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Choice and Reproductive Justice: “Not an Either/Or“
Demonstrators in Washington DC during the Planned Parenthood National Lobby Day 2011. (Photo: American Life League)

Choice and Reproductive Justice: “Not an Either/Or“

Demonstrators in Washington DC during the Planned Parenthood National Lobby Day 2011. (Photo: American Life League)

When voters in Colorado, Nebraska and North Dakota head to the polls on November 4, abortion will be one of the issues they weigh in on. In Colorado and North Dakota the electorate will cast ballots on “personhood,” while in Nebraska they’ll decide whether to give the state legislature “the power to repeal any measure that protects abortion rights” should Roe be overturned.

But despite the fact that the remaining 47 states have no pending abortion initiatives, reproductive health remains a pressing issue for many voters. In fact, two recent Supreme Court decisions – one finding that buffer zones separating clinicians and patients from anti-abortion protesters is a violation of free speech, and another affirming that private employers can refuse to cover birth control in employee health plans – have pushed reproductive health concerns to center stage throughout the country.

NARAL Pro-Choice America is endorsing candidates vying for House and Senate seats in 27 states. They’re also endorsing four candidates for governor and lieutenant governor – men and women they believe will advance women’s health. The need, they say, is critical since only 40 percent of Congress members are presently pro-choice. Even worse, their research reveals that only 30 percent of governors support the protections offered by Roe. “Seven in 10 Americans are pro-choice,” NARAL’s website reports. “But anti-choice politicians have overrun Congress, governor’s seats and state legislatures. They aren’t listening to the people they represent.”

Like Emily’s List – a 30-year-old DC-based group whose mission is to “elect pro-choice Democratic women to office” – NARAL’s focus is firmly fixed on reproductive health, with state affiliates working to keep abortion and birth control as available and affordable as possible. What’s more, both organizations rely on the language of choice to steer voters toward candidates and incumbents who support a woman’s right to choose.

After all, in its most simplified form, one is either pro- or anti-choice.

For many activists, this language serves as a kind of shorthand, a way to quickly assess where a person stands on reproductive health issues. “The words pro-choice quickly put an idea into a category,” writer Susan Elizabeth Davis, author of a “pro-choice novel” called Love Means Second Chances, told Truthout. At the same time, she cautions that the issue is often far more complicated than the phrase suggests.

“You can’t just say ‘choice’ and leave it at that. There has to be a longer, more complex discussion about what choice means, because if a woman does not have access to services, choice is a meaningless concept.”

Many feminists, women’s health, and reproductive rights activists agree and are working to address the nuances of reproductive health, including abortion, when and where they can. For some, this turns the conversation toward reproductive justice, (RJ) a concept that includes the right to terminate a pregnancy, access effective birth control, express sexuality and have the children one wants, free of coercion. It also involves working to ensure that the material supports to make having a family possible are in place. The move beyond abortion as a single issue, say a host of organizations including the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, has been a long time coming and by all accounts, is gaining steam.

Even The New York Times has noticed, reporting in July that among “liberal millennial, minorities and a secular, unmarried and educated white voting bloc,” the language of choice has been replaced with the more intersectional RJ.

Turns out, however, that the Times did not present the full story. For one, the term pro-choice is in no danger of extinction – especially when it comes to electoral politics. Furthermore, the concept of reproductive justice is not, as the “paper of record” reported, new. In fact, more than 30 years ago, the now-defunct Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse [CARASA] asserted that the right to have a child or children – complete with access to social supports – is as important as the right not to. In a position paper written in 1979, the group stressed that “Reproductive freedom has to include the availability of good public child-care centers and schools, decent housing, adequate welfare, wages high enough to support a family, and quality medical, pre-and-post natal and maternity care.” The statement also expressed support for “freedom of sexual choice,” and urged men to share childcare responsibilities with women as equal partners.

Still, it took an additional 15 years for the term reproductive justice to be coined – and for organizing around RJ to begin in earnest. Credit for this development rests with women of color, but it is important to underscore that RJ did not supplant the pro-choice movement – in or out of the electoral arena – but instead challenged it to take on a wider array of related sexual and reproductive health issues .

Loretta Ross, former National Coordinator of SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, was instrumental in laying the groundwork for RJ’s development.

“In 1994, a group of African American women met in Chicago at a conference sponsored by the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance and the Ms. Foundation for Women,” Ross recalls. “Some of us had recently come back from the International Conference on Population and Development [ICPD] in Cairo. While we were at the ICPD, we observed women from other parts of the world who were using a human rights framework to expand women’s rights beyond what we in the US were claiming under the privacy framework.

“At the time, the US was debating the Clinton health-care plan, but staying silent on abortion and reproductive rights. There were 12 of us who had just gotten back from Cairo – we came from The Chicago Abortion Fund, the National Black Women’s Health Project, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the Center for Democratic Renewal, the National Council of Negro Women, Planned Parenthood of Cleveland, NARAL and the Pro-Choice Resource Center – and we decided to form Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice. The term RJ simply combined reproductive rights and social justice.”

The newly-formed coalition’s first act was to raise money for a full-page signature ad in the Washington Post that ran in August, 1994. The message: “Reproductive freedom is a life and death issue for many Black women and deserves as much recognition as any other freedom.”

The ad was well received, Ross says, nonetheless, it was not until SisterSong formed in 1997 that diverse communities began to promote reproductive justice. “Over the last 20 years we’ve found that the RJ framework builds bridges to other social justice movements,” she says. “When we talk about healthy communities in which to raise kids, we link with groups and individuals in the environmental, health care, workers’ rights, feminist and human rights movements.”

Eveline Shen, executive director of Forward Together, a 25-year-old Oakland, California, group that works primarily in Asian communities, says that RJ’s inclusive framework has helped her organization raise abortion in the context of other social justice concerns.

“The term pro-choice is only a sound bite for the communities that respond to it. Many communities do not. RJ may not be a sound bite, but it is a way of engaging and understanding how abortion connects to, and is relevant to, people of color who may not place it among their top priorities or concerns,” she says.

Take parental notification. Shen explains that “in 2005, 2006 and 2008 there were attempts in California to force minors to tell their parents before they could have an have abortion. We looked at the way mainstream pro-choice groups were opposing the measures and saw that their efforts were fear-based: ‘Our youth will resort of unsafe procedures if this passes.’

“We did something different and framed the notification requirement as a reproductive justice issue: ‘We want our daughters to have access to doctors and service providers. Our daughters deserve to thrive and receive the care and education they need.’ The message of keeping our families safe and our daughters strong resonated, and all three times the measures were defeated.”

“Our success in building support for abortion occurs because we make connections between access and other critical community needs such as the need for a living wage and self-determination in terms of family formation,” Shen continues. “In our communities, an unplanned pregnancy can lead to a crisis. By linking abortion to economics and the right to decide how best to care for our families, we’ve built strong support for the procedure as a justice issue.”

Like Forward Together, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice recognizes that supporting the availability of abortion – and doing advocacy in support of every woman’s right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy – remains imperative. Dr. Alethea R. Smith-Withers, RCRC board chair, notes that “Reproductive justice is a driving force for RCRC, our mission.” At the same time, she says that RCRC “has not relinquished the idea of reproductive choice. We embrace RJ but it’s not an either/or for us.”

Nor should it be, says Loretta Ross. While Ross maintains that RJ is the long-term goal, she contends that it makes little sense to eliminate the language of choice from our vocabularies. “In electoral politics you need a shorthand. You need slogans to brand a candidate. Jettisoning the words pro-choice will do less than it accomplishes,” she concludes. Indeed, as a short-term tactic, Ross and other RJ proponents believe that the quick and easy sound bite is indispensable.

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