Reproductive Justice is More Than a Choice

Reproductive Justice is More Than a Choice

Loretta J. Ross is a co-founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collaborative, and co-created the theory of Reproductive Justice in 1994. She has appeared on CNN and in the New York Times, Time Magazine, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today addressing  women’s issues, hate groups, and human rights. Her new book (with co-author Rickie Solinger) is Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, which she finished editing at BMC.  Her next book Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundation, Theory, Practice, Critique (with co-author Erika Durkas), which she also worked on at BMC, is out in November.  This article is reposted from Rewire—a daily online publication covering reproductive and sexual health, rights and justice. 

In Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, Loretta J. Ross (co-creator of the term reproductive justice and co-founder of the Atlanta-based SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective) and Rickie Solinger (a renowned historian of reproductive politics) team up to offer high school and college students an introduction to reproductive justice.

Twelve Black women created the term at a 1994 conference out of resistance and the desire to have their narratives heard. Its core principles include: the right to have a child, not have a child, and parent children in safe and healthy environments.

Now more than ever, our society needs the reproductive justice framework because it involves taking an intersectional approach to combating critical issues in society. It represents a way to address the attacks on reproductive autonomy, while in the same breath lifting up environmental injustices and protecting trans and gender-nonconforming communities’ civil and social rights.

Importantly, Ross and Solinger acknowledge that the current climate possesses “rapidly changing terminology and conventions,” and therefore reject counterproductive exclusionary practices. They commit to implementing gender-inclusive language like “people who can get pregnant and give birth.”

Throughout the book, the authors affirm basic human rights, such as sexual autonomy, gender freedom, comprehensive health care, affordable housing, quality education, a living wage, and much more. Ross and Solinger argue that without attention to non-biological factors, tackling issues such as fertility management, childbirth, and parenting is impossible.

Ross and Solinger thoroughly analyze the reproductive justice movement’s catalysts, including white supremacy, exclusionary “single-issue feminism” (read: white feminism), and persistent resistance from women of color. They then assert that the United States’ identity as a white, male-dominated nation depended on women’s reproduction and an insidious two-part process of denigrating communities of color. It exploited them through forced physical and reproductive labor, genocide, and sexual violence, and simultaneously positioned white people as superior.

The authors note, “every government depends on the reproductive capacity of people who can give birth.” Therefore, history shows numerous efforts to bring reproduction under state control via social norms and legislative efforts. Building off of this foundational dependence, “the reproductive capacity of women of color” was used as a platform for white power and wealth. Meaning society and lawmakers have placed value on women’s reproductive bodies, by race, therefore justifying distinctive and brutal discrimination of women of color throughout history. The placement of the white woman as superior, positioned the white race as superior, and depended on the subsequent placement of Black and Indigenous people as inferior via a plethora of reproduction-centered tactics.

White men fashioned the extant narrative of the white woman—excluding poor white women—to represent the epitome of femininity, legitimate motherhood, and essential womanhood. Therefore, white women reserved the right to legally marry, have “legitimate” children, and raise their children. In contrast, many women of color were seen by white men as incapable of these qualities and thus required state regulation to facilitate “good” decision-making. This history elucidates the process in which enslavers, colonizers, and later state legislators used women’s reproductive capacity to pursue goals associated with power, wealth, and status.

The Trump-Pence administration is a prime example. This Republican-dominated administration and Congress consistently value wealth and power above the lives and freedoms of people of color. In under 100 days, the current president has endangered the lives of millions of people—particularly women of color—by reinstating and expanding the Global Gag Rule as well as fighting unsuccessfully to pass the harmful American Health Care Act, both of which eliminate access to comprehensive reproductive health care.

Next, the authors thoughtfully list the ways white women’s access to reproductive options was obstructed while also uplifting the different, more heinous ways women of color were barred from agency.

While policies placed all women as tools in a larger white patriarchal conquest, white women were not openly restricted from autonomous reproductive decisions until they rejected the identity of motherhood in the 19th century. As white women rejected motherhood, legislation such as the Comstock law restricted access to abortions and contraception. In contrast, women of color were fighting against “campaigns of violence,” such as Jim Crow and immigration policies, that questioned their humanity, promoted forced sterilization, and denied their legitimacy as mothers.

This important attention to the differences in oppression while documenting the lived experiences of all, is a key aspect of this book. Reproductive Justice: An Introduction brings forth the historical context needed to dispel arguments that misconstrue the principles of reproductive justice as exclusionary or a frustration to the mainstream “choice” movement. On the contrary, Ross and Solinger help prove that while choice is important, it is but a bullet point on a larger list of human rights issues.

The reproductive justice framework addresses these issues by centering storytelling. In addition, like a domino effect, it empowers others to tell their stories. Loretta J. Ross noted in an interview with Rewire her experiences of being silenced and breaking free from the idea that her story did not matter. “I was waiting for years for someone to write the book that I needed, because I didn’t have a college degree and I didn’t feel qualified to tell my truth.” However, as Ross noted, it is these silenced, lived experiences and stories that are needed to turn the tide.

The sharing of stories shifts lenses and engenders understanding of multilayered injustices—such as environmental degradation, gentrification, and incarceration. For example, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network utilizes a reproductive justice framework to center “Indigenous self-determination,” or reclaim their voice by naming and using values that are integral to Native communities, such as environmental stewardship and their right to exist autonomously. This has fueled recent fights such as the one at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access pipeline.

Reproductive Justice: An Introduction offers a powerful vision for a future in which the stories of those who are most affected by trauma and oppression are centered, and one in which all people are working toward a more inclusive society. In practice, this could look like addressing the trans and non-binary communities’ rights to the full suite of reproductive health services—including hormone therapy and gender-affirming surgery—while also addressing social issues such as transphobic health-care providers and employment and housing discrimination. While the conversation held in this book begs for more LGBTQ reproductive historical context, this commitment to the LGBTQ narrative as an important part of the reproductive justice conversation should be an example for future discussions and actions.