Understanding Reproductive Justice: A Response to O’Brien

See here for further discussion of framing choice and reproductive justice.

We are writing in response to Jon O’Brien’s April 25 article for RH Reality Check, Why We Are and Must Remain ‘Pro-Choice.’ We see the history and content of the reproductive justice framework and movement, and its critique of choice, quite differently. Because Catholics for Choice is a strong ally in the struggle for reproductive justice, we feel it is especially important to offer our perspective.

“Reproductive justice is not a label—it’s a mission. It describes our collective vision.”

The reproductive justice (RJ) movement has developed its analysis and agenda over many years. It is an inspirational vision for the future that also provides direction for the present. Activist Eesha Pandit puts it this way: “This was never about semantics, but about priorities and goals; about what we are willing to fight for and how we do it; about organizing differently, telling different stories, having different leadership. RJ’s inclusive lens expanded the agenda beyond abortion and contraception. In so doing, it drew new constituencies to the battles for reproductive autonomy and created solidarity with other movements.”

Planned Parenthood’s recent decision to stop using “choice” language has led to a broad discussion about which labels and messages are most effective. Although Planned Parenthood’s rationale for the shift is not based on the analysis and critique developed by the reproductive justice movement, the group’s action provides an opportunity to talk about reproductive justice to a larger audience. As Kierra Johnson and Jessica Gonzalez–Rojas discuss in their excellent article, advocates are determined not to have this be a conversation merely about semantics or labels. Rather, they are taking the opportunity to talk about political goals and vision.

From Choice to Justice

The reproductive justice analysis was developed by women of color working both inside and outside a pro-choice movement that focused on defending a woman’s right to choose an abortion. The choice movement was not advocating for full reproductive autonomy for all women and ending all reproductive injustices. Notably, the right to have children and families, a front-line reproductive rights issue for women of color, was not put on the same footing as the right not to. Even within the sphere of abortion advocacy, access for poor and low-income women was not prioritized. As a result, women whose lives were shaped by reproductive oppression wanted a more inclusive approach that would reflect the realities of their communities. This meant going beyond the fight for abortion rights and recognizing the damage caused by isolating abortion from other social justice issues. Loretta Ross, one of the activists leading this effort, explained, “Not wanting to use the language of ‘choice’ because they (women of color) represented communities with few real choices, they integrated the concepts of reproductive rights, social justice and human rights to launch the term ‘Reproductive Justice.’

Women of color struggled within the pro-choice movement to bring their needs to the forefront, and they also created new organizations built on a broad, intersectional analysis and understanding of reproductive rights and health. The shift from choice to justice does not, as O’Brien says, devalue the autonomy of women who face obstacles. Instead, locating women’s autonomy and self-determination in human rights rather than in individual rights and privacy gives a more inclusive and realistic account of both autonomy and what is required to ensure that all women have it. Advocating for reproductive justice was not counter-posed against being “pro-choice” or supporting abortion rights. Rather, reproductive justice re-framed and included both.

Vision Leads to Action

O’Brien is concerned that reproductive justice does not allow for focused advocacy. We disagree. Having a broad, intersectional analysis does not mean that every organization has to fight on all fronts all the time. Achieving reproductive justice does require countering an opposition that is itself broad and intersectional, as it pursues an anti-woman, pro-patriarchal, and racist agenda. No one organization can possibly do this alone. It is precisely because we do not and cannot all work on the same issues that we need the cross-cutting analysis and shared values encompassed in reproductive justice. Embracing that framework enables us to shape our particular piece of the advocacy in ways that support each other’s work, without undermining our common long-term goals and values, and without sacrificing any group’s human rights for the political expediency of achieving limited gains.

For example, for decades, leading organizations in the choice movement did not advocate for restoring public funding for abortion. The issue was always put on the back burner. Taking a reproductive justice approach tells us to flip this script—to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable women and to build the political power necessary to effect policy. The 1994 Campaign for Abortion Rights and Equity, organized by the National Black Women’s Health Project (now the National Black Women’s Health Imperative) is a good example of this approach. By attempting to rescind the Hyde Amendment, the campaign centered on the needs of the most marginalized women in abortion advocacy.

Reproductive Justice and Abortion Advocacy

Not only must we continually resist attacks from a virulent, persistent, and well-funded anti-choice movement, but, as O’Brien correctly points out, we must fend off efforts from within our own and other social justice movements to retreat from working for abortion rights. We are told that abortion is too hard and too divisive, or, as O’Brien says, “With so many issues and agendas to push, something has to give. All too often it is abortion.” We have been urged to work on less controversial issues that have greater public support.

However, while O’Brien lists failing to address abortion head on as one of the challenges facing the reproductive justice movement, we do not agree. Reproductive justice advocacy is about representing the full reality of all women’s lives, and this simply cannot be done without including unwanted pregnancy and abortion.

Reproductive justice also pushes us to see individual autonomy and personal decision-making differently than the way the choice movement has in the past. As Rickie Solinger reminds us, “Some women have much better access to reproductive choices than others. Decisions about whether to get pregnant, stay pregnant or raise a child are shaped by laws and policies that can compromise personal choice.” Reproductive justice advocates are all too familiar with that reality. They bring to the fight for abortion rights an understanding and urgency that is grounded in the experiences of women in their communities who have always borne the brunt of bans on abortion funding, as well as all other restrictive laws and policies. They also bring a determination to place those needs and concerns in the forefront of abortion rights advocacy.

Allies and Accountability

O’Brien warns that we risk making adversaries of our allies by demanding that everyone work on a broad agenda. We think it is just the opposite; broadening our agenda strengthens our ability to draw in new constituencies. Toni Bond-Leonard, the founder of Black Women for Reproductive Justice, sees it as a bridge to religious groups in communities of color: “While the reproductive justice framework did not come out of a faith community, it can be used to create a theological context that reflects the concerns, needs, and goals of faith communities of color, in a culturally appropriate context.”

Reproductive justice advocates have pointed out that having too narrow a lens led to a significant missed opportunity in the November 2011 election cycle. Pro-choice forces in Mississippi successfully defeated a “personhood” amendment. However, they did not make the link to a simultaneous voter disenfranchisement initiative. Connecting reproductive and racial justice would have expanded rights in both arenas.

We also must be clear about the principles on which we will build our alliances and hold each other accountable. O’Brien is right in his assessment that “in recent years, the Democrats have cravenly played politics with our priorities.” How we cringed when Obama made the deal on the Affordable Care Act by invoking and perpetuating the “tradition” of not funding abortion. At the same time, while we welcome support from other points on the political spectrum, we should not be willing to shape our political strategies to make them more palatable to those with a different agenda. Nor should we make expedient compromises that trade away the rights of one group in order to advance another. Those who claim to be pro-choice but do not support public funding for abortion, or want to cut welfare and social services, or oppose immigrant rights and access to health care for people who are transgendered are not the allies and champions demanded by the reproductive justice framework and the new inclusive movement we are building.

The women of color who developed the reproductive justice frame became the leaders of a dynamic new movement. Neither the concept nor the movement applies only to women of color. “Inclusivity” and “intersectionality” are not just words. They describe the theory and practice of the reproductive justice movement with the potential to revitalize all of our advocacy and enable us to create the large and motivated base of support required to secure reproductive rights, health, and justice for all.

Correction, May 9, 1:45 pm Eastern: A version of this article incorrectly noted that the Mississippi “personhood” amendment was voted on in November 2012. It was voted on in November 2011.

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  • colleen2

    “While the reproductive justice framework did not come out of a faith
    community, it can be used to create a theological context that reflects
    the concerns, needs, and goals of faith communities of color, in a
    culturally appropriate context.”

    Let’s be honest ‘the faith community’ (whatever that means) did not produce a reproductive justice platform because, in the main, they have been fighting against reproductive justice. Indeed ‘faith communities’ have been the loudest voices in opposition to reproductive justice.

  • Ann Furedi

    A comment and a question to the authors –

    I think Marlene et al missed the point of Jon O’Brien’s excellent piece.I didn’t think for a moment that Jon was writing as an apologist for the strategies of the ‘pro-choice movement’ in the past. Some have not been so good.

    Many of the articles Jon has published in Conscience have challenged the US pro-choice movement – for example: for stepping back from defence of later abortions, for neglecting the issue of abortion and contraceptive funding and for toadying up to the Democrats when they were selling us out. Conscience has also drawn attention to, and condemned, the ‘population-based’ concerns of the international reproductive ‘pro-choice’ movement, which has implied that disadvantaged black women should be enabled to use contraception and abortion so as to encourage them to have smaller families and so meet ‘our’ environmental concerns. So I don’t think Jon is complacent about the pro-choice movement and I’ve always found him and his organisation to be rightly critical of its leadership – even when others have maintained diplomatic silence

    From the way I read it, Jon explained that the problem was/is the TACTICS and STRATEGY of the ‘movement’ (regardless of what it calls itself). I strongly agree with himt hat this is the problem. Put simply: it’s not the concept of ‘choice’ that’s the problem – it’s the way certain groups have understood and how they should fight for it. A fight for reproductive Choice’ should been just that, a fight for a woman’s ability to make a decision about her fertility… and implement it. ‘Choice’ is not, and should never have been presented as a synonym for ‘abortion’. It means far more.

    At the heart of this debate is not what the movement is called but what it stands for. One of the reasons why bpas enjoys working with CFC is because it is genuinely committed to women making reproductive decisions (choices) for themselves according to their values (consciences). We share that principle.

    Of course, t is true that the term ‘Choice’ can be misused and presented as something different – as can any word or label. Justice and equality are not immune from limited and misguided application either – so changing branding doesn’t solve the problem and may do harm. What is vital to the concept of ‘choice’ is the issue of: WHO decides. Choice is concerned with ‘agency’ – if we do not place that at the heart of what we stand for, our agency can be put aside – just as it has been in the past. In the UK, in the 80s some immigrant women were given DMPA without their consent or knowledge because doctors decided it was better for them and better for society if their families size was controlled. I even heard it argued that it was better for other disadvantaged groups if public money wasn’t wasted on supporting the feckless and fecund.

    I think many of us believe that we must value our commitment to choice/autonomy because we can cannot have a truly just society unless this is respected. Similarly, we believe that choice cannot be exercised without the resources that can only be accessed when society is just and fair and based on equality. Choice is not a fringe issue. The debate should not be focussed on ‘labels’ but what our movement does.

    I worry when I hear people argue that ‘choice’ is no longer relevant – or doesn’t meet the needs of certain people. Sure, different communities have different needs – but I think none of us want a society where women are ‘done to’ – even if what is done to them complies with someone’s vision of what is ‘just’ or ‘healthy’.

    Bpas and CFC thought the Declaration below expressed what we believe.

    Marlene, Loretta, Rickie, Toni and Jessica – I’m really interested to learn what it is in this Declaration with which you disagree ….


    We believe in a woman’s autonomy and her right to choose whether to continue or end a pregnancy. Every woman should have the right to decide the future of her pregnancy according to her conscience, whatever her reasons or circumstances. A just society does not compel women to continue an undesired pregnancy.

    We recognise that support for choice in itself is not enough. Access to abortion is an integral part of women’s reproductive healthcare, and we believe in the right to receive this. Women need access to resources and services, including the counsel of the professionals, friends and family they choose to involve. Legal, political, social and economic changes are necessary to allow the exercise of reproductive choice, and a commitment to such changes is part of a commitment to choice.

    We express solidarity with those who provide abortion care, and we recognise the moral value of their work. We recognise and respect that some healthcare personnel may choose not to provide abortions, but we believe it is ethically imperative for them to ensure that a woman receives a referral to a willing provider.

    We believe there is a profound moral case for freedom of reproductive choice. We are committed to explaining why abortions are necessary and why women are competent to make decisions and act on them responsibly.

    To be pro-choice is to be committed to the right of women to make their own reproductive decisions and to:

    – Strive to create the conditions in which reproductive choice may be exercised.
    – Support reproductive autonomy.
    – Advocate for legal frameworks that allow autonomous decision-making.
    – Educate the public and policymakers globally about the value of reproductive autonomy.

    Women are the only ones who can make the right decision for themselves. This is the very essence of what it means to be pro-choice.

    Chandos House, London. September 2012

    Ann Furedi
    chief executive
    British Pregnancy Advisory Service UK (bpas)

    • http://www.facebook.com/sarah.eilerson Sarah Eilerson

      Ann, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you about some of the vagaries of the word “choice.” Unfortunately, what I keep hearing over and over again from anti-choicers is that they are now pretty uniformly asserting that choice=abortion. If you’re pro-choice; then you’re pro-abortion.

      They willfully ignore the fact that you’re also for adoption and keeping the child, as long as those choices are made by the woman with her best interests at the fore. More and more antis are jumping on the “no exceptions” bandwagon. Simply proposing that women have access to ALL choices, and supporting a woman no matter the choice, isn’t going to fly with an increasingly militant and combative faction.

      I don’t know why “choice” isn’t still the gold standard term for what we’re about, either. Practically speaking, that all it is, and it’s good enough for me.

    • Marlene G. Fried

      Women of color developed the Reproductive Justice framework because it provides the space to bring their lived experiences, enables them to assume leadership, and allows for organizing and mobilizing in their communities. We see that this approach resonates in other communities as well. At its core, reproductive justice does not undermine reproductive choice. Instead, grounding choice in human rights and justice highlights the social conditions required for all women to have reproductive autonomy and expands our understanding of what is entailed. Reproductive autonomy is not just the right not to have children. It also encompasses the right to decide to have and parent children. The London Declaration is strong in its affirmation of autonomy, but its focus remains on abortion, which is only part of the reproductive justice agenda.

      We are eager to engage in dialogue about how best to achieve reproductive justice. At the same time, we are frustrated by being asked to defend why we took this approach. We have tried to be clear and transparent about the historical roots of reproductive justice organizing and its future potential for the entire movement. It is our hope that others will join this conversation and offer their perspectives.

      -Marlene Gerber Fried, Toni Bond-Leonard, Jessica Danforth, Rickie Solinger