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.
By Dorothy Roberts - Dissent Magazine
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 afterRoe 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. READ MORE
Photo: Planned Parenthood rally in Washington, D.C., April 7, 2011 Photo Credit: American Life League / Flickr