Across the United States this Mother’s Day, the right to have control over one’s body is under attack. More than 530 abortion restrictions have been introduced in 42 states. The Supreme Court is on the precipice of delivering a lethal blow to Roe v. Wade. Conservative forces are denying people access to reproductive health care through birth control, safe abortion, infertility care, and prenatal and obstetric care while compounding psychological harm.
While the U.S. grapples with the breach of confidentiality revealing the looming reversal of Roe, the struggle for abortion access feels more urgent than ever before. Yet, our society tends to frame this struggle in white, middle-class terms, as if the theoretical right to choose abortion under the law translates into all people having the ability to make choices and control their bodies.
Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) feminist movements remind us that the “right” to abortion does not guarantee the resources to access it, and that if we truly care about reproductive justice for all, then we need to dismantle the institutionalized race and class oppression that obstructs many from accessing this “right.” Author Elena Guiterrez affirms that reproductive justice also necessitates environmental justice, especially since the colonization of Indigenous lands and threats from environmental toxins undermine fertility for many women of color. Overall, BIPOC feminists define reproductive justice as the human right to maintain bodily autonomy, have or not have children safely, and parent children in safe and sustainable communities.
Monica Simpson, executive director of the reproductive justice organization SisterSong, writes:
Roe never fully protected Black women — or poor women or so many others in this country. That’s because Roe ensured the right to abortion without ensuring that people could actually get an abortion. People seeking abortions in America must consider: Do I have the money? How far is the nearest clinic, and can I get there? Can I take off work? Will I be safe walking into the clinic? For more privileged people, these questions are rarely a deterrent. But for many women of color and poor people, they are major obstacles. That’s how white supremacy works.
U.S. authors and activists like Gutiérrez, Marlene Gerber Fried, Loretta Ross and Jael Silliman, and Palestinian feminists like Nadera Shalhoub Kevorkian and Rhoda Kanaaneh have been expanding the definition of what counts as reproductive injustice to account for the many conditions that deny people of color and colonized folks the capacity to control their own bodies. Indeed, BIPOC and decolonial feminists have insisted upon the right to abortion and the resources to access that right (i.e., economic resources and health care, access to language/translation in health care centers, adequate sex education in all schools), especially since BIPOC women and gender-expansive people face specific struggles around health disparities and rape and sexual assault, including a legal system that systematically fails (and was never meant to protect) BIPOC communities.
But they have also insisted that a host of other issues should be considered reproductive injustices, such as race/class/gender-based disparities that impact birthing experiences for people of color. Racist and colonialist practices of forced sterilization, “population control,” mass incarceration, and rape and sexual assault all impact BIPOC women, trans and nonbinary people’s control over their bodies.
We affirm what activists like Monica Cosby and organizations like Survived and Punished, Love and Protect, and Mothers United Against Violence teach us about the especially racist, heteropatriarchal, and patriarchal violence policing and prisons inflict on women, queer, and trans people of color and the many BIPOC mothers and caregivers of color who are themselves incarcerated and forced into isolation from their children and loved ones. This is why, as Black feminist abolitionists have long been saying, an expansive reproductive justice movement must take seriously that the violence of policing and prisons trickles down far beyond prison walls.
As Black feminists like Dorothy Roberts, Andrea J. Ritchie, Mariame Kaba and Charity Tolliver teach us, reproductive injustice is inherent to the prison-industrial complex — including the foster care-to-prison pipeline. Through policing and incarceration, the state disproportionately denies BIPOC women and gender-expansive people the opportunity to birth and/or care for children during and after their imprisonment and takes away the opportunity for incarcerated individuals to decide if and when to have children. Medical violence and dangerous prenatal care rampant within the prison-industrial complex can also deny those imprisoned the right to have children (or not). Moreover, as organizations like Love and Protect point out, the U.S. routinely incarcerates women and gender-expansive people of color like Bresha Meadows and Marissa Alexander for defending themselves against gender-based violence.
What MAMAS Teaches Us
Mothers and caregivers who have worked with the collective we co-founded with Johnaé Strong, Mamas Activating Movements for Abolition and Solidarity (MAMAS), teach us that the state’s removal of a child from a mother or caregiver is also a feminist reproductive justice issue. Yet this is scarcely acknowledged across our society.
Lakota member Cindy Soto is the daughter of a mother-survivor of Indigenous boarding schools. Soto teaches us the U.S.’s legacy of separating Indigenous children from their families continues to traumatize mothers and caregivers and takes away their capacity to pass on traditions and languages to their children.
Like the forced removal of Indigenous children in the U.S., family separations resulting from police-perpetrated violence, the incarceration of migrants, and the U.S.-backed Israeli colonization of Palestine deny mothers and caregivers the capacity to parent, nurture, and protect their children with dignity and in safety.
One group of activists working with MAMAS calls themselves Mothers of the Kidnapped (MOK), and includes people like Bertha Escamilla, April Ward, Esther Hernández, Armanda Shackelford, Regina Russell, Denice Bronis, Christina Borizov, Rosemary Cade, and papa and caregiver Frank Ornelas. They parent individuals who were incarcerated through police-perpetrated torture and frame-ups: Nick Escamilla, Mickiael Ward, Juan and Rosendo Hernández, Gerald Reed, Tamon Russell, Matthew Echevarria, Johnny Borizov, Antonio Porter and Robert Ornelas.
These families are not alone. Chicago is known as the U.S.’s torture capital. Despite a formal apology issued by the city in 2015 for the heinous crimes committed by police officers and a historic reparations package resulting from the tireless labor of social movements, hundreds of torture survivors remain incarcerated or stuck in a criminal legal system that was never meant to work for people of color.
Our reproductive justice vision insists that the state’s kidnapping of these individuals has wreaked psychological, physical, and financial havoc on the lives of their mothers and caregivers. This is why we also insist that mothers of individuals targeted by police-perpetrated violence are survivors of the violent policing and prison systems in their own right, and that the labor of caring for police violence survivors is indeed a feminist freedom struggle.
Incarcerating migrants is also a feminist reproductive justice issue. Fernanda Castellanos, a comrade of MAMAS and organizer with Organized Communities Against Deportations, teaches us about the profound impact of family separations on a mother or caregiver’s ability to nurture loved ones. “Most mothers are terrified of what will happen to their children if they get deported. They don’t always want their children back in their country because it’s not so safe. Mothers are trying to protect their children while worrying about their asylum case or whether they will be deported,” she says.
The carceral system also uses the tools of criminalization against migrant mothers and caregivers, according to Castellanos, from electronic monitoring (also known as e-carceration) to racist state and media rhetoric.
These compounded reproductive injustices contribute to the case for prison abolition.
U.S.-Backed Israeli Settler-Colonialism Is Also a Feminist Reproductive Justice Issue
Our comrades in Palestine responsible for the labor of mothering also remind us to examine the global reach of the U.S. prison-industrial complex and its targeting of people who mother. The U.S. exports settler-colonialism and carceral systems, including state and non-state actors like the Anti-Defamation League sending police to train in Israel; the U.S. and Israel sharing information about Palestinian activists; and the U.S. failing to hold Israel accountable for its denial of U.S. citizens, especially Palestinian Americans, from entering Israel.
Given the entrenched U.S.-Israeli alliance, it is no surprise that Israeli occupation forces engage in similar forms of reproductive injustice as found in U.S. prisons and policing practices. The U.S. system separates BIPOC mothers from their children in disproportionate numbers within a system that contains people of color for the purpose of protecting capitalism, white supremacy and heteropatriarchal gender violence. Similarly, Israel separates Palestinian mothers from their children through violent systems of policing and imprisonment for the racist, colonialist purpose of containing and repressing an occupied people.
The arrest and torture of children like Ahmad Manasra is now the focus of the US Palestinian Community Network’s campaign to free Ahmad Manasra. Manasra was arrested several years ago at the tender age of 13 and continues to languish in Israeli prison despite his deteriorating mental health condition. A video of his trial shows his mother shouting in the background, “Hey, hey, I want to hug him. We are here, Ahmad, we love you.”
To maintain these reproductive injustices, the U.S. and Israel scapegoat and dehumanize BIPOC mothers and caregivers as if they are to blame for social problems like gun violence and war. Every MOK member has been treated with racist-sexist dehumanization in court, during prison visits, on the phone and in the courtroom.
Elected officials and corporate media also blame mothers of individuals violated or killed by the police for their children’s death. The conservative media blamed Elizabeth Toledo for her son Adam’s killing at the hands of Chicago police. Palestinian mothers face similar political rhetoric as a way to punish Palestinian resistance. Palestinian feminist Nada Elia notes that Israeli Member of Knesset Ayelet Shaked referenced Palestinian children as “little snakes,” attacking their mothers for raising “terrorists.” Casting Palestinian resistance as the root of the problem is one means Israel has used to move attention away from occupation and apartheid — frequently with support from U.S. politicians.
BIPOC Caregivers Lead the Way Toward an Anti-Imperialist, Abolitionist Reproductive Justice Movement
The interconnected systems of policing and prisons, settler-colonialism, and migrant detentions and deportations undermine the capacity to control one’s body and to parent, nurture and protect loved ones, communities and lands. This is why we need an anti-imperialist, abolitionist reproductive justice movement led by the fierce power and wisdom of BIPOC individuals who have been responsible for the labor of mothering and caretaking of their communities in the face of state violence.
MOK members, along with the Campaign to Free Incarcerated Survivors of Police Torture, are demanding the office of the state’s attorney in Chicago vacate convictions for all those framed, tortured, and wrongfully convicted, particularly cases involving detectives where an established pattern of torture, forced confession and wrongful convictions exists.
Castellanos and Organized Communities Against Deportations helped abuelita Genoveva Ramirez win her legal case after refusing to accept her detention and potential deportation. The Chicago community strongly supported her and her grandson in their effort, in part because local activists have been organizing for years against misconduct by “law enforcement” officials.
Palestinian mothers are fighting for justice in Israeli prisons — from demanding access to phone calls to access to women doctors, to meeting and hugging their children, and to freedom from incarceration and colonization.
While the state may separate BIPOC mothers and caregivers from their loved ones in different ways and to different degrees, shared reproductive justice struggles persist and connect us — from the U.S. to Palestine — through the determination to live, love, mother and caretake in contexts free from all forms of violence.
Where the state steals one’s capacity to mother, an expansive reproductive justice movement committed to abolishing borders, prisons, and policing and to a free Palestine envisions self-determination, healing, strength and hope.
Some dominant strands of our society are slow to recognize the fundamental reality that state violence, including separating mothers and caregivers from children, is a feminist reproductive justice issue. But BIPOC mothers, organizers, and community caretakers will continue the struggle to demand every person has the right to have or not have a child, and to have the resources to care for that child.
We all deserve comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, and we must demand self-determination over our bodies and lives. Let’s free the loved ones tortured and caged by agents of the state, nurture and protect each other, rebuild our communities, and live in freedom even after all the news headlines have faded, when the camera lights have dimmed, when hashtags no longer serve their purpose, and when the streets that were once lined with protesters have emptied out.
This Mother’s Day, a more expansive understanding of feminist reproductive justice is needed — one that is broader and more courageous than the limited agenda long set by white, middle-class movements that prioritize rights under the law, failing to adequately wrestle with the fact that institutionalized racism, classism, heterosexism, imperialism and settler-colonialism are baked into the law itself.