Women of color are playing a critical role in creating a broad-based and inclusive reproductive justice movement in the United States. They have a long history of activism in the struggle for reproductive health and rights, although their participation has been largely unacknowledged, undocumented, and unknown, even to those who are involved in advocating for those rights. Retrieving their history shows that although women of color have borne the burdens of reproductive oppression, they have not been passive victims. They have consistently resisted efforts to control their fertility. Beginning in the 1980s, they created organizations and coalitions specifically to advance their sexual and reproductive freedom. This organizing offers an approach which is especially important today, when pro-choice advocates are re-thinking strategies and messages, and some supporters seem to be in retrenchment mode. In contrast, women of color are drawing broad support by reframing reproductive freedom expansively and integrating the race, class, gender and cultural aspects of their lives.
In their own organizations, women of color have been able to challenge racist and sexist stereotypes that work to undermine their self-esteem, impede their activism, and justify policies circumscribing their reproduction. Depicting women of color as sexually promiscuous, irresponsible, hyper-fertile, and welfare cheats serves as the rationale for discriminatory health policies, denial of benefits, and restrictive immigration laws. But women of color are transcending these myths, developing leadership, and crafting political agendas to address the pressing reproductive health concerns of their communities.
The concept of reproductive justice emphasizes the link between the individual and his or her community. Communities of color contend with disproportionate rates of poverty, lack of access to health care information, services, and insurance coverage, and limited contraceptive services. High incidences of violence, compounded by institutional racism, make women of color particularly vulnerable to poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes. For example, from 1999 – 2002, African American women accounted for 61 percent of all reported AIDS cases among women and constituted 71.8 percent of new HIV cases in women. Health professionals estimate that the prevalence of reproductive tract infections may be as high as 65 percent among Native American women. Latinas experience disproportionately high rates of cervical cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, obesity, diabetes, and violence compared to other women. Although Asian American and Pacific Islander women have the lowest rates of breast and cervical cancer screening among any racial and ethnic group in the U.S., they are the only group to have exhibited an overall increase in cancer mortality rates from 1990-2005. Thirty-six percent of Asian Pacific Islander women under age 65 have no health insurance.
These sexual and reproductive health problems stem from the overarching socioeconomic inequalities and racism that shape the lives of women of color and their communities. Consequently, a central concern to women of color in reproductive justice organizations is to address the "enabling conditions" necessary to exercise reproductive rights. Women of color insist that reproductive freedom must include: the right to affordable health care; freedom from sexual violence and abuse; access to age, culture and gender appropriate information and education for all family members regarding sexuality and reproduction; and participation in the development and implementation of reproductive health policies. They also emphasize the importance of making informed decisions about contraceptives and reproductive technologies free from discrimination and coercion.
The specific histories of reproductive oppression and resistance shape their definitions and plans for action as well. For example, Native Americans have "soul wounds" from the historical trauma of having their children forcibly taken away from them to be brought up in white boarding schools and foster homes. This experience colors the way in which they frame their reproductive rights and health agenda. The right to keep their children and to impart Native culture to them is crucial for sustaining Native communities. While the histories vary, all women of color have faced consistent efforts to devalue their motherhood and prevent them from reproducing. Thus the right to have children and to be mothers stands at the center of the reproductive justice agenda.
The activism of women of color responds to both historical legacies of oppression and current inequities in sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Their holistic definitions of sexual and reproductive health include but go far beyond the traditional pro-choice focus on the rights to abortion and contraception. The virtual explosion of locally based organizations led and run by women of color with fresh ideas and a connection to vulnerable women and communities has the vitality to rejuvenate the meanings and practice of reproductive rights.
Jael Silliman has been an activist in the U.S. and international women's health and reproductive rights movements. She was an associate professor of women's studies at the University of Iowa, and is now program officer for reproductive rights in the Human Rights unit at the Ford Foundation.
Marlene Gerber Fried is the director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College, where she is also professor of philosophy. She is a longtime activist in the reproductive rights movement and is on the board and was the founding president of the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF).