Lost opportunities: taken together, Carole Joffe and Akiba Solomon’s pieces can be read as cautionary tales about how not knowing our history can simultaneously doom us to repeat it—or not to recognize the role anyone of us can have in building a new one.
When I received the request to comment on these essays, I replied with a bit of apprehension. Not because I am uncomfortable talking about reproductive issues—I study activism around them, have interned at a women’s health organization, and, like many readers, have a reproductive system. No, my concern was around the fact that no matter what I wrote, in being in a symposium about the fortieth anniversary of Roe, my piece would inevitably be perceived as only about abortion.
My attraction to these issues has never centered on abortion. Rather, from an early age, long before this phrase was in use, I felt a desire to work toward a fuller “reproductive justice.” I knew abortion was life-saving for many women. But so was having food on the table. As a child, every day I witnessed the struggles around issues that determine family formation for so many people, such as finding a job that provides enough to afford the expenses that come with having children. Reproduction and the rest of life were not separate in my household, and we know for many women they never were, even though some pro-choice activists organized that way.
My mother was raised Catholic, and when she became pregnant as a teenager in the late-1960s she chose to have her baby. Young black women having babies was the type of decision that was and remains vilified (although she did marry, which placed her in a less stigmatized category). Yet my mother had decided that obtaining an abortion—through whatever means were available in pre-Roe days—was not the right decision for her.
My older sister once asked my mother why she didn’t have an abortion, and my mom replied with a question: “Would you?” My sister thought for a few days before coming up with her answer. Her answer is not important. What is important is that my mother, like many other people, differentiated between her own life preferences and those of other women. Another woman’s answer to the abortion question could only be based in what that woman felt was right in her circumstances. For my mother that meant having two more daughters, continuing her own schooling, and working, generally on her own, all while teaching us important lessons. We learned there are bills to pay, children to feed, employers to satisfy, friends to support, apartheid regimes to protest, and many injustices to challenge.
So it is not a surprise that I felt like I had a place when I stumbled upon the reproductive justice movement, even if it was primarily as a researcher of it. Stories of belonging and (re-) inspiration surfaced across my many interviews and informal conversations with diverse people active in or strongly allied with the movement. Reproductive justice is an analysis, movement, praxis, and vision. It recognizes the relationships, among other issues, between the histories of women of color organizing for change, young people taking control of their sexuality education, midwives and doulas creating supportive birth environments, as well as those who challenge the criminalization of pregnancy, support LGBTQ families, fight for disability rights, protect the environment, ensure abortion access, and listen to pro-life perspectives because they exist in our movements too.
This framework does not pretend that women and their families are all on equal footing to make the same choices, and it brings together what many in the pro-choice movement had (sometimes inadvertently) separated. Reproductive justice reminds us that while the right to not have a child is important, the right to have a child and the right to parent with dignity must be protected just as strongly. Without that understanding we will continue to miss the opportunity to write a new history.