A Quick Guide on the Human Rights of Women

A medical clinician interviews a patient at a Planned Parenthood location in Boston.

Endnotes and citations are available in the PDF and Scribd versions.

The terms reproductive health, reproductive rights, and reproductive justice are often used as interchangeable phrases to talk about either contraception or abortion. But these terms are in fact three very different concepts. Reproductive health refers to preventive care, family planning, and disease management, while reproductive rights include the legal protections and public supports that allow women to control their fertility, give birth as they choose, and protect their health so that they can fully participate in society. Reproductive justice, a 20-year old term, refers to the structural and social issues that effect women’s ability to fully benefit from the law or health services and that allow her to be the person, mother, caregiver, and breadwinner she wants to be. This fact sheet provides an overview of each term.

Reproductive health

Access to affordable, comprehensive, and appropriate health care and health insurance that allows access to the full range of legal medical services is essential to maintaining women’s reproductive health. Crucial medical services include:

  • Breast and cervical cancer screening
  • HIV and STI tests
  • Pregnancy tests
  • Birth control
  • Abortion services
  • Infertility specialties
  • Mental health services
  • Maternity care
  • Addiction counseling
  • Culturally competent services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or LGBT, people and women of color

Key facts

  • 73 percent of women ages 18 and older have had a pap test in the past three years.
  • It costs $16 billion dollars per year to diagnose and treat STIs.
  • 99 percent of women use contraception in their lifetime.
  • 61 percent of abortions are had by women with children.

Reproductive rights

Laws and legal precedents that support women’s self-determined decision making about their health. These include:

  • Funding of the health coverage gap
  • Roe v. Wade
  • Buffer-zone laws that allow clinics to protect women who choose abortion services
  • Violence Against Women Act
  • Affordable Care Act
  • 19th Amendment
  • Medicaid expansion
  • Colorado’s HB 13–1081 Comprehensive Human Sexuality Education
  • Connecticut’s General Statute 31-57r–31-57w on Paid Sick Leave

Key facts

  • 22 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in schools.
  • 20 million women currently need publicly funded family planning services.
  • Only 11 percent of workers have paid leave to care for newborn, newly adopted child.

Reproductive justice

This movement focuses on the social and political realities that affect women’s ability to use their legal rights to have or not have a child; maintain their health; parent as they see fit; and fully benefit from their labor in the workforce. These realities include:

  • Safe homes and neighborhoods
  • Healthy relationships
  • Affordable child care
  • Parenting with dignity
  • Freedom from violence
  • Cultural inclusion
  • Freedom of gender expression
  • Food security
  • Racial justice
  • Economic security
  • Voting rights

Key facts

  • Intimate partner violence costs the United States more than $5.8 billion a year for direct medical care and productivity loss.
  • Unintended pregnancy rates are two times higher among women reporting partner violence.
  • The rate of unintended pregnancy among poor women increased by 56 percent from 1994 to 2008.
  • 39 percent of women who are heads of households live in poverty.
  • African American infants are twice as likely to have low birth weights as white infants

Heidi Williamson is the Senior Policy Analyst for the Women’s Health and Rights Program at American Progress.