Taking the Pulse: What Public Opinion Reveals About the Reproductive Justice Agenda


The reproductive justice movement has roared its way into feminist circles over the last fifteen years, claiming space for a more nuanced and expanded view of what it takes for a person to live (and love) in the real world and make decisions about his or her health, body, and sexuality. But it is not so clear that members of the broader public have been moved to adopt a reproductive justice perspective. The Opportunity Agenda recently examined public opinion research on a variety of reproductive justice issues to get a sense of entry points in the modern American mind.

The distinction between the traditional reproductive rights frame, often focused on autonomy, and the concept of reproductive justice lies in the notion of interconnectedness. In the world of reproductive justice, the intersections lie not only across issues like abortion, sexuality education, or access to contraception, but also in the overlapping relationships between a healthy individual and a safe family or community. This means taking into account the realities of immigration status, police surveillance, and the lack of infrastructure in a particular neighborhood, and examining the role they play in offering solutions or exacerbating problems as people exercise their sexual rights. Thrown into this mix is an honest account of sexuality as an intimate expression of who an individual is and the role it plays in the life of a family or other group whose fate is somehow tied together. Therefore the scope of the reproductive justice movement includes concerns often over-looked by mainstream reproductive rights organizations, such as same-sex marriage, sex work, and criminalization of HIV transmission.

While this mix of issues and concerns is intriguing in the abstract and on-target in its application to the realities of how people live their lives, it does pose challenges when it comes to researching public opinion. There are almost no polling or other opinion research studies that address questions specific to a reproductive justice policy agenda or that cover the full scope or intersections of the movement. However, there is a large range of public opinion research and literature on topics relating to core reproductive justice values and issues, including but not limited to gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, economic status, abortion, sex education, and the rights of LGBTQ persons. The Opportunity Agenda examined these and related issues in its report.

Of particular interest are the findings on gender roles and sexuality, discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, and the rights of LGBTQ people. Since 1987, The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has measured the strength of conservative attitudes against an index of five social values. In 2009, the results for some of these indicators are heartening for those who support reproductive justice values. With respect to the role of women, approximately 75 percent of Americans disagree with the statement, “Women should return to their traditional roles in society.” Attitudes toward homosexuality are measured by responses to the statement, “School boards ought to have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals.” Only 28 percent of Americans now agree with that sentiment. And in a separate 2009 Pew study, 64 percent of the public say gays and lesbians face a great deal of discrimination.

However, on the issue of family and marriage, 71 percent agree with the statement, “I have old fashioned values about family and marriage.”

When it comes to single women and unmarried couples having children, a 2007 Pew Research Center survey finds that 69 percent of Americans agree with the statement, “A child needs a home with both a father and a mother to grow up happily.”

This survey also finds that 66 percent of adults believe that “single women deciding to have children without a male partner to help raise them” is “a bad thing for our society.”

Weighing in on the role of parents and how well they are raising their children continues to be a national sport for Americans. A 2007 Pew Research Center finds that 41% of Americans believe it “is a bad thing for society” when the mothers of young children work. Meanwhile, 56 percent say that mothers are doing a worse job as parents than they did a generation ago, and 47 percent believe fathers are doing a worse job. Only 9 percent say mothers are doing a better job today, compared with 21 percent who say fathers are.

It seems that, despite the expression of somewhat progressive views on the role of women and the rights of LGBTQ persons, American attitudes embody a continuing strain of deep-rooted thinking that the traditionally-defined family is the best foundation for society. This type of conservatism embeds itself into debates on dignity and self-worth, and affects perspectives on the ability any one of us may have to make wise decisions about our intimate lives. Americans appear to question the capacity of non-traditional families to offer the guidance needed to navigate fraught situations.

While we can infer much about American attitudes to core reproductive justice concerns based on the public’s perspectives on gender, family, and LGBTQ people, it is clear there is a strong need for original public opinion research focused on reproductive justice values, issues, and constituencies. With respect to the audiences who may be most receptive to the reproductive justice agenda, research will need to focus on demographic groups that have been overlooked or under-represented in existing studies. In terms of content, such research will need to explore the values, facts, and arguments most likely to trigger activism on the part of persuadable target audiences.

As reproductive justice advocates begin to use public opinion research as a resource in building campaigns, we will need to keep in mind a basic tenet or utilizing this tool: it is crucial to be aware of public opinion, but it is even more important to balance what we think we know about changing American attitudes with the core values of our work, which stay consistent regardless of public opinion.

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