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Getting Some Nuance Up In Your Reproductive Rights

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.


  1. Magda Anne wrote:

    Reproductive rights has tremendous intersections with race, class, sexuality, and disability.

    This is fierce and relevant. Thank you for writing it, s.e.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink
  2. The gender thing is well-taken, but let’s be clear: the reason people conflate “reproductive rights” with “abortion” is on the mainstream media. Actual reproductive rights activists and media people lose our shit when we hear yet another journalist characterize a fight over contraception as being about “abortion”.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  3. s.e. smith wrote:

    So, Amanda, I take your comment to mean that you don’t believe disability, race, sexuality, and class are important issues to discuss in the reproductive rights movement, since you ignored those segments of this piece? Derailing comments of this nature are exactly what I’m talking about when I stress the need for more complexity in conversations about reproductive rights; you zeroed in on one aspect of this piece to dismiss it as a whole, illustrating the very point I am making about the lack of engagement with these issues in the mainstream reproductive rights movement (which, yes, I agree is not an abortion one note, but does heavily focus on abortion to the exclusion of other issues).

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  4. Anna wrote:

    I haven’t really seen a lot of pushback against it in sites where I see reproductive rights activists talking, Amanda. Could you link to some examples? I’d really appreciate it because it’s very frustrating to feel like the mainstream reproductive rights movement is focused almost exclusively on abortion and not on other issues.

    Thank you!

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink
  5. Laughingrat wrote:

    I’ll cop to framing reproductive rights simplistically–as being women’s rights, or being about access to family-planning measures–even though I know, really, that it’s about more than that. So sure, as I read this piece, I’m a little embarrassed about my omissions, but I’m glad you took the time to write more about the breadth of the issues here. Our rhetoric affects the way we think and the issues we focus on, after all. I’ll try to bear that in mind in the future.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  6. S.E. Smith, the mainstream reproductive rights movement is very interested race, class, disability, and other intersectional issues. The established media is allergic to any discussion that acknowledges the existence of class, race, more than two genders, or a world beyond the 50 states. So, it’s hard to inject nuance in the debate. I write about repro rights for progressive outlets, and we talk about intersectional issues openly and at great length.

    If you look at what mainstream repro rights orgs are actually doing, it’s a lot more inclusive that what you’d guess from primetime discussions of reproductive rights.

    To illustrate my point, I clicked over to RH Reality Check’s “Reproductive Health and Justice Tweets” (

    RH Reality is practically a trade publication for the repro rights community. Their feed aggregates tweets from mainstream pro-choice orgs and activists. Just looking at what’s scrollable in the window at 11:40am, I can see tweets on:

    -Filipina women desperate for birth control (Population Action International)
    -“Kill the Gays” bill could be passed in 24 hours-sign this urgent petition to stop it! (RevDebra)
    -NOW Action VP @erintothemax: “Time to Talk About Obstetric Fistula” (an issue that almost exclusively affects poor women in the developing world, unrepaired fistula is a major disability issue)

    Granted, most of this morning’s tweets are about the flurry of anti-abortion legislation at the state level, which is understandable because that’s huge news. I’ve never seen an onslaught like this. These restrictions affect everyone who’s part of a family, namely everyone, not just cis women.

    The mainstream orgs are vociferous in their defense of birth control, which as you say, affects people of all genders. Think about how many thousands people turned out to support Planned Parenthood and Title X in rallies around the country. The movement pulled out all the stops to fight the Planned Parenthood cuts. This was a fight over birth control, not abortion, since no federal money goes to abortion services. Planned Parenthood serves people of all genders.

    The ACLU is active not only on abortion and contraception rights but also on other issues, like fighting the shackling of pregnant women in labor, defending a woman with a psychiatric disability who attempted suicide while pregnant, defending single parent families against slanders in “abstinence-only” “education,” etc., etc.

    Every week the Guttmacher Institute seems to come out with a new report on the intersection between class, race, and abortion.

    Lately, Planned Parenthood has been openly collaborating with unions to send the message that reproductive rights and economic rights are intimately linked.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink
  7. Blotts wrote:

    Lindsay, I think that perhaps you should read the post again. s.e. smith is not, as far as I can tell, talking about what is going on in the “mainstream media.” Ou’s point was about discourse within the movements themselves. The issue is not how many times the Guttmacher institute publishes a new report. The issue is not whether or not the MSM will ever accurately report. The issue is that within sites that refer to themselves as “feminist” and/or “concerned with reproductive justice” – or “pro-choice” or what have you – these topics are side issues, not central ones.

    In my experience, when a member of a marginalized group says “hey, your discourse isn’t really very inclusive of me, I know you’re trying but could you please try harder – especially on a day to day level” – the proper thing to do is to listen to them and try to fix the problem, not to go LA LA LA THERE COULD NOT POSSIBLY BE AN ISSUE LOOK AT THEM AWESOME PROGRAMS WE GOT HERE.

    Just saying.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  8. C wrote:

    Thankyou for this, s.e. I do sometimes need reminding that just because I have the right TO reproduce, that doesn’t mean everyone does yet. We should all be talking about this more.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  9. Blotts, S.E. Smith wrote, “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.” What qualifies as a “dominant space” here? If by “dominant space” you mean Meet the Press, the author’s got a point. If “dominant space” means Congress, the author’s absolutely right because everything’s a fucking proxy fight for abortion there.

    If “dominant space” means what groups like NARAL, NOW, the ACLU, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and National Advocates for Pregnant Women write and talk about on their own websites, and choose to promote via press releases to reporters like me, and fundraise around, and even go to court over, then the author’s just wrong. These organizations do not have a narrow view of reproductive justice that just means abortion. As a group, these orgs have a very broad view of reproductive justice with issues of of class, race, and national origin front and center. They’re not just concerned with legal access to abortion, but with accessibility irrespective of ability to pay. That’s why saving Planned Parenthood and Title X was such a big deal for the reproductive rights movement as a whole.

    The mainstream /coverage/ of the PP/TX fight got dragged back to abortion, but not because the orgs wanted it that way.

    This discussion should proceed from facts. Maybe it seems to the author like all the reproductive rights movement cares about is abortion, but that’s just not what the evidence suggests. The mainstream media wants to make everything about abortion, but that’s a distortion of what’s actually going on in the trenches.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  10. samanthab wrote:

    Lindsay, the bloggers at ACLU’s site, however, have made vicious statements regarding the mentally ill. I’m glad they’ve done some good things. That matters, but their discourse has been VERY problematic at times.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  11. Annaham wrote:

    Lindsay, s.e. provided plenty of evidence for some of the issues in the RR movement; the issues regarding disability within the reproductive rights movement have been going on for a long time. Yes, the reproductive rights movements is EXTREMELY important, and has accomplished a lot. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t discuss some of the things that could be improved, or discuss some of the handling of issues such as disability by some (not all) of the people within that movement in nuanced terms.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  12. Layla wrote:

    Do you mind if I quote this piece? It’s so wonderful and brilliant, I want to be able to direct people here when I can’t fully express myself on this topic.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  13. s.e. smith wrote:

    Layla, quotes with attribution are always fine!

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  14. Kathleen wrote:

    Abortion rights are great and all, but could you just shut up about them a little?

    Where have I heard this argument before?

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink
  15. Anna wrote:


    Not here, certainly, because that’s not the argument presented in the post or the comments.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  16. geraint wrote:

    on a side note, what is the distinction being made here between “people of color” and “non-white” people?

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink
  17. Meredith wrote:


    “Securing full access to reproductive rights for everyone perforce includes abortion protections. Focusing on abortion does not guarantee full access to reproductive rights.”

    How does this sentiment in any way imply that we should “shut up” about abortion rights? This is not a zero-sum game. We are talking about a discussion of abortion in the fuller spectrum of reproductive rights. People who are against abortion rights are generally against contraceptives, against family planning, against the notion that anyone other than straight white and otherwise privileged cismen should have anything to say on the topic or any decisions to make at all. Abortion is a reproductive right, but it is not the only reproductive right. We’re talking about inclusion, not silencing.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  18. unusualmusic wrote:


    Nobody said you had to shut up about abortion rights. We are saying that abortion rights are ONE facet of the fight for reproductive justice, and the rest of the issues need just as much airing as abortion rights gets.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Permalink
  19. Kathleen wrote:

    It just really pricked up my ears to see abortion again being flagged as the thing that gets picked up as needing to bow out a little, as absorbing too much attention, as making potential allies feel left out. This is exactly what you hear from “centrists”: we could build a bigger tent if we’d just back off about abortion a bit. That argument makes me immediately sense a trap being set, even when it’s being advanced from a better direction.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Permalink
  20. Em wrote:

    For all the Rachel Maddow Show’s very pro-choice coverage, this issue is particularly egregious on maddowblog. Every post on reproductive rights talks about abortion, and every comment section of those posts is full of gender/genital essentialism.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Permalink
  21. Annaham wrote:

    I wonder how long it’ll be before some folks start straight-up argue that posts like this “divide the movement” or something similar. *shudder*

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 12:01 am | Permalink
  22. Annaham wrote:

    Kathleen, some segments of the reproductive rights movement have indeed left people out–people with disabilities and people of color, for example. The argument that s.e. is making here is, in my view, not advocating that we NOT talk about abortion and reproductive rights, but rather that many of the conversations in mainstream RR discourse have considered already-privileged (such as white, middle-class, and able-bodied) women’s rights to abortion as its top priority, to the exclusion of the reproductive justice issues of other groups. They have been “left out” in ways large and small. I think s.e. covered why this is a problem, but there’s nothing “centrist” about the argument being made. Excluding people–many of whom are feminists!–who do not fit the category of Model Person Who Should Have Reproductive Rights is a huge problem. This is not about making conservatives feel more okay with abortion, or any other “big tent” stuff; it’s about correcting the lens of “person who deserves reproductive rights” that has been historically constructed as a white, abled, cis, middle-class, Western and young woman. If a movement makes mostly her rights (and those of people similar) a priority, then HELL yes that movement is leaving out a whole swath of people whose reproductive rights are also important. As I said in an earlier comment, the reproductive rights movement has done a lot of important work, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved. This isn’t about “bowing out a little”; ideally, those in the movement would spread out so that a wider variety of progressive people could join in, without feeling like they’re (for example) not exactly welcome, or just there as tokens.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 3:54 am | Permalink
  23. Kathleen wrote:

    Anhaham — I hear you. But I think it is notable that this exact exhortative lecture, directed at the exact same population (to quote you: “white, abled, cis, middle-class, Western, young woman”, to which I’d add “conventionally attractive”), is had over and over again on feminist blogs. It’s inevitably scornful in its tone no amount of disdain is too much when conjuring up the image of that bunch of privileged self-obsessed bitches who need a lesson to be taught. What is interesting to me about this is how that same image is *exactly* the target audience of (1) male leftists, who think women, god, they would make such good allies if only they would shut their fat yaps about the central importance of lady problems and (2) the right wing generally, who obsess over what attractive white heterosexual women are doing wrong and how exactly they ought best to be prevented from / punished for it.

    I really feel that a lot of the gleeful pleasure in these critiques of “white, cis, middle-class, young women” isn’t coming from a progressive place, and has less to do with anti-racism and combating ableism or standing against transphobia than it does with indulging — with the help of a better alibi — a basically sick and mean-spirited societal impulse.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  24. You know, Kathleen, I have no horse in this race. Notice I even had the manners, so far, not to remind anyone of how American mainstream feminist discourse on reproductive justice almost never includes discussions about the lost lives of women in the Global South whose reproductive rights and very own livelihood are affected by American politics due to laws like the Helms Amendment. Ipas does a good job spelling the issue out: The Helms Amendment harms efforts to make abortion safe, denies health-care providers access to lifesaving equipment and censors information, making the world’s poorest women victims of U.S. foreign policy. Action is needed to repeal Helms and protect women’s health and lives.

    So, up to now, I stayed quiet, after all, this post tackled many of the issues already.

    Coincidentally, this very week, one of the biggest feminist blogs had a pretty controversial post (that to my last count had gathered 400+ comments) telling disabled/queer/WoC/every minority to “fill in the gaps”, meaning: if something is missing from the conversation, bring it to the table.

    s.e. did exactly that. Ou felt something was missing from the discussion and set to fill in that gap by bringing it to everyone’s attention.

    And now there is an allegation that ou is “mean spirited” for doing so?!!

    I am speechless. Words do not convey my shock at reading your reaction. Because honestly, one person carves a tiny space to bring attention to something that they deem important and the reaction is to attack them on the basis that “it is not true”?! You do understand that you are telling s.e that ou is lying, don’t you? Which, last time I checked, is the most violent silencing tactic in social justice.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  25. Mely wrote:

    Kathleen — I’m curious about where in s.e. smith’s you see “gleeful pleasure” in critique, or criticism of specific “white, cis, middle-class, young women”. By my count, there are twelve paragraphs on how reproductive rights issues affect transgender people, people with disabilities, and/or people of color, with references to organizations created by these groups. There are, at most, three paragraphs about abortion access, one of which begins, “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.”

    Perhaps you could cite which statements in particular strike you as “scornful in tone,” full of “disdain,” “basically sick,” or “mean-spirited,” as well as where the post implies that feminists are “that bunch of privileged self-obsessed bitches who need a lesson to be taught” so I could understand your objections better.

    As far as I can tell, the post is primarily not about white, cis, middle-class, young women. That’s not the same thing as trashing them.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  26. Anna wrote:


    I’m sorry, what? You sound like you’re saying that those of us who are frustrated with being continually told to wait our turn, that our ideas are ruining the movement, that our struggle is less important, that we should fill the gaps and then let others scoop up our ideas and put them out there in easier-to-digest ideas, should stop being mean to people who tell us those things by pointing out that they’re doing it. Is that what you meant?

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  27. abby jean wrote:

    loving the assumptions about who is at the center of the conversation here. when a member of a marginalized group makes an effort to fill gaps in observed discussion by highlighting other views or perspectives about issues – that OF COURSE is only “really about” talking about (and attempting to shame or humiliate) the “white, cis, middle-class young woman” because they are naturally and rightly at the center of every single discussion relating to women or reproductive rights or feminism or anything at all, amirite?

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink
  28. S.e. claimed that certain things were missing from “the discussion,” but s/he didn’t specify which parts of the discussion. Different discussions are happening in different places.

    It’s just not true that your average reproductive rights activist only cares about abortion, or only cares about abortion for rich white women. The most visible fight of the last couple of years, in terms of media, money, street protests has been over _contraception_ for _low-_and_middle-income people.

    The big orgs are front and center defending Medicaid and Medicare which provide more health care and nursing home care for people with disabilities than anywhere else. The Republicans were gearing up to decimate those programs and they’ve largely backed off for the time being.

    That doesn’t mean that the movement is perfect, or that everyone’s going to agree with the stances that the orgs have taken on intersectional issues.

    Let me give you more examples. The major orgs have high-powered lobbyists on the Hill right now fighting for reproductive rights through foreign aid.

    Planned Parenthood has an entire International Foundation, that works closely with the UN Population Fund working towards reproductive rights as human rights worldwide. Some of their major goals include promoting sexual health for people living with HIV, sex workers’ rights, reducing maternal mortality, preventing and repairing obstetric fistula, and so on.

    Can you say more about why transgender people are feeling shut out of the birth control debate? The big programs under fire are /supposed/ to be serving everyone. If you have female reproductive organs and a low-to-middle income you have a stake in Title X. (And studies show that trans people are more likely to live in poverty than their cis counterparts.) In many states, including Wisconsin, people with male sexual organs are also entitled to family planning services through Medicaid as well.

    If you have a pregnancy that you want to terminate, Planned Parenthood will do your abortion regardless of your gender identity.

    At least in theory.

    For example, are trans people systematically being turned away from Title X clinics because of they’re trans? If so, that’s a major issue that I haven’t heard about and one that needs urgent attention. It’s also an issue that would play well in the mainstreamish progressive media. I’d pitch that story in a heartbeat and I bet it would find its way onto Maddow.

    Who is being told to wait their turn regarding birth control? What would you have the movement do differently? I mean specifically. It’s not enough to say that they should care more in the abstract about intersectionality because there is overwhelming evidence that intersectionality is the norm rather than the exception in the movement. We need to talk about specifics. For example, how are people of color being left out? That’s not a facetious question.

    Saying that s.e. is wrong is not tantamount to saying s.e. is lying. If we can’t have an honest debate about the facts, how can we move forward?
    (s.e., which pronoun do you prefer?)

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  29. s.e. smith wrote:

    Kathleen and Lindsay, clearly a conversation where marginalised voices are centred is not one that you’re ready to have right now, which is fine. I’d like to humbly suggest that you stop dominating this thread and allow other people an opportunity to speak. Your willful ignorance and demands for education are becoming offensive. And I’d also like to challenge you to think, privately, about why you feel so challenged and threatened by much of the content here.

    We do not have a responsibility to educate you, and you do not have the right to deny our lived experiences. Go educate yourself, please, because you’re making this thread a space where it is functionally impossible for people who do experience oppression within the reproductive rights movement to discuss that.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  30. Rachel C-H wrote:

    So basically, marginalized people aren’t trying to speak to their own marginalization, they’re being -ist against privileged people? No. That’s not how it works.

    Also, since when is it okay to tell marginalized people what about their experience is and is not accurate? Whenever I talk about what my female relatives went through during Puerto Rico’s forced sterilization period, and my indignation that so many mainstream repro rights groups seemed complicit in it, I get a smile and nod from reproductive rights people who wax about how there are problems but we need to grin and bear it and present a united front – and the united front is abortion care. Which doesn’t really address anything. Don’t tell me that this hasn’t happened to me and it isn’t a problem. Marginalized people are experts of their own marginalization.

    Argh. The privilege denying in some of these comments is unreal.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink
  31. Rachel C-H wrote:

    “For example, how are people of color being left out?”

    Lindsay – I don’t mean to be rude, but what incentive to people of color have to answer this question for you if, after we’ve poured out our frustrations, you’re just going to tell us we’re wrong about our experiences?

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  32. Annaham wrote:

    Kathleen: I am disabled. I don’t feel like I should have to bust out with this IN A COMMENTS SECTION in order to apparently “prove” to people that I am not just gleefully slamming white, abled, middle-class young women who focus on reproductive rights here here for no reason, but you seem to think that critiques of some of the problems with mainstream RR comes from a “sick and mean” impulse.

    I assure you that for me, it does not. It comes from a very painful place for me; I have personally felt excluded and not-welcomed by several offline feminist groups, because my “issues” (disability and gender) just weren’t important enough because abortion was the most important issue, always. I know that this is not ALL of the RR movement, but these incidents pretty much made me question putting my (limited, for disability-related reasons) energy into groups that obviously didn’t give a shit about the intersections of other issues with gender.

    You’re assuming an awful lot with that comment. I don’t know how I can clarify my position any further. I’m not setting out to tear people down; on the contrary, I want to be included.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  33. Sady wrote:

    Yeah. I need to weigh in here, too. S.e. is bringing something to the table that challenges conventional feminist ways of speaking and thinking about reproductive justice. There needs to be an etiquette for this kind of discussion, because otherwise the discussion just won’t work.

    FOR EXAMPLE: I can understand why people who work within that field, and are intensely committed to it, and who know themselves to be fighting the good fight, and who get a lot of crap for it, would be disturbed to know that people see something lacking in their methods. Or even feel harmed by their methods. I know everyone in this fight is fiercely committed to it, and to social justice. I know that everyone in this fight has had an abnormally large amount of crap thrown at them, for getting involved. I’ve had a very limited amount of time working on repro-rights issues, and even that limited time has taught me something about how fucking frustrating it is, as activism. I’ve worked with Amanda M on some of this stuff and I respect her immensely. Lindsay, I have not worked with, but I respect her as well.

    The thing is, s.e. has not framed anything in this post as an attack. If ou were coming out and insulting people’s integrity, their commitment, or whatever else, that would be one thing. But ou has only put forward additional complexities for folks to consider and address. So some of the defensiveness I’m seeing… it doesn’t work. It only legitimizes the idea that cis, white feminists who work on reproductive justice are invested in not seeing or dealing with these narratives. I think we can talk about what we’re doing or have done to push those narratives, talk about what we can do to make that work more visible or better, etc. But coming in and saying “we’re already doing the work, the work we’re doing is enough, you’re wrong” doesn’t work. It doesn’t open up roads of conversation. It actively closes them down.

    FOR ANOTHER THING: Kathleen, I actually agree with you that a lot of internalized misogyny, abusive behavior, or holier-than-thou self-promotion gets passed off as “critique,” in feminist circles. I’ve seen it happen. It’s ugly as hell. The thing is, I would wager that s.e. agrees on that point ouself. And to complain of that in a post as devoid of attack and insult as s.e.’s is… well, I don’t know. Missing the point.

    Again: It further legitimizes the idea that some feminists cannot differentiate between (a) the problem of internalized misogyny disguised as “critique” by people who are adept at using movement language to be vicious — which is a real problem! And a big one! — and (b) people who aren’t cis/white/straight/middle-class ladies speaking about how they’ve been marginalized within the movement. Because being marginalized within the movement: Also a real problem! As it turns out! But when we try to address problem (a) without recognizing problem (b), or when we respond to something as if it is problem (a) when it’s pretty clearly not an example of that… It doesn’t help us to address problem (a) at all, in the long run. Is what I’m saying.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  34. Blotts wrote:

    Sady, thanks for coming in and saying that. I really agree with your final paragraph.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  35. Ennu wrote:

    I think part of the problem with gendered language within RR movement stems from the fact that people have an aversion to language they see as dehumanizing, like vagina-owner or uterus-bearer. Like it says in the post it’s a human rights issue, so language that seems to erase a person’s humanity looks out of place. So, people end up writing something like “women (and trans men and gender queer people, etc.)” which turns trans men and gender queer people into an afterthought and then just revert to talking about women only since cis women are disproportionately affected by attacks on access to birth control and abortion services, but it is erasing to everyone else who still IS affected by it. Any chance there could be an acronym like LGBTQIA? Maybe WTMGQ? Or does that still leave people out? I am truly sorry if it’s beside the point of this post for me to prattle on about this, but language is just so important within the social justice movement and within the culture at large that I wish we had a term that included all “vagina-owners” but didn’t define them solely by said vaginas as people attempting to restrict their rights tend to do. Not saying that is anyone’s intent here, btw, and perhaps terms like vagina-owner or uterus-bearer are the best and most forthright terms to use and any others are just complicating things. I just think the terminology needs to be discussed and agreed upon so everybody has the clearest, most inclusive way of talking about reproductive health.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  36. Anna wrote:


    I go with “People who seek reproductive services” or “people who seek abortion services” or “people who seek access to contraceptives.”

    So, I would say that legislatures in the United States are at war against people who need or want abortions, and are restricting access to contraception.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Permalink
  37. Ennu wrote:

    Anna – I’ve seen that phrasing used before and I like it because it really is all-inclusive, but I would really like to see a term that deals directly with what *kind* of people are having their rights attacked. “People” certainly includes everyone, but it doesn’t really address the isms behind the war on people seeking abortion and birth control. And, again, there may not actually be a way to have a tidy little term like that. I’m not sure, but I think it would be nice if we could.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  38. Sady wrote:

    @Ennu: Yeah. I think — just to poke my head in again — that’s something that I’ve been wrestling with as well. These issues won’t just impact women, and they won’t impact all women in the same ways; the people targeted by reproductive oppression do not belong to just one gender. But the issue isgendered; it rests upon the idea that anyone with a uterus is “a woman,” and that “women” exist solely to reproduce (or, as s.e. points out, should be barred from reproducing, depending on their identities), and do not deserve a say in the matter. Reproductive oppression is tied to cissexism and to sexism, because it’s tied to the idea that one’s life and identity are determined by one’s genitalia. It’s also tied to our devaluation of a specific set of genitalia, and everyone who has that set. (Although, of course, having a penis, if you’re a lady, is pretty damn devalued too.)

    So “people who need abortions” or “people who seek reproductive services” is undeniably the most elegant way to comprehend all of the people affected by this stuff. But it makes the gendered elements of the problem less visible, and ultimately makes it easier to spin the conservative narrative of a specific set of people (and let’s be honest, in the mainstream narrative, this is a specific set of women) who need these services because of their personal “lifestyle,” which is Very Bad. Rather than making visible all people who stand to conceive, it makes it sound like we’re talking about a specific subset of those people. So, stressing the fact that everybody who’s not a cis man is oppressed by this ideology, stressing that reproductive oppression is structural and gender-based oppression, while also being honest about how complex that oppression is, is definitely a problem I encounter when I write about this stuff.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  39. s.e. smith wrote:

    Sady, thanks for recentring a really important point in this piece that got kind of lost in comments; this is a movement not just about choosing not to have children, but choosing to have children. And there is precious little attention paid to issues like forcible sterilisation, children removed from safe, healthy homes, and eugenics. These are scary frightening things that are happening right now that need to be discussed, and it’s one of the things I was hoping folks in comments would explore.

    I, uhm, have encountered eugenics apologism or outright advocacy in regards to aborting for disability in the comments of very large feminist websites. This is clearly an issue that people need to be confronting.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Permalink
  40. Anna wrote:

    I think that my response to that would be really off-topic for this thread, but I appreciate your objections to my suggestion. 🙂

    One of the things that concerns me is how often parenting when disabled is basically presented as either The Most Difficult Thing Ever or as an impossibility. So you have women like Abbie Dorn having their children taken away from them, or women like the one in the UK who had her child taken away after birth because of her cognitive impairments, because obviously it would be impossible for either of these women to be directly involved in their children’s lives. Lauredhel has written in the past about how rarely she sees playgrounds that are actually accessible to parents with mobility impairments. (Certainly I’ve never seen on either but I am not a parent and don’t go to a lot of playgrounds.) Schools may attempt to be accessible to students (I’m not bitter), but are parent-teacher events accessible?

    I think we’ve created a world in which it is very very difficult to parent when disabled, and then turned around and said “Well, that’s why people with disabilities shouldn’t have kids.”

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink
  41. Ennu wrote:

    @Sady – Thank you. I’m always afraid I’m not expressing myself clearly enough, so it’s nice to know I was understood. I do believe that with enough dedicated smart people hashing this stuff out we can have clearer, more inclusive terminology that everyone can agree with. The social justice movement is so language-based that when we have a problem with the murkiness of certain terminology it really feels like a road-block in the conversation that makes it hard to move forward.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink
  42. s.e. smith wrote:

    In re:language, which is a whole different topic that could eat up pages and pages of delicious theoretical discussion while people die in the streets, it’s a really complicated issue. Like Sady says above, this is an inherently gendered issue and it is important to address the fact that attacks on reproductive rights are rooted in misogyny—not hatred of vaginas, but hatred of women, and the assumption that all people with vaginas are women. So there is kind of a fine line that has to be walked with making sure people understand the complicated gendering issues here and I think some of it has to do with audience and venue. Where using inclusive language may confuse people or be a turnoff, which means that you can’t reach them, you have to have a headline like ‘Further attacks on women’s bodies in [latest state to pass a ridiculous anti-abortion law].’ When you’re confronting an audience that can’t even grasp the fact that women are people, trying to get that audience to understand that vagina!=woman is going to be an uphill battle, and sometimes you need to take the small steps so you can take the big ones later.

    But. When you are in a dedicated social justice or feminist space, I think it’s reasonable to ask people to use inclusive language and to consider inclusivity, to not frame reproductive rights solely as a ‘women’s issue,’ for example.

    And there’s absolutely nothing barring people from working in, say, mass media venues from talking about the fact that forcible sterilisation still happens (fun fact! did you know that institutionalised people capable of bearing children are sterilised in part because of concerns about rape?). There’s nothing wrong with talking about how society continues to agitate against the right to bear children among some social groups. Yet, these are topics that are not often addressed in the mainstream. That’s not a language problem, that’s a fundamental lack of inclusion problem.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink
  43. Betina wrote:

    That custody case is so utterly absurd! How can being in contact with a disabled mother be necessarily damaging for a child? Damaging because it makes them aware that disabled people exist, and may be one of their loved ones?

    While the able-bodied father can drive the kids to school, I’m not exactly sure about his parenting skills otherwise, what with the lying and (as far as I can tell) no good reason to do so. Why is then disability considered such an extraordinary factor in interpreting the law on visitation rights?

    Just.. depressing.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Permalink
  44. Anna wrote:

    I think, Betina, that it’s in part because people with disabilities are seen as Frightening Things. It’s not a coincidence that images that are supposed to instill fear in people are often images of disabled people. “Don’t drive and drive because if you do you’ll end up a scary cripple alone in a corner” was the message in an ad put out by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in the United States. Doctor Who, a British science fiction show, has had a number of villains who have been disabled and that is presented as part of their villainous nature (this is getting somewhat better). People with disabilities are still viewed as grotesque and frightening in some quarters, and in others held up as objects of complete ridicule.

    I mean, the message is out there: Cripples are scary scary scary and thus the delicate eyes of children should be prevented from seeing their mother in such a state.

    And this extends as well to reactions to older women deciding to have children later in life. Those children are more likely to be born disabled, so this must be stopped! These mothers will be elderly when their children are in high school, how terrible! They must be stopped because this would make everyone uncomfortable. (And, in the latter case, it is always women who are held up as outrageous for this choice – older men who choose to procreate are not seen as nearly so dangerous, and the conversations about this never seem to include anyone outside of the gender binary.)

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  45. Ennu wrote:

    @S.E. – Yeah, sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that language was the *only* or the *biggest* problem with inclusion within the RR movement, it’s just something that’s been nagging at me for a while and I thought this would be a good place to bring it up. But, anyway, sorry if it was derailing.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  46. samanthab wrote:

    I will just add that, as someone whose non-mentally ill sister just had very expensive IVF treatments in order to avoid having her child inherit the mental illness that I have (or at least the genetic per-disposition to it,)this discussion really hits home. She sees her intention as to avoid suffering, but as some of the comments in this thread suugest, there’s a tremendous amount of angst that comes from the impulse to preserve and uphold norms. It hurt very much, until I realized this much, that after all the suffering I’d been through due to my mental illness, I’d really lost a lot of my interest in the norms that I believe cause universal psychological distress. I don’t ultimately feel like any more of a victim than she is. Although I would like to feel like my life was more often *perceived* to be socially valuable- or at least not utterly useless. And I certainly don’t feel like it always is.

    Thanks, s.e., for the discussion.

    Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  47. Sofia wrote:

    This was novel. I wish I could read every post, but i have to go back to work now… But I’ll return.

    Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 4:56 am | Permalink