Courtroom Kiki and the Dream of Self-Determination
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
In the first and second seasons of A Black Lady Sketch Show on HBO, there is a recurring sketch titled, “Courtroom Kiki.” The bailiff stands in the room alone and is then joined by the stenographer. The legal counsel on both sides and then the judge enters the courtroom. As each person enters the courtroom there is a growing sense of joy as each woman realizes that every position of power in the room, every position in the room, is occupied by a Black womxn. They express their joy, take care of the case, and then recess for a kiki. It is pure, speculative fantasy about a realm in which Black women are the determinants and arbiters of justice.
Unfortunately, we all know that the real world shows us something far different than the happy fantasy of equity, equality, justice, and access to them all. In this world, our current world, male dominated, white supremacist structures are working to return women to the bondage that legal powerlessness brings. Nowhere is this clearer than in the fight for reproductive justice.
In the United States, abortion is a common health care procedure. One in four women has an abortion before the age of 45. Despite the common nature of this procedure there is a push to codify women’s subordination in the legal code In other words, the effort to make sure that women, legally, have no choice about what happens to them, is written into the 1,313 abortion restrictions that have been enacted since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The Guttmacher Institute reports that, “since January,  there have been 561 abortion restrictions, including 165 abortion bans, introduced across 47 states. . . .83 of those restrictions have been enacted across 16 states, including 10 bans.”
The number of states working to enact these restrictions are enabled by state governments and federal officials who – with precision, endurance, and malice – have spent the last 30 years enacting other forms of legislation and political action for this final payoff: a return to womxn’s bondage. All while an apathetic citizenry looked away. Which is why we find ourselves in this moment where a political party that consists of a numerical minority of citizens has seized control of state houses, infiltrated the halls of federal government, and is now poised to return womxn to unwilling servitude.
In a system that is already divided by social characteristics such as socio-economic class, immigration status, geographic region, ethnicity, sex and gender, this exponential increase in the work to strip womxn of their rights will have the most damaging effects on Black and brown women from working class, poor backgrounds. The Center for Reproductive Rights reports that Black and Indigenous women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy related complications than white women. In this statistic it is important to identify the fact that the discussion about the reproductive rights of womxn is often narrowed to discussions about abortion. This is largely because the men who introduce such legislation are stunted in their comprehension of womxn’s reproduction and sometimes basic biology itself. Receipts here, here, and here.
In the care of a whole womxn, the goal must be access to reproductive justice, which encompasses access to abortion as well as a myriad of other care that is necessary to the good health of women. According to the organization National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, “Reproductive justice is a social movement rooted in the belief that all individuals and communities should have the resources and power they need to make their own decisions about their bodies, genders, sexualities, families, and lives.” This characterization extends beyond the simplistic hierarchical argument of whether a person should or should not have access to abortion. It includes a wholistic approach to the well-being of women that includes a significant portion of our health concerns – the reproductive system. And it engages the structures in our social systems that affect our health.
The right to quality healthcare is, in fact, a reproductive right and correcting such inhumane disparities is part of the work of reproductive justice. Access to quality reproductive health care is, unfortunately, a prime example of how healthcare systems in deficit work:
The contributing factors to the extremely high mortality rates of pregnant Black womxn are structural.
80% of Black womxn are likely to have uterine fibroids and there is little research as to why. Only when a Black womxn became Vice-President, was any real attention paid to this disparity.
Medical school education rarely addresses the implicit biases of U.S. culture, which, in turn, leads to implicit biases in care.
Marion Sims is known as the “father of gynecology.” He obtained his knowledge from his experiments on Black women who were enslaved. Many physicians still defend him and his work.
These are just a few, well-known examples. And we cannot forget that reproductive justice also means the consideration and extension of full access to the reproductive health of people who are transgender, in ways that expand beyond the cultural binary.
While it may seem as though access to reproductive rights and justice should be born of personal choice, it is dangerous to think in such narrow terms. The bodies of womxn have always been governed by systems and structures of law in ways that the bodies of mxn have not – from the passing negative glance of strangers who judge what a womxn wears, to the doctor who tells a straight married woman that she cannot have a tubal ligation unless she receives her spouse’s permission.
We half-jokingly refer to these incidents as reminiscent of the novel, now television series, The Handmaid’s Tale. This fictional, dystopian story is an example of what a country would look like if the rights of womxn were taken away and the systems replaced with one where gender is ruled by the extremes of the binary. Eerily, many of the legal interactions that the United States has seen are reminiscent of the fictional Gilead, the setting of The Handmaid’s Tale. The disquieting similarities between U.S. reproductive policy and a fictional dystopia about legalized misogyny is why the movement for reproductive rights and justice is important.
The goal of full access to human rights and the justice dreamt of in A Black Lady Sketch Show is possible and it is emblematic of the ways in which Black women engage in the struggle. Though our current legal system more closely resembles the deadly power imbalances of The Handmaid’s Tale, it doesn’t have to be this way. Dreams of justice can be achieved, but they require our thoughtful education, care, advocacy, and political activism.
The personal *is* political. Never has the political been more personal for Black womxn than it is in this moment.