.
Black women are three times more likely to get an abortion than white women, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. White women had the lowest abortion rate, 6.6 abortions per 1,000 women, and Black women had the highest abortion rate, 23.8 abortions per 1,000 women, among the 30 areas that reported race by ethnicity data for 2019. A University of Colorado Boulder report published last year showed banning abortion nationwide would lead to a 21% increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths overall and a 33% increase among Black women.
Few groups would be as directly impacted. If the high court repeals Roe, states would be left to decide whether to allow abortions and under what conditions. Many states in the South (where Black populations are higher than most other areas of the country) are aggressively moving to restrict abortions. And traveling to a state that offers the procedure would be potentially unaffordable for low-income women, many of whom are disproportionately of color.
April England Albright, legal director and chief of staff of Black Voters Matter, a national organization focused on expanding Black voter engagement across the country, said that since the news broke on May 2, her organization has seen people take action to push back against the fight to end abortion.
“People have already been working on how to respond in real-time by providing funds and making them available to women who need to travel to get an abortion in anticipation,” England Albright told USA TODAY.
The day after the draft opinion leaked, Emily’s List President Laphonza Butler told USA TODAY that the abortion rights advocacy group was proud to support Black women running for Congress who promote reproductive health care accessibility to Black women and others.
“That’s why these women are running because they do see the voters in Georgia and North Carolina – the women of color, the low-income women – they see them as whole people,” Butler said.
The organization endorsed Cheri Beasley, who is running for the Senate seat in North Carolina, and Stacey Abrams’ second bid for governor of Georgia. (Abrams paused donations to her campaign and directed supporters to donate to local reproductive choice organizations.)
Emily’s list, along with Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice America will spend $150 million on the midterms in races in Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, California, Kansas and Wisconsin.
Melody Bray knew she was going to run for office before she attended the boot camp last summer hosted by Emerge, an organization that trains Democratic women to pursue political office.
After the training, she launched her campaign for Georgia state senator for District 38 in October.
But after last week, Bray has had to change some of her campaign messaging.
“I would say the effects were immediate in two ways. One is that the entire conversation changed,” Bray said. “We were all about talking voting rights and affordable housing and now we’re talking about this (abortion).”
Canvassers said they are getting several questions about what Bray’s position is on overturning Roe v. Wade and on the Peach State’s Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act, which bans abortion after cardiac activity is detected, around six weeks of gestation.
Her campaign has amended volunteer packets with specific language to address abortion and will update its website with a pop-up on abortion.
She won’t be fundraising off the news.
“It feels kind of gross to me to look at a situation that is terrible and look at it as an opportunity for me to make more money off of it,” she said.
However, Bray said she hopes the conversation will now mobilize the Democratic base to vote in November.
“My concern with being (in) an overwhelmingly Democratic district was that people weren’t going to turn out,” said Bray. “This makes me feel like more people will be energized to turn out.”
Cassandra Welchlin, the Mississippi executive director and lead organizer of Black Women’s Round Table, said her organization has worked closely with activists and stepped up its strategy since the leak.
Black Women’s Roundtable has been letting people know that abortion is “still legal,” and letting women know that it’s necessary to participate in elections if they want representation.
“If we want to have good policies in this country, we’ve got to make sure that we are electing the right kind of leaders that have the values that we hold,” Welchlin said.
In the days following the leak, Ruth’s List Florida, a group that helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, endorsed Aramis Ayala in her historic campaign for Florida attorney general.
“Ruth’s List knows that our communities are stronger when women lead and we’re committed to seeing Aramis make history as Florida’s first Black Attorney General,” said Lucy Sedgwick, president & CEO of the organization, in a statement.
Lindsay Pollard, a board member for the organization, said if the Supreme Court does overturn Roe it will be devastating for Black women.
In 2020, Black people had 55 deaths per 100,000 births, the greatest increase among races, according to the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics.
“This is a devastating social issue for women across the board. But for Black women, especially and specifically, this could be life and death for them,” Pollard said.
Yet, Pollard also pointed out abortion is not the only reproductive health issue where Black women are concerned.
“It’s not just about abortion for us. Black women suffer more from fibroid tumors. They suffer more from certain cancers – ovarian, uterine,” Pollard said, echoing several organizers who spoke with USA TODAY. “This thing is bigger than just having a baby or not having a baby.”
High support for reproductive issues among Black women and Black Americans
Roshni Nedungadi, founding partner and chief operating officer of HIT Strategies, a progressive market research firm, said abortion has been a topic that Black voters cared about even before the leak.
HIT Strategies was conducting a focus group with young Democratic voters when the leaked draft opinion was published by Politico.
“What we’ve been seeing over the last two months is this issue is becoming more and more motivating,” Nedungadi said on previous polling they’ve done in the past.
“For instance, we found in one of our previous BlackTrack (polls) 72% of Black voters say they would be more motivated to vote in the upcoming midterms if access to abortion was threatened,” added Nedungadi. “And I think that we really saw that play out in real time in these groups.”
When Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court, 79% of Black women surveyed in a 2018 Axios poll said they did not want the high court to make abortion illegal. More recent polling on Black women and whether they support abortion is scant.
Tammy Boyd wasn’t surprised when she first heard about the possibility of Roe being overturned. But she was disappointed and then upset.
“We’re going to have to put in a lot of work and roll up our sleeves,” said Boyd, who serves as director of health policy and legislative affairs at the Black Women’s Health Imperative, an organization with offices in both Washington, D.C., and Georgia.
“Despite all the work we’ve been doing, this is a little daunting that it actually may actually come to fruition.”
However, Boyd isn’t taking the news quietly.
The Black Women’s Health Imperative will be organizing roundtables, strategizing, and attending political rallies around reproductive justice in the coming weeks and months.
“Also, we are really pushing how important these elections are simultaneously, these midterm elections,” Boyd said. “We’re going to be doing roundtables and meetings in various key states like Georgia, and particularly Georgia because we’re based in Georgia, and swing states Florida and Ohio.”
Two races the group will be canvassing around include Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock’s Senate reelection in Georgia and Democrat Stacey Abrams’ bid for Georgia governor.
The goal of their political organizing is “really to mobilize and empower women on the local level and hold their elected officials accountable,” said Boyd. “If you were asleep at the wheel before you should be up at this point,” Boyd continued.
Similarly, Cherry-Donaldson’s organization, 1000 Women Strong, is based in Georgia and organizing around these same races and in other states including Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
She will be working to get organizers hired and door knocking, phone banking, and engaging in digital storytelling to other Black and brown women in states across the nation.
“For Black women in this country that descend from a legacy of slavery, they have an ancestral memory of what it is like for our bodies to be owned by the state,” Cherry-Donaldson said. “And we can never go back only forward.”