Feminist movements that focus exclusively on abortion rights primarily represent the perspective of white, privileged women. Reproductive justice goes further, combining reproductive rights with social justice.
The reproductive justice movement combines intersectionality theory with activism. The phrase was coined at a pro-choice conference in Chicago in 1994, when twelve Black women criticised the majority white mainstream feminist movement for ignoring marginalised perspectives in its political work on reproductive rights. They pointed out that within that hegemonic discourse there is room only for the binary frame of pro-choice versus pro-life and for a singular approach that focuses merely on decriminalisation versus criminalisation of abortion. There is little or no consideration of the multiple forms of reproductive oppression that primarily affect marginalised communities and communities of colour.
More than pro-choice
Central aspects of reproductive justice that get ignored in the pro-choice discourse include (global) anti-natalist population policies and eugenics practices intended to keep down birth rates in marginalised communities. Throughout history, such policies and practices have included sterilisation programmes targeting different groups – Jewish, Romani, Black, disabled and “asocial” people under National Socialism; indigenous communities in Peru in the 1990s; and trans people in Germany, for example, up until 2011. But birth control schemes have also played a central role. For instance, the long-acting contraceptive Norplant, launched on the US market in 1990, was utilised as a political tool to limit the birth rate in Black communities. Although Norplant was removed from the market in 2002 due to massive adverse side effects, since 2012 it has been marketed in the global South, under the name Jadelle, in order to fight “overpopulation” in those regions. In light of this, we see that feminist movements that focus exclusively on abortion rights primarily represent the perspective of white, privileged women only. And yet, those women often claim to speak for all women and for all feminised bodies, thus perpetuating the dynamic of racist oppression and contributing massively to invisibilising the lived experiences of marginalised communities.
Basic principles of reproductive justice
The concept of reproductive justice aims to avoid discriminative and invisibilising processes and instead to honour the many different experiences of reproductive oppression and incorporate them into political practice. Reproductive justice is based on three interconnected sets of human rights:
- The right to have a child under the conditions of one’s own choosing (including type of obstetric care)
- The right not to have a child and to secure access to safe birth control and abortion
- The right to parent children in an environment of one’s own choosing – free from institutional, structural and interpersonal violence and under positive social, healthcare and ecological conditions
Some theorists include a fourth basic principle – the right to sexual self-determination.
Reproductive justice as a human right
The basic principles and demands of reproductive justice are conceptually embedded within the UN’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Framework, which arose from the efforts of feminist movements in the global South who advocated for the recognition of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) as a human right at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. The framework allows for the assertion and enforcement of not only individual but collective rights, on the basis of various communities’ collective experiences of oppression. This approach is of great significance – among other things because it is clearly delineated from neoliberal, individualistic approaches that follow the logic that people are individually responsible for their own living situation and their own (reproductive) health, without taking into account the influence of unequal distribution of economic and other resources and of state control on the extent to which people are actually able to exercise reproductive self-determination.
Reproductive rights + social justice
Reproductive justice is a combination of reproductive rights and social justice. But the concept also criticises the exclusive focus on formal/individual rights, which does not address issues of accessibility and resources at the collective level. The right to abortion is important for all people who could become pregnant. But to ensure all those people can avail themselves of that right, adequate access and social conditions must be a part of the demands.
The intersectional perspective
A final central aspect of reproductive justice that must be mentioned here is its intersectional approach. It allows marginalised perspectives on sexuality, contraception, abortion, pregnancy, birth and caring for/living with children to be placed in the centre of the debate and permits a constructive approach to the range of lived experiences. In opposition to the concept of a “universalised woman”, which ignores marginalised roles, Loretta Ross, a leading advocate of reproductive justice, calls for “theory and activism based on shared – but not identical – stories of reproductive oppression” (2017: 288). Such a perspective allows commonalities to be found despite varying experiences and enables these to be translated into political practice, opening up opportunities for solidarity and alliance between the different movements.
Ross, Loretta J.: “Reproductive Justice as Intersectional Feminist Activism”. Souls; vol. 19, no.; 3 July–September 2017: pp. 286–314.