Reproductive Rights are Not Merely About "Choice": Applying a Feminist of Color Framework
Trigger warnings: sexual assault, racism.
“Tonight I’m thinking about E, who’s ex-boyfriend assaulted her on her 17th birthday. Six and a half weeks.” - My own story, written as inspired by @gracieminabox
Listed above are the familiar stories of patients in need of reproductive care, but who likely would have been turned away because of the ripple effects of Texas Senate Bill 8. Since SB8, more than 500 pieces of anti-abortion legislation have been introduced across the country. And with the recent decision of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, written by Associate Justice Samuel Alito, confirming the Supreme Court's intention to overturn Roe v. Wade, we are reminded of how fragile our rights are and the importance of an intersectional approach when implementing rulings or codifying the law.
“Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences. And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division.” - Justice Samuel Alito
From the historical kidnapping of Indigenous American children to be “saved” by white families to the forced sterilization of marginalized people (past and present), the reproductive oppression of people of color is necessary context for understanding and talking about reproductive justice for communities of color today. For too long have people of color found themselves tokenized and “invited” to the table to fulfill the gaps of the predominantly white women’s movement. This is not a matter of diversity and inclusion; rather, people of color deserve at least to hold an equal voice in broadening the agenda, if not a seat at the center.
The white feminist gaze of the current women’s rights movement has overly dominated narratives of reproductive rights and does not adequately address the unique concerns of people of color. Specifically, the white feminist view of male domination as the sole force of reproductive repression ignores the control that racism has had in defining our understanding of “reproductive liberty and the degree of ‘choice’” that specifically Black folks, and other communities of color, genuinely hold (Roberts 5).
“The right to choose to have an abortion...is not enough for the woman who can’t afford to pay for one, the pregnant person whose local abortion clinic has closed down, the asylum seeker without valid health insurance. And does the right to procure an abortion really qualify as choice if the person needing it has been denied sex education or suitable contraception? What about those forcibly sterilized? What good does choice in regards to abortion and maternity care do them? If the alternative to procuring an abortion, in the event where said procedure is safe and legal, is a life in poverty, judged by mainstream media and society at large – what kind of choice is that?” - Linnea Dunne, “On Reproductive Justice, the Failures of Neoliberalism, and Why ‘Choice’ is Complicated”
The trophy of the white feminist movement and landmark decision, Roe v. Wade, recognized that the fourteenth amendment’s concept of personal liberty includes “a right to privacy,” and the constitutional right to privacy “is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” However, the Roe decision and the “choice” to have an abortion quickly became concerned with the interests of middle-class white women (Roberts, 6). Therefore, the Roe decision and effort to attain legal abortion rights overlooks the fact that people in the US negotiate their reproductive autonomy in a system that applies various “interlocking systems of oppression” (Collins 3).
“Our ability to control what happens to our bodies is constantly challenged by poverty, racism, environmental degradation, sexism, homophobia, and injustice in the United States.” - Loretta Ross, “Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice”
And within the few years after Roe was ruled, the Hyde Amendment was written to restrict poor and working-class individuals' rights to an abortion by eliminating Medicaid funding for abortion except when a pregnancy or birth threatens the patient's life. In 2014, three-quarters of abortion patients qualified as low-income or poor, with Black and brown patients accounting for more than half of abortions performed, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Additionally, most patients paid out of pocket, with Medicaid coverage being the second most common payment method utilized. Therefore, Roe and the dominant white feminist movement have overlooked the needs of low-income, non-cis, and non-white people.
Thinking beyond the right-to-privacy-based claims and the pro-life vs. pro-choice paradigm, Black feminists, like Dorothy Roberts, have reframed the issue to encompass social justice, not simply human rights, or “choice”. These feminists recognized that “choice” holds exclusionary and discriminatory tendencies. "Choice" suggests a marketplace of options, neglecting the fact that economic and institutional restrictions often limit people of color’s "choices.”
“The mainstream movement, largely dominated by white women, is framed around choice: the choice to determine whether or not to have children, the choice to terminate a pregnancy, and the ability to make informed choices about contraceptive and reproductive technologies. This conception of choice is rooted in the neoliberal tradition that locates individual rights at its core, and treats the individual’s control over her body as central to liberty and freedom. This emphasis on individual choice, however, obscures the social context in which individuals make choices, and discounts the ways in which the state regulates populations, disciplines individual bodies, and exercises control over sexuality, gender, and reproduction.” - Jael Silliman, Policing the National Body, quoted in “Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice”
The systemic, institutionalized denial of reproductive freedom distinguishes the experiences of marginalized people from their counterparts. Reducing reproductive rights to only be about “women’s bodies” denies care to those outside the cis-gender binary (Brown). By reducing the conversation to women and womanhood, we erase all those in need of reproductive health. Nearly 1 in 5 transgender or gender non-conforming patients seeking health care services relayed being denied care outright because they identified as transgender or gender non-conforming. For all of these people, overturning Roe won’t mean that abortions will end. It will mean that safe abortions in healthcare facilities will become further out of reach. And for all persons who do have children (forced or not), the United States still remains the only industrialized nation that does not provide paid parental leave. Additionally, Roe has helped decrease maternal mortality, teen pregnancy rates, and child poverty. Therefore, on a larger scale, we have to remember we live in a capitalist society and the overturning of Roe guarantees that there will be physical bodies to continue the workings of capitalism and the pipeline into incarceration flowing. As a result, the denial of bodily autonomy serves not only the interest of white domination, but also capitalism.
"People of color don’t have the privilege of focusing on only one issue — everything is connected. Reproductive justice has always been more than just being 'pro-choice.' To be pro-choice you must have the privilege of having choices." - Monica Simpson, Executive Director of Sister Song, “To be Pro-Choice, You Must Have the Privilege of Having Choices”
In an effort to combat the various forces that try to rape them of their reproductive autonomy, people of color have led a national movement to uplift the most marginalized communities. In 1994, a caucus of Black feminists at a pro-choice conference coined the term “reproductive justice,” a framework that combines reproductive rights and social justice. This framework repositions reproductive rights from a white feminist perspective to an intersectional approach that highlights intersectional oppression that communities of color face. Sister Song defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” In other words, reproductive justice is “black feminism in practice.”
"And since a man can’t make one / He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one / So will the real men get up / I know you’re fed up ladies, but keep your head up." - Tupac Shakur, “Keep Ya Head Up”
This is a new vision that expands our understanding of reproductive rights and the dominant feminist movement. The reproductive justice movement “belongs” to all people but must be spearheaded by those most affected – the communities of colors and the intersectional oppressions that connect us all. We need to begin demanding and imagining a better world.
Additional Works Cited:
Collins, Patricia Hill. “Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination.” Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Unwin Hyman, 1990.
Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. Random House, 1997.
Updated August 29th: Corrected the citation of the first pull-out quote and the details of her personal story.