In the summer of 1994, Black women working in the reproductive health and rights movement coined a phrase that would cause a paradigm shift in how women of color identified their work to end reproductive oppression. “Reproductive justice”(RJ) was coined at a conference sponsored by the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance and the Ms. Foundation for Women, when a group of Black women came together to craft a statement about the Clinton administration’s proposed plan for Universal Health Care.
The Black women who were the founding mothers of RJ and “involved in coining the term and laying the initial framework were:Toni M. Bond Leonard Reverend Alma Crawford Evelyn S. Field Terri James Bisola Marignay Cassandra McConnell Cynthia Newbille Loretta Ross Elizabeth Terry ‘Able’ Mable Thomas Winnette P. Willis Kim Youngblood
These creative visionaries understood that true health care for women needed to include the full range of reproductive health services, including abortion services. From coverage of contraceptives and well-woman care to pre- and postnatal care, RJ’s founding mothers believed that health care for women of color and their families was health care that, among other things, addressed health disparities, focused on wellness and prevention, and was affordable. The concerns of women of color, women who were the most economically disadvantaged and facing some of the greatest health disparities, were in jeopardy of being left out of the health care plan. After much discussion,the women decided craft a statement offering recommendations around what should be included in any health care plan. Those recommendations included the full range of reproductive healthcare services and abortion services.
Not satisfied with just a statement that would come from the conference, they decided it needed to be a much larger effort. It needed to reflect the voices of Black women from around the country. The women decided to make the ad a national effort. They wanted to send a message to federal legislators that Black women understood what was at stake and held them completely responsibility to make the right decision on the behalf of Black women and their families. The women decided to place a full-page signature ad in the Washington Post. Needing roughly $40,000 to pay for the ad, they successfully raised the funds from the foundation community and individual black women from around the country. The National Black Women’s Health Project graciously agreed to be the group’s fiscal agent, keeping an account of all revenue and expenses.
After some debate, the women decided to call themselves “Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice” (WADRJ). The women chose this name because they all believed that the issue was not just about abortion access, but about providing all women with access to the full range of quality reproductive health care services in the broadest sense. After collecting the endorsements of 836 Black women around the country, on August 16, 1994, WADRJ took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post and Roll Call, a newspaper that covers people, politic, and policy on Capitol Hill. A press conference about the ad was held in Washington, DC on Capitol Hill on August 17, 1994. Congresswomen Eleanor Holmes Norton, Maxine Waters, Carrie Meek, Cynthia McKinney, and Eva Clayton were scheduled to speak. “Able” Mabel Thomas and Cynthia Newbille were scheduled to speak on behalf of the coalition and the National Black Women’s Health Project, respectively. The Chicago Abortion Fund coordinated press releases to local Illinois media. The ad included endorsement by author Alice Walker and supermodel Veronia Webb.
Some of WADRJ’s other accomplishments included republishing the “We Remember” brochure, a statement by Black women of their support of and commitment to reproductive freedom and a letter to former President Bill Clinton in support of then Surgeon General, Dr. Jocelyn Elders, who was fired in December, 1994 because of her public support for the distribution of contraception in schools and her support for drug legalization.