“A Fundamental Violation of Basic Human Rights”

“A Fundamental Violation of Basic Human Rights”

An interview with Loretta J. Ross.

Loretta J. Ross (Molly Crabapple)

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, the Christian right rejoiced. Although the decision didn’t end abortion in the United States, it generated new possibilities for abortion opponents while setting back the feminist movement. The increasing criminalization of abortion has forced doctors and patients into impossible contortions. In Ohio, a ten-year-old girl fled the state to end her pregnancy. In Louisiana, where abortion is tightly restricted, an ob-gyn said that a hospital lawyer prevented her from performing a medically necessary abortion to remove a fetus that wasn’t viable; instead, she had to induce delivery. The patient “was screaming—not from pain, but from the emotional trauma,” she said in an affidavit. 

For people who can become pregnant, the situation is not likely to improve from here. We cannot count on the courts. The police are the enemy, and politicians can be fickle allies at best. What, then, can we do? To answer this question and more, I turned to one of the nation’s leading feminist activists, Loretta J. Ross. A cofounder of SisterSong, a reproductive rights organization led by people of color in the South, Ross is a recent MacArthur Foundation grantee for her landmark work in reproductive justice. As the MacArthur Foundation observed on its website, Ross worked alongside other women of color in 1994 to help design a framework that links the right to have a child or not to the right to raise a child in safety—an outcome that demands access to healthcare, housing, and a clean environment, among other necessities. Ross spoke with me the day after the midterm elections offered feminists some hope that public opinion had turned against the anti-abortion movement.

Sarah Jones: I thought we could begin with the question that I think many people had after the Supreme Court announced the Dobbs decision: how do you think we got here, to the end of Roe v. Wade? 

Loretta J. Ross: Well, we got to the end of Roe v. Wade because of Republicans. Since the 1970s, they have been committed to building a base, putting together people who are opposed to immigration, people who are opposed to integration, people who are opposed to women’s rights and feminism, and people who are opposed to gay rights. They called that group “the moral majority,” but there is nothing moral, or majoritarian, about them. They made a commitment to engage in culture wars as a way of marching back into power and trying to permanently hold onto it. The manipulation of the culture wars, particularly around abortion rights, is a base-building strategy for people who want to pack the Supreme Court to protect themselves from criminal prosecution for their corruption.

They’ve learned that they’re out of step with the rest of the country. They have to cheat, because they can’t compete. And that’s why we’re seeing all this voting rights suppression, not only targeting Black, Latino, and Indigenous voters, but young voters. Eighteen-to-twenty-nine year olds in the 2020 election voted for Biden, not Trump. The results were particularly surprising with the white portion of that group, who didn’t vote for the candidate that most represented white supremacy. So you’re seeing the shutting down of voting precincts that are near colleges, and people who are going to school out of state not being allowed to mail in ballots. 

Jones: The end of Roe occurred alongside the growth of this resurgent, far-right movement. How should we understand the relationship between them? 

Ross: They really do believe that white men are an endangered species, and so they’re trying to achieve through coercion something that they cannot get any other way: to compel more white women to have more babies. They want to push white women out of the job market, because there aren’t enough jobs to go around. They want them to have more babies, so that they can at least try to increase the size of the white population, which is supposed to become a minority in a few short decades. I don’t think they care about the number of Black and brown babies being increased. They kill the ones we have. 

The good news for us, if there is any, is that they’re not smart enough to use incentives instead of coercion. The Nazis incentivized the white birth rate by giving people down payments on mortgages for their houses, giving women and children free healthcare and child care. 

Jones: Austerity could function as a wedge issue for them, if they wanted to manipulate it, but they’re not. 

Ross: Exactly.

Jones: In your work with SisterSong, you helped to create the “reproductive justice” framework. What are its distinguishing characteristics? How is it different from the choice framework?

Ross: Reproductive justice overlaps with the pro-choice movement, in our first tenet: fighting for the right not to have a child, which includes supporting abortion, birth control, and evidence-based sex education, as well as abstinence. 

Because it was created in 1994 by twelve Black women, the second tenet focuses on the reproductive oppression we particularly experience, which is sterilization abuse and medical racism. We have to fight equally hard for the right to have the children that we want to have and the conditions under which we want to have them. The fight for these conditions benefits everybody. We fight to resist unnecessary cesarean sections, for example. We fight for the right to use midwives and doulas, or to have our birth plans respected once we go to the hospital, or to have doctors listen to us, when we know our own bodies well and tell them what’s going on with us. That’s the second tenet. 

The third tenet of reproductive justice is something that both the pro-choice and the pro-life movements neglect: the human right to raise your children in safe and healthy environments. Both the pro-life and the pro-choice movement focus on the pregnancy. They don’t focus on what happens once the pregnancy is over: what happens if you don’t have a bedroom to put that child in, or you don’t have clean drinking water for your child, or if you have to deal with gun violence in school, or the school-to-prison pipeline, or tax policies that mean certain schools get underfunded while some are overfunded. Reproductive justice is the right to have a child, the right not to have a child, and the right to raise a child in a safe and healthy environment. 

Ten years after we first created the framework in 1994, SisterSong’s queer people of color caucus decided that they wanted a fourth tenet on bodily autonomy, gender identity, and sexual pleasure. One of the things I really admire about the reproductive justice framework is its capacity for expansion and adaptability. Even though it was created by Black women, it’s a very universal theory, because it’s based on the idea that everybody has the same human rights. When Indigenous women talk about reproductive justice, they talk about sovereignty as a reproductive justice issue, the same way that immigrant women talk about citizenship and immigrant rights as reproductive justice issues. We use intersectionality as a way to determine what our vulnerabilities are, so that we can enjoy the same human rights as people without those vulnerabilities. A way that I frequently put it is that every child has a right to an education, but a blind child might need her books in braille. You have to pay attention to her special vulnerability in order for her to get to the same right that the sighted children have. Intersectionality is the process, but human rights are the goal. 

Jones: In Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, which you cowrote with Rickie Solinger, you emphasize the importance of breaking our silence. After Roe fell, I think there was a moment, at least for me, maybe for others, where it was hard to believe our stories still had any power. I’m wondering how you feel about that. What power do our stories really have?

Ross: For fifty years, we feminists believed that there was so much power in telling our stories, because we were dealing with people who didn’t know what women went through. But I have to say, since the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, I’ve slowly and reluctantly realized that it’s not that they don’t know; it’s that they don’t care. 

But we still have to tell our stories, because we have to normalize talking about abortion, and talking about it within our families and communities. We have to make it possible for abortion providers to talk about what they do for a living without fear or shame. Before we talked about abortion accessibility and legality. And since the overturning of Roe, we in the reproductive justice movement have known that our number one task is to center the most vulnerable people to make sure that they don’t die because of lack of access, whether it’s by transporting them to other states where they can access services or smuggling them abortion pills, at the same time that we’re conducting the legislative and political fight. But we’ve also got to talk about abortion acceptability.

Jones: You mentioned Indigenous women and reproductive justice earlier. The Supreme Court just heard arguments in Brackeen v. Haaland, which is going to have huge stakes for tribal sovereignty and the Indian Child Welfare Act. Are there connections between this case, and its implications for Indigenous families, and the Dobbs decision?

Ross: Since America was founded as a settler-colonial state, the goal has been for Indigenous people to reproductively disappear. The attacks on the Indian Child Welfare Act are nothing more than a continuation of that same genocidal strategy of trying to depopulate a land so that the people who are the true owners of that land aren’t there to protest their removal and their erasure. We’ve had 500 years of removing Indian children from their tribes and their families. That process needs to stop. Tribal sovereignty and reproductive sovereignty are linked. Because when you can control the fertility of women in a community, you control the community.

Jones: One argument that you often hear from the anti-abortion side has to do with the history of eugenics, which they cite as a reason to end abortion. 

Ross: They still believe in eugenics for everybody who’s not white. These are the people who won’t lift a vote to support feeding children once they’re here. How are you supposed to believe that they care about the fate of children? They weaponize abortion as a way to secure political power. They don’t really care about these issues.

Jones: The fall of Roe opens the door to the criminalization of abortion. But what does the criminalization of abortion mean for the right to become and stay pregnant? 

Ross: Too many pregnancies end in miscarriage, yet every miscarriage is going to be read as a criminalized abortion. It is anti-science, anti-woman, anti-truth, and anti-evidence for people to assume that every pregnancy results in a wanted child. That simply is not true. They’re even putting women’s health at more risk by denying them life-saving medical procedures, because of “the health of the fetus.” It started with criminalizing women who were abusing substances like drugs or alcohol. Now, it’s criminalizing women who are seeking treatment for cancer, or lupus, or fetal development that’s not going well. We’re going to see more and more of that. 

Jones: How can we respond effectively to this war on our rights, given that the courts and the police are against us? 

Ross: As a Black woman, I never had the luxury of assuming the Supreme Court was going to be a source of my liberation, because it has disappointed me too many times. There was a brief period in the late 1950s and ’60s, when we thought we were marching toward freedom, and then we had the backlash of the ’70s, and we’ve been pushed back almost ever since with the Court’s decisions, on voting rights and many other issues. We have to work morally to make sure that people understand that they have a human right to control their bodies and be self-determining; we have to work politically to make sure that abortion remains a voting issue, so that people understand that women’s human rights are on the ballot and are important. At the same time, we also should help pass the Equal Rights Amendment; thirty-eight states have ratified it, and yet Republicans are pulling procedural blockages. And of course, we have to make sure that we elect people who are willing to affirm women’s human rights rather than violate them. We have to work on all these fronts at the same time. 

Jones: Are there any points in the recent past where feminist strategy has failed, or didn’t keep up with the urgency of the moment? 

Ross: There are certainly things to criticize feminist strategy for, but I try not to blame the victim. Republicans do what they do because of who they are, not because of what we do. Yes, I think the feminist movement could’ve done more work on class issues, because its failure to consolidate poor white women into our base left them to be organized by the opponents, even if they walk into our clinics to get services. I think that the feminist movement could’ve had a stronger intersectional analysis, because if you don’t understand issues that intersect with gender, like white supremacy and its impact on reproductive politics, everything will confuse you. So, yes, there are many things we could do better. But Roe didn’t fall because of anything we failed to do. 

Jones: Conventional political wisdom often pits abortion against “kitchen table” issues and the economy. As I understand it, reproductive justice holds that this is a false dichotomy. How should it change the way we talk about abortion not just among our family and friends, but on the campaign trail, too? 

Ross: To put it in plain economic terms, if you want to raise your child and provide for a college education, every child you have is going to cost you about $200,000. 

Jones: That’s a lot of money. 

Ross: How many years will it take for you to make $200,000 for a child?

Jones: A long time. 

Ross: Exactly. Instead of talking about this as just a women’s human rights issue, we need to talk about it as an economic justice issue as well. Many don’t recognize or accept that a lot of people choose to have an abortion simply because they can’t afford another child. There’s nothing sadder than someone who feels that they have no choice but to terminate a wanted child simply because they can’t afford them. The inability to continue an unplanned pregnancy because you don’t have the economic means, healthcare, the ability to stay in school when you get pregnant, job security, or even a bedroom to put a child in—all of those things affect reproductive decision-making. 

Jones: We’re speaking the day after the midterm elections, which didn’t go quite as badly as a lot of people were afraid they would, and it seems like abortion was actually a winning message for a lot of politicians. Do you see any signs of hope in that? 

Ross: We should put it to the voters. Because the Republicans are afraid of direct democracy. They know that their only currency, their only register, is lies. They have to manipulate people into being afraid of things that aren’t true. I think that we can learn from what happened in Kansas and Kentucky; even in these decidedly red states, Republicans have overplayed their hands. There’s one constituency, pro-choice Republican women, that they totally forgot about, like they didn’t matter. There aren’t enough Democratic voters in either of those states to have made those outcomes possible. 

Jones: It seems like the bodily autonomy argument is really powerful. I grew up evangelical, and it’s what changed my mind completely on the subject of abortion. 

Ross: I was listening to people being interviewed in Kentucky, and the thing that they, particularly the older women, kept saying was, “It shouldn’t be harder for my granddaughter than for me.” That’s a legitimate feeling. I feel the same way. I had more access to an abortion as a sixteen year old in 1970 than I would have now.

Jones: It’s a frightening time to be thinking about having a family.

Ross: I’m really surprised that the Supreme Court issued the Dobbs decision before the midterms, because it was a gift to the Democratic Party: a mobilization opportunity that has turned around and bit the Republicans in their asses. 

Jones: How do you think we reach people who might be troubled by what they’re hearing and seeing after Roe, but they don’t necessarily think of themselves as feminist? 

Ross: Would you like someone else, who you don’t even know, telling you what to do with your body? Whether to have kids or not? This is such a fundamental violation of basic human rights. So, you don’t have to be a feminist to care about whether or not somebody else should control your body. Since when did you like being passive over enslavement?

Sarah Jones is a senior writer for New York Magazine and a member of Dissent’s editorial board. Her first book is forthcoming from Avid Reader Press.

Loretta J. Ross is an associate professor in the Program of the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. From 2005 to 2012, she was the National Coordinator for SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. Ross is the co-author of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice (2004). Her forthcoming book, Calling in the Calling Out Culture, is due out in 2023.