Reproductive rights is a dominant social issue in the United States right now. No wonder, with an ongoing onslaught against it from almost all political quarters, between the GOP’s straight up attempts to make it impossible to access any kind of reproductive health services to pro-life Democrats. Yet, the discussion of reproductive rights seen in most dominant spaces focuses on a very narrow framework and world view, and is less about full access to reproductive rights and justice than it is about a very specific issue: abortion.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a huge fan of abortion access, I think it should be safe, legal, and readily accessible for everybody. But abortion is not the only issue at stake here, and it is critical to be talking about reproductive rights as a whole framework, not a single issue.
Three key things to take away: Reproductive rights is not just about women. Reproductive rights is not just about abortion. Reproductive rights has tremendous intersections with race, class, sexuality, and disability.
Reproductive rights is not just about women. Reproductive rights are a human rights issue. They matter to all human beings, not just women. I’m a genderqueer person. I still need access to birth control. I still need people to affirm my right to bodily autonomy, which includes the right to determine whether this body will bear children. Likewise, there are men who need access to reproductive health services up to and including abortion.
When this is brought up in dominant spaces, the result is often pushback, and it often smells of ‘wait your turn.’ There’s a reason the transgender community accuses the pro-choice community of engaging in cissexist rhetoric. In the eagerness to focus on developing catchy, clear slogans, many people are left by the wayside. In a ‘march for women’s rights,’ you’re telling the rest of us that we don’t belong. Rhetoric matters and it’s important; it’s this rhetoric that leads many people to conclude that statements like ‘abortion is a men’s issue too’ refer to the desire to control the bodies of other people, when in fact, for some men, abortion is a very personal issue, as in something they may need to access at some point and will have difficulty accessing safely because of cissexist attitudes.
It’s harder to come up with catchy inclusive rhetoric. But it matters.
Reproductive rights is not just about abortion. Reproductive rights is about the opportunity to choose the timing and spacing of your children, if you want to have children at all. It is about the right to choose to have children. It is about the right to choose to change your mind; it is about the right of people who affirm at age 25 that they do not want children to change their minds at 35 as much as it is about the right to maintain, for your entire life, that, no, you do not want to have children and you do not plan on having any. It is about the right of people to decide that they want to have children and careers, and deserve support to do so.
Many of the attacks on reproductive rights are not just attacks on abortion; they are attacks on human rights. The viciousness of the bile reserved for Planned Parenthood reveals not just anti-choicer hatred, but also the genuine belief in some parts of the United States that birth control is abortion, and because abortion is wrong, people should not have access to any kind of family planning services. It is a reflection of the belief that people who get STIs are dirty, dirty sluts who deserve cervical cancer. These are not just about abortion, but about human rights, and about the level of venom reserved for the vagina-owning populace.
Securing full access to reproductive rights for everyone perforce includes abortion protections. Focusing on abortion does not guarantee full access to reproductive rights.
Reproductive rights has tremendous intersections with race, class, sexuality, and disability. These are not ‘side issues’ that people should pay lip service to when they have a chance, or address at some point. They are key, critical issues that must be addressed in any and all discussions about reproductive rights. Whether or not you are allowed to have children can be determined by race, class, sexuality, and disability status. Minority communities have a fundamentally different relationship with the reproductive rights movement than the majority community. Our relationships include not just the fight for bodily autonomy in an oppressive world, but the fight for basic humanity within social justice movements, the need to constantly assert our own personhood in a movement that often rejects us or silences us.
Forcible sterilisation for people with disabilities still happens. Institutionalised people may be forcibly put on birth control or subjected to invasive surgeries for the convenience of the facilities they are incarcerated in. Disabled people are told to seek sterilisation (and rewarded for such) when their disabilities are genetic in nature. Our children are taken away; to take just one example, the Abbie Dorn case, which I’ve been following for several years now, includes discussions like whether someone ‘severely disabled’ can ‘still [be] a mom.’ Children are routinely taken from homes of parents with disabilities, solely on the grounds that they are unfit parents by nature of their disabilities.
Children are routinely taken from the homes of gay and lesbian parents. In some states, gay and lesbian parents lack access to parental rights. Let alone more complex family relationships, like poly households. Parents who are out as bisexual, as kinky, as sex workers, can experience tremendous pressure from government agencies that want to take their children away. Their home environments are deemed ‘inherently unsafe for children’ on the grounds that they are not sufficiently and acceptably heterosexual in nature.
We still have anti-abortion groups using racist tactics to undermine reproductive rights. We cannot look at this in a vacuum; we must also look at the history of racism within the reproductive rights movement and the way that has been weaponised by people who oppose reproductive rights. At the same time that the movement made tremendous strides historically, it was also heralded for reducing the numbers of ‘undesirables,’ which included people of colour (and people with disabilities, and poor people). The Pill, considered a major breakthrough for reproductive rights and a significant advance in the war for bodily autonomy, came at a tremendous cost for populations used in early experiments. Communities which predominantly included nonwhite people and people of colour. This is not to say that the reproductive rights movement is irredeemably racist and unsalvageable, but it is to say that there is some very complicated historical context here that we must address, acknowledge, and discuss. Some of the leaders heralded as feminist icons were the very same people advocating eradication of ‘undesirable’ people.
Among many others, Cara Kulwicki has covered, extensively, the use of sterilisation to control poor communities, which often have considerable overlap with people of colour, nonwhite people, and people with disabilities. Drug addicts and alcoholics, many of whom are poor, are paid to be sterilised in the United States. In Chile, HIV-positive women were sterilised without consent. Many reproductive health access programs in the United States aimed at poor people contain incentives for sterilisation, and stop providing coverage like pap smears after participants are sterilised. Poverty very much determines access to reproductive health services, and the level of care received.
There’s a reason many marginalised communities are turning to the term ‘reproductive justice,’ to describe a holistic approach to human rights that ensures access to all people who need all services, whether it’s support for people who want to have children and may face considerable social obstacles, or safe, confidential abortion services, or sex ed, or anything in between. Organizations like Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, SisterSong Reproductive Justice Collective, Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Black Women for Reproductive Justice, and California Latinas for Reproductive Justice are considering reproductive rights as a complex human rights issue with many intersections, and working towards a world with liberation for all. Many of these organizations are active on the ground doing community organising and centre communities with a historic experience of reproductive oppression in their work to make sure our voices are heard, acknowledged, and incorporated into political actions; all of them are run by members of marginalised communities and we are heavily represented among staff and volunteers. Some of them distance themselves from the mainstream feminist community, a community they feel historically, and currently, underserved by, and with good reason. In return, their work is often ignored.
They’re bringing the nuance to a complicated discussion, and it’s past time for dominant spaces to up their game.