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Activists say the abortion rights movement has an intersectionality problem

062422_Abortion Rally_Federal Courthouse_protesters
Protesters at an abortion rights rally in downtown Louisville following the U.S. Supreme Court decision that undercut abortion rights across the country.

Reproductive justice and abortion access have taken center stage in the months since the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending federal protection for abortion access.

Several states, including Kentucky, had trigger laws that went into effect, placing various restrictions on abortions. In the aftermath of the decision and the subsequent bans, protests broke out across the nation.

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But some people have felt left out of the movement due to a lack of inclusivity — namely Black and indigenous women and members of the LGBTQ community, including trans men and non-binary people.

“When they did that national protest, Black leaders, brown leaders, Latinx leaders were like, ‘Where were we, we were not included,’” said Erin Smith, executive director of Kentucky Health Justice Network (KHJN). “Queer people were not included.”

Reproductive justice organizations in the commonwealth attempted to go through the courts to block the ban from going into effect. After several months of back and forth, most abortions in Kentucky are illegal.

Abortion access is also on the ballot on Election Day. Constitutional Amendment 2 would add language saying access to abortions is expressly not a protected right in the state.

KHJN provides resources, support and education about both reproductive and gender-affirming health care.

Smith said in the time since Roe was overturned, doctors have started referring their patients to KHJN to help them figure out where to go for safe, legal abortions.

Despite their organization playing a major role in the abortion rights movement, Smith — a Black non-binary person — said they often feel left out of demonstrations.

“Everyone is still using ‘women’ only, everyone is still thinking in the binary,” Smith said. “Trans people get pregnant, trans people still need abortions, trans people still need access to abortions.”

Smith said the lack of inclusion is not only disheartening, but also detrimental to the movement overall.

“All these movements have to intersect and recognize the intersectionality that exists,” Smith said. “I am fighting for reproductive justice, abortion access and my life.”

The lack of intersectionality means those who have already had the hardest time gaining access to abortions — Black, indigenous and people of color, members of LGTBQ community, people with lower incomes and those living in rural communities — are largely not given a voice in the abortion rights movement.

“When you look at intersectionality and how it plays out, it’s almost like … you rarely see a person of color speaking out on this issue,” said Dawn Wilson, a lifelong LGTBQ activist.

Wilson said barriers like stigma, monetary funds, additional issues with encountering protesters and a general lack of nearby care sites have often prevented many communities from accessing safe, legal abortions, even when Roe was still in place.

These pre-existing inequities have only worsened in a post-Roe society. Wilson said they leave space for further marginalization of even more people.

“When you don’t have intersectionality, it gives a crack that someone can exploit,” Wilson said.

As people being left out of these conversations have called for more inclusivity, there has been pushback against the concept.

The New York Times released an opinion piece that said using gender-inclusive language when talking about abortion access is an attack on womanhood. The article prompted further conversations around inclusivity in the abortion rights landscape.

Kaila Story is a professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Louisville. She is also the university's Audre Lorde Chair in Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

She said the push against terms like “birthing people” and “people with uteruses,” as opposed to language like “mothers” and “women,” distracts from the main goals of the abortion rights movement.

Story said being inclusive isn’t difficult, nor does it diminish the struggles of cis women.

“There’s so many ways to be inclusive and to directly name folks,” Story said. “Saying, you know, trans folks, non-binary individuals, birth folks, I don't think that somehow undermines whatever idea of personhood I have as a cis woman.”

Without intersectionality, Story said social justice causes will lose potential supporters, making it harder to move forward.

When it comes to movements like the one focused on abortion access, Story said as many people as possible are needed to support those most affected.

“What really needs to happen is intersectional and inclusive coalition-building around abortion rights, around health care,” Story said. “Because that is the way that all of us, so many people, would be able to benefit from the freedom and from justice.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to describe efforts to keep abortion legal and available in Kentucky more inclusively.

Breya Jones is the Breaking News Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.