For as long as I’ve been politically aware, I have considered myself staunchly pro-choice. From a young age, I knew that I didn’t want to have children or start a family, and now in my mid-twenties, that attitude hasn’t wavered. More than that, the idea of having to carry a pregnancy—especially one I didn’t want—to term terrified me. So before I had been exposed to the concepts of feminism and human rights, there was no doubt in my mind that I supported a person’s right to have an abortion.
With that said, over the past several years I’ve found myself disillusioned with the dominant conversation around reproductive rights. I don’t mind the emphasis on abortion and contraception access—these things are fundamental to reproductive rights, after all—but they are so often discussed in ways that center the concerns of women who are cis, white, able-bodied, and middle class above everyone else. Not only that, but the pro-choice movement has used language that actively excludes people in marginalized communities. For example, the tendency to frame reproductive rights as “women’s issues” erases the experiences of transgender men and gender nonconforming people, who already face barriers in accessing gender-affirming health care. Likewise, defenses of abortion that rely on “fetal abnormalities” or disabilities as justification are ableist and reinforce the harmful lie that people with disabilities cannot have meaningful lives.
After learning about the reproductive justice framework developed by black women in SisterSong, a women of color-led collective, I realized just how much was missing from the mainstream pro-choice movement. By focusing on defending abortion’s legal status, the pro-choice movement overlooks the people in marginalized communities who still cannot access abortions due to considerations of cost, transportation, child care, and more. Even further, by focusing the movement on the right to not have children, the pro-choice movement disregards the history of reproductive oppression that has denied so many people from marginalized communities the right to have children and to raise their children in the first place.
The U.S., for example, has a long history of forcibly sterilizing people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, and incarcerated people as part of the eugenics movement. In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of compulsory sterilization for people with mental disabilities—a decision which has never been overturned. Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. government targeted black communities, indigenous communities, and Latinx communities for forced sterilization. The practice continues today, particularly among the incarcerated population. As recently as between 2006 and 2010, California prisons performed nearly 150 sterilizations, many without proper state approval and some without consent. This form of reproductive oppression remains a problem around the world and targets those who are most marginalized, whether it’s the forced sterilization of Romani people in Central Europe or the imposition of sterilization as a prerequisite for transgender people seeking to legally change their name and sex in numerous countries throughout Europe.
With the mainstream reproductive rights debate so focused on abortion and contraception, where is the space for those who have historically been denied their reproductive agency? Where is the space for the people on public assistance who have been repeatedly told—through policies incentivizing sterilization or contraception—that they are unfit to be parents? Where is the space for the numerous incarcerated people who have been told to give up their fertility in exchange for shorter sentences? And lastly, where is the space for the people who do want to have children, but face social and economic barriers that obstruct their desire for parenthood?
The pro-choice movement centers the right to choose almost exclusively around the right to have an abortion. While important, this framing of choice obscures the many factors that go through a person’s mind when making the decision to keep or terminate a pregnancy. Aside from whether or not the person actually wants to have a child, they must also consider financial constraints, availability of family leave, health care, quality of schools, and so many other factors that can affect their ability to parent that child. For people living in difficult circumstances, pro-choice framing tends to portray abortion as the desired option, taking for granted that some people who get abortions under these circumstances may have actually chosen otherwise, had they only received the social and economic support they needed. In such cases, abortion is really more of a last resort. It’s important for everyone to be able to make decisions about their own bodies, yes. But it is equally vital to acknowledge that the shortsighted emphasis on abortion rights fails to address a cruel reality—that many poor people do in fact want to have children, but do not have the means to fulfill that wish.
The reproductive justice framework calls into question whether abortion—under such hostile social and economic circumstances—can even be considered a choice at all. In the U.S., where working class folks still don’t make a living wage, health care costs are prohibitively high, and school shootings are a common occurrence, what does choice actually mean? Yes, there are people like me who may never want children, regardless of their means to have them. But just the same, there are many people who do want children, and we need to talk about what reproductive agency means for them in a society where many people in marginalized communities face tremendous obstacles to parenthood. Are we comfortable saying that abortion is the right “choice” for poor people and leaving it at that? Do poor people not have the right to seek parenthood and start families as well? These are the questions reproductive justice tries to answer.
When we make the choice of abortion the ultimate focus of the movement, we do a disservice to the myriad other issues that impede on people’s reproductive agency.
The disproportionate infant mortality rate among black Americans is a reproductive justice issue, one that speaks not only to the state of health care in the U.S. but also the resounding physiological impact of racism. Moreover, mass incarceration and immigration detention, which disproportionately affect poor people of color, are reproductive justice issues. To this day, people are shackled during childbirth in U.S. prisons, pregnant immigrants in detention routinely report being denied medical care, and incarcerated people are often denied their right to have an abortion. Police brutality in black and brown communities is a reproductive justice issue, creating unsafe environments for families and taking away the childhood of youth who learn at absurdly young ages the discrimination their communities face.
In light of all these obstacles, abortion is an important option to have, to be sure. But the conversation cannot and should not end there. The right to have a child is a fundamental reproductive right as well. Yet, within the confines of our pro-choice framing, we treat the right to have a child as the privilege of a select few—white, cis, able-bodied middle class women—and prescribe abortion as the “best solution” for everyone else. Reproductive justice activists tell us that this doesn’t have to be the case.
With a more inclusive vision, we can fight for a world where everyone’s reproductive agency is valued equally.
It’s long past time to follow the lead of women of color and acknowledge that, alongside the right to not have a child, reproductive justice also means the right to have a child and the right to parent that child in safe, supportive environments.