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Reproductive Justice Beyond Biology

Loretta J. Ross on the need for a more comprehensive understanding of how public policies affecting a woman’s autonomy over her body have implications beyond just issues of birth control, abortion, and sterilization.

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A woman walks on a street in Baltimore, February 6, 2012. (AP/Patrick Semansky)
A woman walks on a street in Baltimore, February 6, 2012. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

Coined by African American women in 1994, the phrase “reproductive justice” aimed to challenge how inequality shapes peoples’ decisionmaking about childbearing and parenting. By making visible the web of apparently disparate policies that together form a totalizing system of containment, those of us who framed this phrase expanded the meaning of population control to recognize practices that—regardless of intent—limit reproductive options for women of color, indigenous people, immigrants, and other marginalized communities. Nonbiological public policies that have an economic impact, particularly on vulnerable women, are rarely explored in the over-simplified debates on abortion. In contrast, the reproductive justice framework highlights economic reproductive oppression.

As this framework has grown in popularity and use, analysts have used reproductive justice standards to offer strong policy proposals for integrating progressive values into public health policies. Heidi Williamson, Kate Bahn, and Jamila Taylor at the Center for American Progress, for example, do just that in their new 2017 report, “The Pillars of Equity: A Vision for Economic Security and Reproductive Justice.”

Reproductive justice is about three interconnected sets of human rights: 1) the right to have children; 2) the right not to have children; and 3) the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments, free from violence by individuals or the state. The intersectional framework includes sexual freedom and bodily autonomy. As it includes transmen, transwomen, and gender nonconforming individuals, reproductive justice does not insist that only biologically-defined women experience reproductive oppression.

Critics of population control have historically focused on how institutional forces such as racism, sexism, and poverty influence reproductive choices in society and exert control over communities of color. This focus acknowledges that reproductive politics in the United States are deeply racialized because race contours class, and disadvantaged people suffer the most from population control. Reproductive justice requires that all public policies be examined in the context of a larger analysis of systemic coercion and restraints.

The phrase population control is loaded with assumptions, stereotypes, and hidden values. Many people only associate population control with the eugenics movement of the 1920s-1950s, and sterilization abuses in the 1960s and 1970s. This movement and the abuses it inspired defined white elites as the only proper beneficiaries of society’s rewards. Modern white supremacists also support the eugenics movement for the same reasons.

As a reproductive justice advocate, I question that narrow view. Eugenicists in the past did not limit themselves to hereditarian biological processes. They addressed a wide range of subjects, including immigration and demographics, economics, environmentalism, state surveillance, land use policies, scientific racism, the mental health and criminal justice systems, foreign policy, and militarism. Similarly, when U.S. politicians used the term population control during the Cold War, they alluded to the fight against communism, dominion over natural resources, and expansion of the military. Proponents frankly recognized that controlling land, resources, and labor are keys to controlling the world.

To fully explore the potential of reproductive justice today, we must consider other factors that affect the economics of childbearing and parenting. These include freedom of movement, immigration restrictions, the prison-industrial complex, racial and gender binaries, racial profiling and police brutality, racist and sexist media portrayals, resource allocations through tax policies, welfare and public assistance, health care systems, housing availability, food insecurity, lack of educational opportunities, zoning regulations, internal displacement through natural disasters or eminent domain, voting rights, religious bigotry, credit and finance regulations, restrictions on civil liberties, and environmental racism. It is difficult to offer a sturdy analysis of the intersection between economics and reproductive justice without integrating both biological and nonbiological policies.

The federal government today encourages urban gentrification through land use policies, tax codes, and subsidized finance that serve as forms of reproductive oppression but are seldom seen that way. For example, the federal government subsidizes transportation costs for commuters into inner cities by providing benefits for those who need them least while public transportation services, such as bus routes, are eliminated for the poor people who depend on them for work, school, or health care access. Such policies move beyond biology to control communities in ways that re-rationalize eugenical thinking by advantaging the economically privileged.

Because those who oppose reproductive justice seldom use the overt measures of the past, such as sanctioned sterilization abuse, these human rights abuses are often absent from conversations about reproductive injustices. Before she decides to continue or terminate a pregnancy, a poor woman has to consider the availability of affordable housing, the prevalence of police violence, and access to a job with a livable wage. Such everyday factors influence peoples’ reproductive decisions.

Reproductive justice feminists refuse to reduce contemporary conversations about population control to sterilization abuse and eugenics. That’s like limiting the definition of racism only to gutter epithets by white supremacists. This reductionism relieves the rest of society from accountability for the harmful continuum of policies proffered by the Trump administration. For example, the zeal with which the Trump administration seeks to overturn the Affordable Care Act is consistent with its draconian immigrant kidnappings, an out-of-control prison industrial complex, and the establishment of authoritarian anti-environment and anti-education decrees that ignore the law and standards of common decency and democracy.

Society can only address this multilayered assault on the human rights of all people by bringing together many social justice movements. We, as activists in this struggle, must demonstrate to policymakers how reproductive politics affect our country’s economy and future.

Loretta J. Ross is co-founder and former national coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and is credited with co-creating and popularizing the term reproductive justice. She is a nationally recognized human rights activist and an expert on women’s issues, hate groups, racism and intolerance, and violence against women.

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Loretta J. Ross

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)