Reproductive Justice, Not Just Rights

Planned Parenthood rally in Washington, D.C., April 7, 2011 (American Life League / Flickr)
This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read its counterpart, by Katha Pollitt, click here.

The last time I was filled with euphoric confidence that the left would win the battle for reproductive freedom was when I linked arms with black women activists at a march in Washington, D.C. in 2004. My elation stemmed partly from a victory of one of the co-sponsors, SisterSong: it had shifted the march’s focus from “choice” to “social justice.” This shift was dramatically symbolized by deleting the words “freedom of choice” from the march’s original name—Save Women’s Lives: March for Freedom of Choice—to rename it the March for Women’s Lives.

For too long, the rhetoric of “choice” has privileged predominantly white middle-class women who have the ability to choose from reproductive options that are unavailable to poor and low-income women, especially women of color. The mainstream movement for reproductive rights has narrowed its concerns to advocate almost exclusively for the legal right to abortion, further distancing its agenda from the interests of women who have been targets of sterilization abuse because of the devaluation of their right to bear children.

A caucus of black feminists at a 1994 pro-choice conference coined the term “reproductive justice,” a framework that includes not only a woman’s right not to have a child, but also the right to have children and to raise them with dignity in safe, healthy, and supportive environments. This framework repositioned reproductive rights in a political context of intersecting race, gender, and class oppressions. The caucus recognized that their activism had to be linked to social justice organizing in order to gain the power, resources, and structural change needed for addressing the well-being of all women. Back in 2004, SisterSong brought a reproductive justice approach to the march’s leadership and helped to mobilize busloads of newly energized, diverse supporters, making the march one of the largest of its kind in U.S. history. The success of the March for Women’s Lives demonstrates a winning strategy; under the leadership of women of color, the left needs to ditch the dominant reproductive rights logic and replace it with a broader vision of reproductive justice.

The language of choice has proved useless for claiming public resources that most women need in order to maintain control over their bodies and their lives. Indeed, giving women “choices” has eroded the argument for state support, because women without sufficient resources are simply held responsible for making “bad” choices. The reproductive rights movement was set on this losing trajectory immediately after Roe v. Wade, when mainstream organizations failed to make funding for abortion and opposition to coercive birth control policies central aspects of their agenda. There was no sustained major effort to block the Hyde Amendment, which has been attached to annual appropriations bills since 1976 and excludes most abortions from Medicaid funding. Mainstream reproductive rights organizations practically ignored the explosion of government policies in the 1990s, such as welfare “family caps” and prosecution for using drugs while pregnant, principally aimed at punishing childbearing by black women who received public assistance. This myopia not only alienated women of color, but also failed to address the connection between criminalization of pregnant women and abortion rights. Today, a resurgence of prosecutions for crimes against a fetus makes crystal clear a unified right-wing campaign to regulate pregnant women—whether these women plan to carry their pregnancies to term or not. There is little to distinguish criminal charges against women for “feticide” and for abortions.

The impediment to winning is not just the current right-wing onslaught of state laws;  also pernicious is a nasty, resilient strain of thinking within the left that views birth control as a means of addressing social and environmental problems like poverty and “overpopulation.” On one hand, the right has recently exploited the history of eugenics to falsely portray abortion as a form of black “genocide” and to ban abortions intended to avoid having a baby with Down syndrome. On the other hand, however, the left has yet to purge its advocacy of family planning of some of its racist and eugenicist roots, which can be traced back to the early twentieth century when progressives promoted controlling reproduction of “unfit” populations. Margaret Sanger allied with eugenicists to further her crusade for women’s access to birth control, entangling the issue of reproductive rights with both liberating and oppressive aims.

Today, the mainstream reproductive rights movement has failed to confront liberals’ promotion of birth control as a way to save taxpayer money spent on unintended, welfare-dependent children. For example, the New York Times, Slate, and the American Journal of Public Health recently published articles recommending increased use of provider-controlled long-acting contraceptives among low-income populations in order to reduce poverty, high school drop-out rates, and Medicaid costs. The troubling legacy of the U.S. biologist Paul R. Ehrlich is also perpetuated today by some environmentalists like Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth) and the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program, which continue to see birth control as a way of addressing global “overpopulation.” Framing birth control as a cost-reducing and problem-solving measure masks its potential for racial and class bias and coercion, as well as the systemic and structural reasons for social inequities.

Moreover, pro-choice groups have used the “tragedy” of fetal anomalies as an argument for supporting abortion rights without considering discrimination against people with disabilities or the potential for alliances with disability rights activists to improve the wellbeing of women and children, or the history of approved therapeutic abortions and unapproved elective abortions. The liberal notion of reproductive choice aligns with a neoliberal market logic that relies on individuals’ purchase of commodities to manage their own health, instead of the state investing in health care and the other social needs of the larger public. The rhetoric of choice obscures the potential for reproductive and genetic selection technologies to intensify regulation of women’s childbearing decisions in order to privatize remedies for illness and social inequities. While we should point a finger at right-wing legislators for creating wedge issues, the dominant framework for reproductive rights advocacy has created colossal political chasms within the left all by itself.

A reproductive justice framework can attract support from tens of thousands of women alienated by the mainstream agenda—poor and low-income women, women of color, queer women, women with disabilities, and women whose lives revolve around caregiving. In addition, the movement’s social justice focus provides a concrete basis for building radical coalitions with organizations fighting for racial, economic, and environmental justice, for immigrant, queer, and disabled people, and for systemic change in law enforcement, health care, and education. True reproductive freedom requires a living wage, universal health care, and the abolition of prisons. Black women see the police slaughter of unarmed people in their communities as a reproductive justice issue. They recognize that women are frequent victims of racist police violence and that cutting short the lives of black youth violates the right of mothers to raise their children in healthy, humane environments. The reproductive justice movement and Black Lives Matter are likely allies because, at their core, both insist that American society must begin to value black humanity. Black, Latina, Asian-American, and indigenous reproductive justice organizations have a history of solidarity, exemplified by SisterSong, and they have begun to forge links with other social justice movements.

The galvanizing impact of reproductive justice extends beyond these mobilization and coalition-building strategies. The movement articulates the rationale for reproductive freedom in positive moral and political terms, as a requirement for social justice, human rights, and women’s well-being. Reproductive justice activists treat abortion and other reproductive health services as akin to the resources all human beings are entitled to—such as health care, education, housing, and food—in an equitable, democratic society.

In January 2015, the leaders of five black reproductive justice organizations launched a national initiative called In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda to mobilize black women, initially highlighting three key policy issues: abortion rights and access, contraceptive equity, and comprehensive sex education. The initiative plays off black women’s unique strategic position: they have a long legacy of grassroots organizing for reproductive justice and they are the most progressive voting block in the nation’s electorate. Reproductive justice initiatives spearheaded by women of color are important, not because they allot these women a marginalized voice within the same losing reproductive rights agenda, but because they let women of color lead a reproductive justice movement that can win.


Dorothy Roberts is the George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is author of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Vintage, 1998) and, most recently, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century (The New Press, 2012).

This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read its counterpart, by Katha Pollitt, click here.

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