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Bending the Arc Toward Reproductive Justice

Pro-choice rally

SOURCE: AP/Rogelio V. Solis

As we pause to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade this week, let us remember that the path we share leads to justice for all.

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There has been much discussion recently regarding the usefulness of the two labels most commonly employed in the abortion debate: pro-choice and pro-life. In all of the back and forth, however, there has been little mention of a term that has become increasingly popular among a younger and more diverse generation of activists—reproductive justice—which merges social justice concerns with a traditional reproductive-rights agenda; emphasizes the right to be a parent, as well as the right not to be; and places those most marginalized in our society at the center of its analysis.

Polls have shown time and again that the pro-choice and pro-life labels do not resonate with most Americans. While a majority of Americans support legal abortion and agree with the ruling in the Supreme Court’s 40-year-old groundbreaking privacy-rights case Roe v. Wade—which recognized women’s constitutional right to abortion—many people do not identify with either label, and some others claim that both descriptors simultaneously apply to them.

As we argued when we released our report, “More than a Choice: A Progressive Vision for Reproductive Health and Rights,” in 2006, the term “choice” falls short in a number of ways—most importantly because many women do not truly have meaningful reproductive choices in our society. When a woman would rather have a child but chooses abortion because she feels she cannot afford to raise that child, is that really a choice? And when she is forced to bring a pregnancy to term against her better judgment because she has no access to an abortion provider or cannot afford an abortion, what then of her constitutional right to “choose?”

That is why we laid out a vision in our report for a holistic policy agenda that, if carried out, would result in truly meaningful reproductive choices for all Americans. A group of primarily young, grassroots, and women-of-color reproductive justice leaders helped us shape this vision, and we grounded it in basic constitutional and human-rights principles and in a broad range of progressive values: fairness, opportunity, individual liberty, and dignity.

Our report set forth four cornerstones, all of which are critical to a fully developed reproductive-rights agenda, as well as to a progressive agenda overall:

  • The ability to become a parent and to parent with dignity
  • The ability to determine whether or when to have children
  • The ability to have a healthy pregnancy
  • The ability to have healthy and safe families and relationships

This is an ambitious and sweeping agenda to be sure, yet striking progress has been made in all of these areas in the more than six years since our report was first issued. Under the Affordable Care Act, for example, maternity coverage will be guaranteed in qualified health plans starting in 2014—something that is obviously a critical component of having a healthy pregnancy and becoming a parent. In addition, the Affordable Care Act already requires no-cost coverage of preventive services, including contraception—an incredible step forward in ensuring that everyone has the tools needed to determine whether to become a parent and when.

Indeed, passage of health reform was one of the biggest policy items that we called for in the report. That one accomplishment alone brings us much closer to realizing each of the four cornerstones.

Other recent advances include state laws that guarantee paid sick days to workers, and campaigns and business initiatives to remove the chemical Bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA, from plastics in order to protect fertility and children’s health. Add to that the marriage equality laws that have passed in several states and the cultural shifts that enabled President Barack Obama to call for respect for gay, lesbian, and bisexual families and relationships in his second Inaugural Address earlier this week, and we have made significant progress toward a world of safer and healthier families and relationships.

This is not to overlook the serious setbacks that have also emerged in the past few years, including a terrible recession that has thrown even more families into poverty and further exacerbated economic disparities in our country—especially for women of color, who already suffer from stark economic and health disparities; new restrictions on abortion coverage in the private insurance market under the Affordable Care Act, as well as an unprecedented number of attacks on abortion at the state level, from 20-week bans to ultrasound bills; multiple challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage requirement; and increased rates of detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants, which literally tear families apart. Finally, let’s not forget Congress’s failure to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act simply because the bill sought to extend protections of the law to gay, Native American, and immigrant survivors of abuse.

President Obama could not have made the connections between social-justice movements—and the fates of all our rights—more clear than when, during his second inaugural speech, given on the day of observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, he said: “Through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” We would add the Roe decision to that list of milestones in what Rev. King called the “arc of the moral universe [that] bends toward justice.”

The fights for women’s rights, civil rights, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights, and reproductive rights are integrally related, and they are interwoven throughout the reproductive-justice movement. If we must reduce our cause to a label, then we should choose one that is truly inclusive. As we pause to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade this week, let us remember that the path we share leads to justice for all.

Jessica Arons is the Director and Shira Saperstein is a Senior Fellow with the Women’s Health and Rights program at the Center for American Progress.

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