In a place where your relatives and neighbors think it’s a radical insult to call you “pro-choice”, it might be a challenge to find ways to explain your interest and dedication to issues that encompass much more than the legal rights and protections surrounding abortion. On the surface, it might seem like activists who fight for rights and access to abortion services don’t have anything in common with advocates fighting to keep WIC funded, or protestors at nuclear waste dumping facilities on Indigenous land, or people speaking out about sexual assault and the lack of accountability in their communities. Reproductive justice, as a framework, is a useful tool to show the links between these issues.
The source of all of these issues comes from systemic inequalities that violate, coerce, and constrain pregnant people, parents, gender non-conforming people, people of color, and rural communities. The State both uses the reproductive organs and capacities of some people as a place to exert constraint and control, and manipulate environments and socioeconomic factors that make carrying and using these organs dangerous and defined by coercion. This can mean that there is public policy in place that allows courts to mandate cesarean sections on “non-compliant” pregnant persons, or forced or coercive sterilization of Native people receiving health care from IHS and other facilities. It meant requiring immigrants to the US to undergo a series of HPV vaccines for entry, and the targeting of offensive advertising equating abortion to “genocide” in black urban areas.
Other frameworks that center around health and rights can miss important connections between the ways the State and ruling classes coerce and abuse groups of people based on race, class, gender, and ability (among other factors). Focusing on the number of clinics or Supreme Court decisions are important aspects of answering reproductive oppression, but are usually neither the most pressing or the most adequate in addressing these larger concerns.
When we focus instead on liberation from reproductive oppression as a social justice goal, it’s no longer the state and legislators granting and protect rights. It’s a question of communities and structures answering root causes of systemic inequality that manifest in issues surrounding reproduction, pregnancy, sexual health, sexual identity, poverty, and incarceration (just to name a few).
Critiques from Communities of Color (de-centering whiteness)
It’s no surprise that the faces of prominent “pro-choice” organizations are typically white ciswomen, and focus primarily on lobbying and promoting legislators who will (at least on the surface) protect abortion rights. While this kind of activism is important, it is frequently not the most pressing political concern given the terrain of reproductive oppression and violence. Too often, “pro-choice” talking points will center around people for whom access to services is more reliable, and for those with enough racial and class privilege to facilitate reproductive health care. What goes unspoken is that these are largely concerns for white ciswomen, and is regularly promoted at the expense of issues that communities of color, underserved populations, rural communities, and LGBTQ people face.
Even more disturbing is when these groups talk about “bringing reproductive rights” to these maligned groups as if they have not been primary concerns decades before national pro-choice politics dominated the spotlight. Sometimes these larger groups (and honestly, even smaller, community-based ones) will co-opt reproductive justice terminology in-name-only, and fail to embrace the intersectional tools that makes reproductive justice activism different from the “pro-choice” politics lauded in media and within the non-profit industrial complex. Reproductive Justice advocates regularly call for the de-centering of white politics and discourse so that other voices and concerns can get the attention, funds, and people-power they deserve across communities. I heartily recommend following Jessica Yee’s work (editor of the anthology Feminism for Real), which you can do on Twitter (@JessYee) on these issues.
Using the Reproductive Justice framework
Educating yourself about reproductive justice takes commitment and effort and a keen awareness of how privilege (including your own) functions to keep social justice activists splintered and focused on concentrating power rather than addressing the root causes of these issues. Continually ask yourself and your groups about who your actions are serving, and if your language and tactics are inclusive of reproductive justice struggles as a whole or are addressing a specific issue (and if they are, that’s ok! Just be sure to be transparent and honest about scope and limitations). Most of all, ensure that those leading and organizing reproductive justice activist efforts in your area represent those most frequently left out of “pro-choice” politics: women of color, queer-identified folks, Indigenous persons, people from rural communities, and people without class privilege.
Before long you’ll be explaining to your neighbors why “pro-choice” doesn’t even scratch the surface of how you feel about abortion, or much of anything else for that matter!
Jen also wrote about reproductive justice today for animal advocates over at Because We Must. To keep up with her latest adventures in vegan pizza making or rants about accountability, you can follow her on Twitter @CuteRedHood.
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