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I came into the project of care ethics, reproductive justice, and Black women's inner workings as a daughter of a Black teenage mother. Teen mom is a political category, born from deviant narratives used to pathologize Black adolescent girls. My teen mom was a mother who—against all the social pressure, misogyny, and antiblackness—pursued motherhood and her "right" to have a child. 

In my time as an organizer, I have created safety plans around gender violence, aided and abetted abortion, taught reproductive health courses, assisted survivors, and much more. I witnessed my mother go through the IVF process after two miscarriages. I endured my own experiences with reproductive violence. Every part of the reproductive justice terrain has touched my life, too much to capture in an essay. 

Black women are positioned as heroes who come in to save other women from the crisis, but the conditions for crisis remain.

In 2022, we saw the fall of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the Court ruled that the Constitution of the United States conferred the right to have an abortion. The concept of reproductive justice, however, wasn't coined until 1994, in response to the antiblack policy decisions from the Clinton Administration that worked against protections put in place by the Court's ruling. 

On January 22, 1994, 12 Black women gathered in a hotel room to discuss health disparities in the Black community. The definition and pillars of reproductive justice emerged from an informal Black Women's Caucus: "the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities."

The reproductive justice movement, in my eyes, is the clearest example of Joy James's Captive Maternal theory. Our bodies, labor, and, most importantly, caretaking are used to sustain the state in many ways. When Black women started gaining media attention and visibility for maternal and infant mortality rates, media messages about Black doulas saving the day followed. The response to our deaths in these hospitals became, "get a doula, get a midwife." 

Black women are positioned as heroes who come in to save other women from the crisis, but the conditions for crisis remain; the states concede nothing, another marketplace predicated on Black death opens, and subjugation opens wider. 

The attack on abortion "rights" is patriarchal violence/warfare. We are at war.

In Birthing Black Mothers (2021), Jennifer Nash argues that Black mothers are being "refigured not as pathological but as living in crisis." She states that what unites Black mothers is "non-care," a term critical to my project on care ethics. During our Captive Maternal Roundtable (2022), Joy James speaks about going to a reproductive justice talk and hearing the story of a woman who endured non-care from a hospital and lost two babies. In that story, James calls the hospital a "slaughterhouse." This description is significant to me because much of my project—as a Black feminist, abolitionist, and reproductive justice organizer—extends an analysis around slavery, carcerality, death-dealing, and the abolition of the hospital. The hospital is another plantation site.

In a 2021 talk titled "Black Feminism Beyond the Human," Patrice Douglass urges us to think differently about care—and to understand that all forms of slavery aren't malicious. Douglass talks about the "unethical conditions for which white people can determine the care be it morally or positive or negative of Black people," and names that "Black people are always in the care of a white judging or determinant eye." Her sentiment is undeniable in the terrain of reproductive care. I have also witnessed Black folks push each other into certain reproductive decisions to evade the white determinant eye. In many ways, the entire movement is parasitic on Black or reproductive crises.

I'm interested in how our movement continues the themes described in the Captive Maternal, and how the terrain of reproductive violence, justice, and futurism has served as another social justice marketplace—where the themes of love, care, grief, family, and agency are being used to stabilize the state, alongside many Black feminists committed to reproductive justice who collude with the state and prioritize state-based solutions. In weaving Douglass, Nash, and James's works together to understand the stakes, I attempt to figure out what retracting care must look like for us organizers/practitioners/caretakers. 

Joy James understands that the generative power of the womb is the wild card, and that people use this wild card by repurposing it against our assailant. Has this occurred by and large in the reproductive justice movement? If we stop basing this movement around a weak "human rights" framework, perhaps we will stop thinking we can vote our way out of this. 

The attack on abortion "rights" is patriarchal violence/warfare. We are at war. What mutation is necessary for this movement if the Captive Maternal doesn't stop or pause? I sit with all of these reflections and journal meditations, knowing that one day this week, my phone will ring, and someone will need me to care for them. Someone will need an abortion. Someone will need a safety plan and money raised to flee from gender violence. None of which I can disarticulate from the maintenance of the empire. 

Previous essay:

Radical Care Work in the Project of Schooling

Part III of The Captive Maternal Roundtable, a forum on Joy James' new book, 'In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love: Precarity, Power, Communities.'

As Black educators struggle to balance their commitment to Revolutionary Love with their entrapment in the schooling-as-colonial-indoctrination, evading state appropriation and embracing abolitionist pedagogy requires a reimagination of love and care.

Read next:

On the Tensions and (Im)Possibilities of Black Poetics: No Shame, No Devil

Part V of The Captive Maternal Roundtable, a forum on Joy James' new book, 'In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love: Precarity, Power, Communities.'

In response to maternal death, Black women are positioned as heroes saving other women from crisis. In the war on abortion "rights," the state uses their labor, bodies, and caretaking, sustaining the hospital as "another plantation site."

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Breya M. Johnson

Breya Johnson is a cultural worker, writer, and curator. Her work looks at reproductive justice, Black health, abolition, care ethics, memory, and Black feminisms. She runs the Instagram healing blog @Blackreadingtoheal using the writings of Black folks as a source of memory and healing modality.