A New Vision: Theoretical and Practical Views of Reproductive Justice
By Amy Allina
Reproductive justice (RJ) is described by the Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice as: “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social, and economic well-being of women and girls, based on the full achievement and protection of women’s human rights.” (For the complete publication, see A New Vision). This new vision was originally conceived of by women of color activists who sought an approach and language that allowed them to better integrate their commitment to social justice with their efforts to address reproductive oppression. As broader audiences become familiar with the RJ concept, it is drawing significant interest and is starting to influence work occurring at the national, state, and local levels. In November, 2006, advocates and activists discussed theoretical and practical approaches to achieving reproductive justice at a panel held during the American Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting, held in Boston, Massachusetts.
In the opening presentation, Loretta Ross of the SisterSong Collective spoke about women of color’s work to build a national movement for reproductive justice. Ross pointed out that the RJ vision counters the isolation of abortion advocacy from other social justice issues that are relevant to women’s lives and, in doing so, reconnects women’s health and bodies with the rest of their lives. She also noted that RJ’s human rights foundation offers a strong moral and political counterpart to the “culture of life” framework that is promoted by those who oppose women's rights. One of the key differences that Ross noted between RJ and a conventional reproductive rights approach is that, instead of focusing on the means: a divisive debate on abortion, the RJ analysis focuses on the ends: better lives for women, healthier families, and sustainable communities.
Maria Nakae of the Oakland-based Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice followed by laying out reproductive justice’s theoretical framework and explaining how RJ differs from a rights- or health-based approach in its analyses, strategies, and constituencies. Nakae discussed the movement-building nature of this social justice approach to women’s health. She also highlighted its value in responding to challenges posed by bans on abortion funding, implementation of parental involvement laws, cuts in Medicaid funding, rising health insurance costs, and regressive initiatives aimed at restricting civil rights and controlling women’s reproduction.
The potential for RJ to help women’s health and reproductive rights advocates build an understanding of—and develop solutions to—issues which have divided the two communities was the topic of a presentation by Cynthia Pearson, of the National Women’s Health Network (NWHN). Pearson described two issues in which conflict has emerged between these two groups: waiting periods for sterilization and the safety of long-acting hormonal contraceptives. Women’s health advocates who sought restrictions on long-acting contraceptive methods have been seen by some reproductive rights advocates as unwitting accomplices to anti-choice efforts to block access to products that improve women's ability to control fertility. Conversely, reproductive rights advocates who sought to preserve women’s unlimited access to these methods have been seen by some women's health activists as unwitting accomplices to a population control or a pharmaceutical industry agenda that promotes contraception without adequate safeguards for women's health. By recognizing the ways that reproductive concerns are intertwined with the economic, political, social and cultural realities of women's lives, Pearson pointed out that the RJ framework creates the possibility of bringing the perspectives of the two communities into greater accord.
Silvia Henriquez of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health(NLIRH) gave a presentation explaining how NLIRH’s applies the reproductive justice framework at a practical level in its advocacy work. Henriquez outlined the organization’s National Latina Agenda for Reproductive Justice, which addresses the broad range of reproductive health challenges facing Latinas today, and noted how RJ concepts informed its framing and prioritization. Contraceptive equity, abortion access, and immigration reform are among the issues addressed in this model. NLIRH is particularly interested in raising awareness of the connections between immigrant rights and reproductive rights, based on its perception that few national reproductive rights groups currently work actively to support the reproductive rights of immigrant women. NLIRH is using legislative as well as coalition building strategies to move this issue forward.
Finally, Rocio Cordobo of the Los Angeles-based organization, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CRLJ) presented the organization’s use of reproductive justice to advocate for state policies to support California's Latina/o community. Cordobo outlined CRLJ’s three policy policy goals: 1) To ensure that Latinas/os have access to comprehensive, accurate, and unbiased sexuality health and rights information and services that are culturally and linguistically appropriate to improve their quality of life and ensure healthy communities; 2) To ensure that Latina/o youth have access to comprehensive reproductive health information and services, as well as educational and social supports, enabling them to have healthy, productive and economically secure futures; and 3) To reframe reproductive and sexuality health and rights to reflect the health, cultural, social, economic, and environmental needs and priorities of Latina/o communities. These goals, Cordobo noted, not only promote reproductive justice but also create avenues for developing strategic alliances with a broad spectrum of women of color, reproductive health/rights, Latina/o, social justice, and youth advocates.
During the discussion that followed, Lourdes Rivera, formerly of the National Health Law Program (NHELP) noted that reproductive oppression is not solely a thing of the past, and that women in many different circumstances still experience restrictions on their ability to freely choose how and when to become parents
Amy Allina is the NWHN's program director.