Understanding Reproductive Justice and Reproductive Rights: Can The Two Co-Exist?

Legal Challenges

Throughout the 1800’s American women had been undergoing illegal abortions, most of which were hugely unsafe, and even fatal. This practice was largely unregulated. In the early 1900’s, Margaret Sanger was an early proponent  of a woman’s right to contraception and sex education – this was many years before birth control became available to American women. It wasn’t until 1963 when the birth control pill was introduced to allow for women to plan their families. However, tremendous hurdles existed inhibiting abortion access. Many states banned the pill altogether, while some states only made the pill available to some women, and practiced various forms of religious oppression. By 1967, abortion was considered a felony in 49 States and in the District of Columbia.

Law of The Land

In 1973, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of birth control and abortion access to single and married women in the case of Roe v. Wade, which overruled oppressive state laws and bans, citing a woman’s right to privacy. Roe v. Wade enshrined the legal right for couples to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of their children.  Women now had the legal right to decide whether to reproduce or terminate an unwanted or unintended pregnancy. Women could now make this decision free of discrimination, coercion or violence. This case law is the foundation of reproductive rights.

Some criticisms of Reproductive Rights are:

  • It focuses solely on abortion
  • It centers and largely focuses on the rights of White women
  • It ignores many other factors women, particularly women of color, face in planning their families

What is Reproductive Justice?

Reproductive Justice is essentially the human right to have a child, not have a child, to plan a family, and to parent the child(ren) you have in a safe environment.  Reproductive Justice is based on a framework created by women of color to address how race, gender, class, ability, nationality and sexuality, intersect and influence family planning decisions.

Historically in the United States women of color, Native, Asian, Latina and African American women, have been forced to endure medical experimentation, sterilization, non-consensual medical procedures, and deceptive public health practices on their bodies. These oppressive, racially discriminatory practices have been overwhelmingly targeting the bodies of women of color. A few examples include:

  • Forced breeding of African enslaved women
  • Contraceptive pill experimentation on Puerto Rican women
  • Environmental contaminants in poor communities of color resulting in higher rates of endometriosis, cervical cancer, low birth weight, fetal/infant mortality, etc.
  • Forced tubal ligation post-partum of Latinas and African American women in order to receive entitlement benefits or other services
  • Tuskegee Experiment (Syphilis 40-year Placebo Study on the sterilization of African American men in Alabama)

The term Reproductive Justice was coined in 1997 by SisterSong: National Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, combining the terms “reproductive rights” and “social justice.” Its origin began in 1994, in response to the Clinton Universal Healthcare Plan, by a group of Black women, named “Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice” in Chicago.  They published a full-page statement entitled, “Black Women on Universal Health Care Reform.” These women are: Toni-Bond Leonard, Alma Crawford, Evelyn Field, Terri James, Bisola Marignay, Cassandra McDonnell, Cynthia Newbille, Loretta Ross, Elizabeth Terry, Able Mable Thomas, Winnette Willis, and Kim Youngblood.

Reproductive Justice is based on the theory of intersectionality, which states that people have different life experiences and opportunities based on how their identity categories (race, class, gender, sexuality) interact with each other. Reproductive Justice explains how people oppressed by their marginalization and their intersectional identities also experience higher levels of reproductive oppression that impacts their reproductive lives.

Reproductive Justice goes beyond the singular “Pro-Choice” frame or Reproductive Rights that focuses solely on abortion access.  Reproductive Justice seeks to address the plethora of needs and challenges that women of color face due to access, cost, distance and other obstacles. It seeks to address other issues affecting the reproductive lives of women of color including trans* women, across identities and sexualities. This includes contraception, comprehensive sexual education, prevention, care for sexually transmitted diseases/infections, adequate prenatal  and pregnancy care, domestic violence assistance, adequate wages to support their families, safe homes, and environmental toxins.

Reproductive Justice addresses how different oppressions intersect and impact women’s reproductive lives. It centers the needs of the most marginalized (not the majority). Reproductive Justice asserts that reproductive oppression will not be eradicated until even the most vulnerable people are able to access care and achieve full human rights to live self-determined lives without fear of discrimination or retaliation.

Reproductive Justice moves past the legal and political debate to incorporate economic, social and health factors that impact women’s reproductive choices and decision-making abilities.

Yes, Reproductive Justice and Reproductive Rights are very different. Reproductive Justice embraces the totality of me as an African American woman, while Reproductive Rights protects my legal rights. Reproductive Justice fully recognizes me, my experiences, intersections, oppressions, and the historical context of my ancestors in the US; while Reproductive Rights enshrines my right to an abortion. I need both. As I type this, my legal rights are under constant attack, erosion and encroachment from religious exemptions to fetal heartbeat bans. As a Black woman my reproduction is challenged simply by walking down the street.

To learn more about Reproductive Justice, please consult the following texts:

  • Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger, 2017.
  • Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice, Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried, Loretta Ross, and Elena R. Gutierrez, 2004
  • Killing the Black Body, Dorothy Roberts, 1997
Benetta M. Standly. MPA

Benetta M. Standly. MPA

Ms. Standly is the Principal Consultant and Owner of Standly Solutions Consulting, LLC, a boutique organizational development firm serving non-profit organizations nationwide and in Africa.

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