In Conversation with Kenyetta Chinwe
Jamie Manson: As the faith advocacy coordinator at SisterSong, the leading organization in the reproductive justice movement, how do you define “reproductive justice”?
Kenyetta Chinwe: In 1994, 12 Black women that we refer to as the founding mothers created, conceived, and birthed an intersectional movement framework known as reproductive justice. These 12 Black women realized that the “choice” movement of the time did not address all of the issues that impact the reproductive lives of Black women, Indigenous women, women of color, and poor women.
They sought to create a framework that would address not just abortion rights, but issues of access as well as environmental, social, and economic issues that impact our reproductive lives.
It sits on four basic tenets that are rooted in the human rights framework as well as Black feminist theory. Those four tenets are that we believe that everyone has the human right to have a child; to not have a child; to parent the children that they have in safe, sustainable communities free from interpersonal and state-sanctioned violence; and to have bodily autonomy.
I think that much of the country doesn’t understand that although Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land since 1973, people of color, Black women, and poor women always struggled to access abortion care, even though we had the right secured. Abortion is cost-prohibitive for a lot of people. And even when it’s not cost-prohibitive, there are things to consider like travel and childcare.
It’s telling that people trying to ban abortion don’t spend their time caring about children who are actually here. There is so little support for mothers and people who are parenting. People are making decisions around abortion based on their social and economic status. So, we cannot allow for a government that says that they are restricting people’s control over their bodies in the name of children while also not advocating for actual things for children who are actually here, living and breathing.
The sovereignty to choose and make decisions about your health is a matter of bodily autonomy. It’s not just about rights. It’s not just about access. It’s saying that you as a human being and as an individual get to make decisions about your life without government intervention.
Jamie: How does the framework of reproductive justice help in your organizing and community work?
Kenyetta: What makes it different from the binary framework of pro-life and pro-choice is that it addresses a myriad of social and economic issues and broadens the space for where people can enter this fight for reproductive rights.
I am the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher, I am the granddaughter of a Pentecostal preacher, I am the niece, sibling of long lines of Pentecostal preachers. I spent last Mother’s Day with family just a few days after the leaked Supreme Court decision. My sister, who has been a Pentecostal woman her whole life and is an ordained minister, says: “I don’t believe in abortion, but I also believe that the government doesn’t have a right to tell people what they should do with their bodies.”
I think there are more Black and Brown and Indigenous people who live in the gray area than on either end of the binary that we’ve created. We have to make space for the full range of support that shows up.
Not everyone that shows up will be pro-abortion, but as long as they understand that people get to make choices for their lives then we have to make room for them. Like Jesus said, if they’re not against us, then they’re for us, so leave ’em alone!
I work with faith communities here in Georgia, and a lot of times the way that I am able to usher congregations into entering this work is by meeting them where they are within the context of this reproductive justice framework. Here in Georgia, we are battling a ridiculous maternal mortality rate, not only in the context of the country, but the world.
Congregations of many faith expressions — Christian, Jewish, and Muslim — are very interested in what they can do around this issue. So this issue allows me to start conversations with clergy about reproductive rights, because I am able to address their concerns about maternal mortality, but then I lead them back to the fact that restrictive reproductive laws affect this issue that they are already very concerned with.
I recently co-hosted a cross-movement event for faith organizers across seven areas of advocacy: environmental justice, economic justice, labor, immigration, LGBTQIA+ rights, voter rights, and criminal justice reform. In that convening we came together to uplift each other’s work and envision what the best possible world looks like from each of our lanes of advocacy.
We are always stronger together than we are apart, and the reproductive justice framework lets me know that fighting for environmental justice is reproductive justice and vice versa. If we can get people from other movements to understand how their work is integrally connected to reproductive rights, health, and justice, we become more powerful.
Jamie: Thank you, because all of those issues you just named are all Catholic issues: workers’ rights, the environment, immigration rights. There is an amazing parallel between the reproductive justice framework and the Catholic social justice framework. It’s a shame that many Catholic organizations don’t see the mutual strengths that these frameworks have.
We’ve even heard a number of conservative Catholic publications argue that abortion care is racist. Can you speak to that claim and speak to the relationship between Black women, faith, and abortion care?
Kenyetta: The reality is that the far-right movement often couches abortion as racist in order to recruit Black people to co-sign the egregious policies that they’re trying to implement. But the fact of the matter is that before 1960 or ’70, you would have been hard-pressed to find Black clergy preaching about abortion. Black clergy understood that people did what they needed to do for their lives.
For most of the history of Christian faith in this country, Black faith has been grounded in the concept of liberation and emancipation. So theology that seeks to oppress is not traditionally ours. As Black women, we understand that the government controlling our bodies has never been a good thing. The underlying issue to all of this is the paternalism of white supremacy, which says white men get to determine how everybody else governs their lives, how everybody else deals with their bodies, and that other people — namely white supremacist patriarchy — know best what you should do with your body.
Jamie: Amen, Kenyetta. You said that to me for the first time two weeks ago, and it is written on my heart now.
Some Catholics for Choice activists feel a tension between their faith and their position on abortion. As a person of faith and a reverend, how does your spirituality lead you toward work in reproductive justice?
Kenyetta: Though I’m not Catholic, I come from a very strict religious upbringing, and I had a similar reconciling for myself when I realized I was queer. I had to figure out how to reconcile my faith — reconcile who I’d been told God was and who I understood myself to be. And that was a long journey. But the thing at the root of helping me navigate that tension, something I found in searching through a lot of faith traditions, comes down to love. The through line is loving God, loving yourself, and loving your neighbor as yourself. The one thing that all of our traditions of love require us to do is to take care of the people that we are actually sharing the planet with, who are living and breathing with us.
Because 1 in 4 women in this country will have an abortion — which means that you not only know someone who has had an abortion, you love someone who has had an abortion. And they may have had to make that decision in the shadows, in secret, without support, because they fear judgment from the people who should be supporting them. Rooting myself in compassionate care for the people in my faith community, creating space for people to show up as their whole selves without judgment, really did help me. If I love God, love myself, and try my very best to love the people that I share the world with, everything else is superfluous.