Reproductive Justice

Reproductive Justice

As noted in last month’s “Abortion Bans an Indicator of Misogyny,” we are reprising women’s struggle to access abortion and other forms of healthcare. Although misogyny has never faced death in the United States, female gendered persons, cis or otherwise, are under renewed assault.

What kind of approach to this revitalized misogyny should we adopt?

Most defenses of abortion in the United States rely on legal rights and individual choice. But given the multiple constraints in which poor women, immigrants and women of color live, this response is ill-founded. In 1997, African American feminist and anti-racist theorist Loretta Ross outlined a multifaceted and inclusive approach to reproductive issues called reproductive justice (RJ). Ross is a founding member of the African American SisterSong collective that developed it.

What does RJ include?

The right to not have children. We need reproductive healthcare that focuses on providing appropriate services and addresses the social determinants of health. Yes, we need reproductive rights, such as access to legal abortion and contraception, but we don’t start and cannot stop there.

RJ works to build a movement that focuses on all the linked human rights that reproduction requires. It builds coalitions with indigenous rights, immigrant rights, workers’ rights, prison abolition and Black Lives Matter movements. It focuses on better lives for women and girls and sustainable communities.

The right to have children under conditions pregnant persons choose. We also need birth justice, controlled by pregnant persons: the right to midwifery, doulas, birth plans we design and the right to refuse sterilization and unnecessary cesareans.

We need to dismantle the problematic structures of inequality within which pregnancy and birth are experienced. There are 600 living survivors of California’s eugenics sterilization law; 144 women prisoners were illegally sterilized from 2005 to 2014.

The right to parent children in safe and healthy environments. We need the right to raise our children in safe environments that meet families’ needs, away from gun violence, polluted air and water, poisoned soils, poorly funded schools, inadequate healthcare and racist policing.

Although 12 months of postpartum care is available through federal programs, the seven states with the most restrictive abortion laws have not implemented this option. None of the states with restrictive abortion laws provide paid family and medical leave or have policies requiring paid sick leave for employees.

They require no accommodations for pregnant workers nor have fair work hours scheduling laws. They are states for which the minimum wage is $7.25. How are women able to afford having children in these circumstances?

Clearly, looking out for fetuses does not mean looking after the needs of pregnant people. White evangelicals have sued to regain the right to separate Native children from their families, which has been prohibited by the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Unlike the usual approach to abortion based on rights, RJ requires focusing on human interdependence rather than on separate individuals. Besides legal abortion, RJ includes socially guaranteed access to all the appropriate resources we need independent of cost.

Mere legal access does not ensure that abortion services are nearby and affordable, or suitable for people from different cultures and classes, and with differing bodies and gendered identities.

Abortion is not primarily a medical decision, and its parameters should not be prescribed as though it is. Even low-tech vacuum aspiration abortions can be and have been performed safely by women themselves.

RJ critiques “choice.” Choice disappears when we foreground the reproductive constraints imposed on Black women. A potent sign at our local May 14 protest after the leaked SCOTUS decision said, “Black Women Warned Us.”

Black women slaves were forced to breed, raped by their enslavers, forced to leave their children unattended, forced to watch their children ripped from them and forced to care for white children. Once “free,” they have been forcibly sterilized, forcibly implanted with contraceptives, denied public support for their children, had their erotic and family lives subject to state surveillance, and been forcibly separated from their children through racially targeted law enforcement, police killings and imprisonment.

“Choice” masks how laws, policies and officials punish or reward reproductive activity of different women differently.  Right-wing Christian evangelical media speak endlessly of the duty of white women to have lots of babies.

Whose childbearing is protected and whose is stigmatized? For example, when can an immigrant person with no documents “choose” whether to go to a medical provider for prenatal care? What sense does choice make when African American women disproportionately face infertility issues and can only afford to live in areas with high concentrations of pollutants? When abortions are 400 miles away and too expensive? When trans people are denied reproductive services?

Arline Geronimus uses the concept of “weathering,” an erosion caused by living in constant stress, to explain why poorer women of color suffer more chronic health conditions than whiter, better-off people. A just-published California study on maternal and child mortality finds that the richest new Black mothers and their infants die at a higher rate than the poorest white mothers and their infants. In Mississippi, the post-Roe maternal mortality rate has increased dramatically for Black women.

Who gets offered or channeled into which services? Women of color have routinely been treated without their consent and have been overprescribed long-acting contraception.

Forced sterilization has also been routinely used on Native American, Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Asian-American, African American and disabled women. Women prisoners of color have been routinely sterilized, and in 2020, forced hysterectomies of dozens of Latinx immigrants imprisoned in U.S. immigration detention facilities were documented.

Is surrogacy a choice when it exploits poor women in a coercive scheme to earn money to meet their families’ needs? Reproductive justice requires that abortion and birthing and child-raising be designed with policies that do not further commodify human life. It asks, which strategies are human-centered and not market-based?

Why the current backlash against abortion and contraception?

To effectively struggle against the new and old laws enacted against women’s reproductive control, we need to understand our current political context. There are several reasons for the backlash:

  • Household hierarchies: Reaction to women’s limited but increasing power in the home because of paid work. Women spend less time performing traditional services at home and are less devoted to childbearing.
  • Manipulation of election district boundaries by partisan legislatures to favor right-wing candidates and weaken the voting power of more liberal people, especially people of color.
  • Manipulation of elections themselves, forcing voters of color to stand in long lines. In some districts, handing a potential voter a bottle of water is a crime.
  • Corporate oligarchs who control nearly all media have aligned themselves with the racist misogynist right to support eliminating abortion—a recent shift. To sell their politicians to right-wing voters, they band together to draft legislation that reinscribes women as breeders.
  • The increasing strength of the Federalist Society and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), whose lawmakers, lawyers and judges restrict abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, immigrants’ rights and contraception.
  • Racist replacement theory. White women should reproduce to maintain white dominance and white “culture” in Euro-descendant countries to prevent whites from becoming a minority. Popular right-wing talk shows discuss this endlessly.
  • Whitewashed education. Billionaire-funded right-wing organizations and their Christian-right allies have successfully lobbied to pass laws that ban books that detail the U.S. founding in slavery, settler colonial violence and misogyny from classrooms in at least 14 states. Teachers who present the truth are fired.
    When schools do not address children’s questions about their country’s history and sociology, they will look elsewhere. For many, that means right-wing media. Millions of boys visit online chat rooms linked to multiplayer war games. White supremacists who lurk there provide racist and misogynist accounts to fill the voids in children’s exposure.
    White men have also shot abortion providers and bombed abortion clinics. For these white terrorists, how do we characterize the form of militarism they embody?
  • Erasing the lines between church and state. Post Roe, few churches worked to overturn it. Now, extremely conservative Christian churches openly advocate against abortion.


  • Janet Slagter

    Janet Trapp Slagter, Ph.D., is professor emerita from Fresno State’s Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Department. A lifelong peace and feminist activist, she is the Americas Region representative to the International Board of WILPF and board secretary of Rape Counseling Services in Fresno.

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