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Reproductive justice activist Byllye Avery tells advocates: 'Stop agonizing and organize'

Byllye Avery has been immersed in the fight for reproductive health care for over 40 years.

By Rebekah Sager - May 25, 2023
Byllye Avery
Veteran abortion activist and organizer Byllye Avery. (Provided)

This story is part of a series on the fallout of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the federal constitutional right to abortion.

Health care activist Byllye Avery has been in the trenches of the reproductive justice movement for over three decades. 

In 1978, Avery co-founded the Gainesville Women’s Health Center, a midwifery birthing facility in Florida. In 1983, she founded the National Black Women’s Health Project, later the Black Women’s Health Imperative, the first and only nonprofit in the United States entirely dedicated to the health and wellness of Black women. Avery received the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for Social Contribution in 1989. In 2002, she founded the Avery Institute for Social Change, focusing her work on health care reform. 

Avery tells the American Independent Foundation that folks have had to be incredibly courageous to even talk about abortion rights. But, she says, the reproductive justice movement is different today than it was when she was more hands-on involved. 

In June 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to reverse Roe v. Wade and end a federal constitutional right to an abortion. 

“The Roe v. Wade thing is just the tip of it. We’ve got some bigger, bigger issues, it’s a much bigger thing now than it was in the ’60s and the ’70s, because they’ve shifted who they put the emphasis on,” she says. 

Avery notes those in the anti-abortion movement claiming to care for the lives of babies rarely back that up by providing support for parents or children. As reported by the New York Times in December 2021, 60% of abortion seekers have one or more children, and 49% live below the poverty line. 

“They claim to be pro-life, but it’s really pro-birth, because you don’t hear them allocating any money for schools or lunch programs or getting the homeless kids food. They don’t care. Nothing that will help them live outside of birth. They don’t want to put any money into that,” Avery says. “So, when is a life a life?” 

Avery says that when it comes to the issue of abortion, particularly afterRoe v. Wade was overturned, three things remain at the center of the issue: race, religion, and power.

“It shows itself, not just in reproductive health, but everywhere. The fact that you can pay somebody a minimum wage, and it’s not enough to live on, and call that a living wage. It’s not. That’s economic injustice. It’s kind of like an economic slavery,” Avery says. 

Avery notes that Catholic hospitals are “getting rid of their reproductive health services … and they’re buying up clinics, they’re buying up private practices, and in so many places, the only hospital available is a Catholic hospital.” The Washington Post reported in October 2022 that one in seven U.S. hospital beds are controlled by Catholic health systems. 

These systems are under the control of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which issues a document called “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” that severely restricts reproductive care, including contraception, sterilization, and abortions.

Avery says she and her wife were in California recently visiting their pregnant niece, who is planning to give birth at a Catholic hospital. 

“I said, Well, you need to talk to your doctor, what if you run into trouble? Who’s going to decide? Will it be you and your husband? Or will it be the doctor, or will it be the institution, if there has to be a choice between you or the unborn fetus? She had no idea that there is a restriction at the Catholic hospital,” Avery says. 

Some conservatives have been more openly expressing their beliefs about restricting abortion as a way to increase the number of what they call “our own children.”

Vice reported that during a meeting in Hungary in 2022 of the Conservative Political Action Conference, Matt Schlapp, the chair of the conference’s organizing group, the American Conservative Union, made reference to the “great replacement theory” and to abortion bans as a way to handle the crisis conservatives see in U.S. demographics.

The term “great replacement theory” refers to a conspiracy theory that holds that immigrants are being deliberately brought into the United States by those on the left to outnumber white Americans and outvote them, the assumption being that white Americans support right-wing policies and politicians. 

According to Vice, Schlapp said:

Roe v. Wade is being adjudicated at the Supreme Court right now, for people that believe that we somehow need to replace populations or bring in new workers, I think it is an appropriate first step to give the…enshrinement in law the right to life for our own unborn children. … If you say there is a population problem in a country, but you’re killing millions of your own people every year through legalized abortion every year, if that were to be reduced, some of that problem is solved.

In April, Republican state Sen. Steve Erdman of Nebraska used “great replacement” rhetoric to gain support for a six-week abortion ban in his state. He argued that if the state had more restrictive abortion bans, it wouldn’t have a growing number of immigrants. 

“We have killed 2,000 [sic] babies since abortion became legal. Those are 2,000 people in the state of Nebraska that could be working and filling some of those positions that we have vacancies,” Erdman said. “Our state population has not grown except by those foreigners who’ve moved here or refugees who’ve been placed here. Why is that? It’s because we’ve killed 200,000 people. These are people we’ve killed.”

Avery says it’s difficult not to connect racism in America with how restrictive abortion bans have disproportionately controlled and impacted Black pregnant people. 

“The Roe v. Wade thing, I feel, is solely based in white supremacy in terms of increasing the white race,” Avery said. “They don’t care anything about brown babies. They don’t care anything about the fact that people can’t afford to have all these children. They just want white women to start pumping out the babies.”

She says she was encouraged by the recent defeat of an abortion bill in South Carolina after three female GOP state senators joined with one Democrat and an independent and voted to reject it. The bill would have made it illegal for patients to have abortions in the state starting at the moment of conception. 

“It’s a big thing for them to step forward. I think that kind of national modeling is really great for the younger women who are certainly feeling it,” Avery says.

She adds: “Who would have thought those women had that same opinion, those four women, especially two Republicans, had that same opinion. Because now we’ve got millions and millions of women who have had abortions. And very few of them woke up one morning and said, I think I’ll go out, get pregnant, so then in six to eight weeks, I can have an abortion. It doesn’t go like that.” 

Despite all that’s happened since the fall of Roe, Avery says she takes comfort in the small victories: “That was the way I learned to get through, you know, four years of [former President] Donald Trump being in was to look at a small victory, no matter how small it was. The latest one was the one in South Carolina.” 

She adds that people in the abortion rights movement need to continue organizing, having conversations, and getting involved.

“Stop agonizing and organize,” she says.

On May 23, after the American Independent Foundation spoke with Avery, the South Carolina Senate voted 27-19 in favor of a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, before most people know they’re pregnant. 

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster vowed late Tuesday to sign the bill into law as soon as possible.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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