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(Reproductive) Justice, You Shall Pursue

Part 7 of the series Reading Our Rights.

The other day I was on a plane from Detroit to Boston, enjoying some small talk with the woman crammed elbow-to-elbow with me (we were flying Spirit, after all). She asked what I was studying and I braced myself. I try not to tell people, especially people with whom I’ll be sharing a confined space for several hours, that I am a “Gender and Health” major. Many uncomfortable airplane and Uber rides have taught me that “gender” is a swear word to some people, and informing them of my course of study often results in an unsolicited lesson in my seatmate’s personal politics.

But, I bit. I told her I was studying gender and health and tacked on “with a goal of going into public health.” People don’t really know what public health is, so it goes over easier than “so I can fight for access to abortion.” If “gender” is a swear word, “abortion” can be a hex. Fortunately, the woman latched onto the public health part, and started telling me about an ultra-religious family she knows who refuses to vaccinate any of their ten kids. Relieved we’d found common ground, I nodded, and agreed that parents who can vaccinate their children should do so.

“It’s just not right,” said my seatmate. “She ought to be sterilized.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Okay. Let’s unpack this. (“Let’s unpack this” is a mantra heard in virtually every undergraduate gender and health class.) Sterilized. My dear plane friend doesn’t seem to have a problem with abortion, but she thinks women who she believes aren’t suitable mothers should be forcibly prevented from having their own biological children.

The idea of sterilization for “the common good” has a complex, eugenic-y, history, but it hinges on the divide between reproductive rights and reproductive justice. The term “reproductive rights” was popularized by the second-wave feminists of the 1960s and 1970s and by thought leaders such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan; much of the activism of this movement centered exclusively on abortion access. While the second-wave was pivotal in influencing decisions such as Roe v. Wade, it has been criticized for its tunnel-vision focus on white, cis women and its confluence of reproductive rights with abortion rights.

Don’t get me wrong, abortion access was a vital cause in the 1960s and 1970s (as it still is and has been for as long as women have been getting pregnant). Once abortion was legalized nationally in 1973, entire hospital wings dedicated to treating women recovering from complications due to illegal abortions were no longer needed. Deaths due to miscarriage (often caused by unskilled abortion) went down by hundreds—maybe thousands—all because women had access to safe abortions.

Abortion, however, is not the only important cause related to reproductive health on which feminism should focus. Reproductive health includes the right to have children and to access all amenities necessary to care for those children. It means a right to bodily autonomy no matter one’s sexuality, gender, class, or ethnicity. At the time of Roe, which was a feminist victory for plenty of women in the political mainstream (especially white women), other people were still being subjected to forced or coerced sterilizations in the United States. These sterilizations happened to men and women institutionalized in prisons or mental hospitals. They happened to women and men of color and people with disabilities. They happened to undocumented women and citizens who did not speak English and could not understand the forms they were coerced into signing immediately after childbirth. And these sterilizations have happened to incarcerated and immigrant populations in the United States all too recently, continuing into this century.

In response to this and other issues, black and indigenous feminists introduced a reproductive justice framework in the 1990s to replace the exclusive reproductive rights framework of second-wave feminism. This framework allows for the inclusion of social, environmental, spiritual, and economic issues as part of our dialogue on reproductive health issues. It is an important extension of the original feminist thinking that paved the path for abortion legalization in the United States.

Access to abortion for all people who need it is vitally important. So is access to parenthood. As a feminist, I cannot pass judgement on who is and who is not fit to have and raise children, even if their parenting choices intrude on my personal (feminist) philosophy. Yes, dear airplane seatmate, there is a lot of evidence that infants need vaccines in order to protect themselves and others from dangerous infectious diseases, and I can’t condone a mother’s dangerous refusal to help her children. But history demonstrates that casting judgements on who is, and is not, fit to carry and keep children will lead us down a racist, ablist slope. I cannot judge if or when someone should be sterilized and I will not continue America’s dark history of deciding who is allowed to parent, even on casual conversation on airplanes. It is not my judgment to make.

So reproductive justice, justice I shall pursue.

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How to cite this page

Sara Lebow. "(Reproductive) Justice, You Shall Pursue." 25 July 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 21, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/reproductive-justice-you-shall-pursue>.

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