Staff Writers Hattie Engelke and Ava Schwabecher attended an inspiring and informative conversation on abortion rights and reproductive justice featuring activist Byllye Avery.

On Monday evening, the Barnard American Studies Department hosted a conversational event titled “Abortion in Context: Reproductive Justice and Community Care in a Post-Roe World.” The event featured notable speaker Byllye Avery, who has been a trailblazing reproductive justice activist for over 50 years and founded the Black Women’s Health Imperative, a non-profit dedicated to achieving health equity for Black women in America. Byllye Avery was in conversation with Miriam Neptune, director of the Milstein Center, and Ramya Arumilli (BC ’25), member of Barnard’s Reproductive Justice Collective. 

Before the conversation began, visitors were encouraged to stop by the tables from the Barnard Zine Library (BZL) and the Reproductive Justice Collective, which offered a wide array of zines pertaining to the cause. 

The conversation started with opening statements from Wendy Schor-Haim and Cecelia Lie-Spahn, co-instructors of the one-time “Abortion in Context” course offered this semester at Barnard. The course features a 12 guest speaker series, with their insights working to contextualize the reproductive justice movement in a holistic manner. Schor-Haim and Lie-Spahn highlighted abortion as one critical part of reproductive freedom and as an issue that should not be separate from the larger pursuit for reproductive health equity. This conversation is increasingly crucial in light of the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson case, which removed federal protections for abortion, and as explained by Arumilli, one in five women seeking an abortion are now forced to cross state lines.

Neptune first asked Avery about her work for the landmark First National Conference on Black Women’s Health Issues at Spelman College in 1983, which spurred Avery’s later founding of the National Black Women’s Health Project. Fueled by the desire to include Black women in conversations about women’s health, Avery highlighted, “When we put the word Black in front of [women’s health], people said, oh, that’s for us.” 

Avery informed the audience about her efforts to learn how to write a grant, her trip to New York to pitch the grant, and a combined effort with her colleagues to rally as many women as possible for the conference. When registration reached 400 women over Spelman’s capacity, Avery remained adamant that every woman who attended would not be turned away. In her explanation, Avery underscored her constant efforts to create an environment of safety and confidentiality, emphasizing that the conference worked to highlight systemic issues through the lens of individual experience. For the first time, Black women were given the opportunity to confide their experiences in their fellow attendees, as well as obtain potentially life-saving reproductive health information. By addressing Avery’s large role in late twentieth-century reproductive justice work among Black women, the conversation set the stage for later questions about the state of reproductive health access today. 

In her explanation of her own efforts, Avery additionally provided insight into how other activists can both work to form inclusive communities and prevent themselves from reaching emotional drainage. Arumilli followed with a question about community-organizing in light of stigmatization and polarization surrounding abortion, and she inquired how community organizers and activists can better position themselves to uplift those around them. 

Avery began by urging those involved to make conversations about reproductive issues more accessible; simply sharing stories can alleviate a seemingly individual burden that reflects a broader institutional problem. In reference to the concept of “consciousness raising,” a feminist tool through which women share their stories to find commonalities between them, Avery explained, “Don’t call it consciousness raising, call it storytelling… Everyone has a story.” Avery urged the necessity of actively listening to the diverse stories shared by women of all backgrounds and argued that “every time you tell your story, it’s a healing process.” 

In addition, Arumilli later asked for advice about how reproductive justice activists can further take care of themselves in a community. In her response, Avery emphasized the importance of self-care and taking the time to seek respite amidst tiring work. Simply taking an hour a day for yourself, as Avery explained, is healing: “When we give and give and give, we become an empty well. You cannot think about what you need, because you’re thinking about what other people need.”

In addition to discussing her experience and advice with community organizing, Avery detailed the challenges that birthing women face in a post-Roe society. She established her hope that women approach the birthing process in hospitals with discernment. In this post-Roe world, “Women should be talking to their OBGYN and asking where they will be delivering the baby.” 

In the context of an Ohio resident who was turned away from multiple hospitals in search of aid during a miscarriage and later prosecuted for mishandling a fetus, Avery emphasized the wide-sweeping stakes that come with attacks on abortion. This included her push for pregnant patients wishing to give birth to inquire about the specific procedure that will take place in the delivery room; at Catholic hospitals, for example, Church policies extend to medical practice, which particularly reduces obstetric treatment options.

Along with her call to action for more women to inquire about the medical institution they will give birth at, she also called women to trust their “first-mind” and intuition in intimate situations. Avery explained, “Sometimes, it’s the only warning you get.” The event ended with Avery leading the crowd in an affirming song, reflecting her beliefs surrounding the importance of emphasizing joy and self-care amidst activist work. 

Images via Authors