Reproductive Rights or Reproductive Justice?

There is a really interesting post up at Feministe by guest-blogger La Lubu about some of the modern problems with feminism and why many do not identify with the movement. It’s a good post, albeit one that I have conflicted feelings on. I agree 100% with La Lubu’s points about racism, classism and erased histories. She is absolutely right. With reference to motherhood, I’m not as sure. I see mother’s issues addressed quite regularly in feminist circles, but I will admit that it’s not as frequent as many of our other discussions. As for the “gatekeeping of female sexuality,” I’m not quite sure what she means. Most feminists I know are incredibly sex-positive, while still being strongly against sexual violence and exploitation. I see feminists actually complaining about this kind of gatekeeing on a very regular basis, so I’d need more expansion on that point to see where La Lubu is coming from. As for feminism’s secular nature, I see that as a feature, not a flaw.

The point I’m most interested in, though, and which doesn’t seem to (at the time of writing) be getting a lot of discussion on the thread, is this one:

the primacy of a narrow definition of reproductive “choice” as meaning “the ability to choose to have an abortion,” rather than the more comprehensive phrase reproductive justice, that encompasses all facets of reproductive choice and parenting.

For those of you who don’t know, the definition of reproductive justice “is the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic, and social well-being of women and girls, and will be achieved when women and girls have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality and reproduction for ourselves, our families and our communities in all areas of our lives.”

Reproductive justice is an amazing concept. But the question that I would like to discuss is how truly different it is from the concept of reproductive rights and from the concept of “choice.”

Firstly, I do think that La Lubu is wrong in suggesting that reproductive choice is entirely about the choice to have an abortion. For me, it is not. For all reproductive rights activists I’ve personally encountered, it is not. Reproductive choice is also about the choice to give birth and raise a child. It is about the choice to have or not have children, the choice to have them when they are wanted, the choice to use birth control. I think that the media certainly dos seize upon the concept of “pro-choice” as “pro-abortion” and as being mainly concerned with abortion. But that doesn’t make it true.

That being said, I don’t pretend that there is no problem with the framework of “choice.” There is. The concept of female choice has been co-opted to sell every harmful product and idea in existence. People misunderstand that choice is about rights and not selfishness. More problematic, though, is that many women do not actually have choice. When reproductive rights activists talk about “maintaining the right to choose,” it is a lie. And I certainly see why women of color and low-income women resent it. The only people who can maintain the right choose are middle-class, mostly white women. For everyone else, we’re still struggling to achieve it.

Choice is about more than just legal abortion. It is about access to services, which slews of women do not have due to geography or finances. It’s also about having that choice be meaningful. A women who “chooses” to have an abortion because she is on welfare, already has children and the government has capped her already pathetic benefits is not really making a choice. It’s a means of survival. Given different financial circumstances, she may very well choose to have an abortion, anyway. And she may not. The point is that there is no way of knowing and calling it a “choice” is both unsatisfying and insulting.

But despite the problems with “choice,” is it a term worth doing away with? I am in fact personally fond of the term, but would be willing to give it up for a more accurate but still powerful alternative. What would it be, though? Pro-reproductive justice may be a more encompassing term, but it would never catch on in public discourse. I also think that the re-branding of any movement is also a risk, one that requires huge amounts of effort, and quite frankly seems to be more suited to conservatives than to liberals. Do we want to risk losing our instant recognition, such a clear and well-known identifier? I think that we should think long and hard before we do. I also think that “choice” has the potential to be a fine word as long as we are indeed fighting for true choice. That means being clear about what choice means, and that without things like economic justice and publicly funded abortions, it can not be a reality.

A very similar problem comes up with reproductive rights vs. reproductive justice. For me, personally, they are one in the same. Though abortion is clearly my pet issue, I also write regularly about contraception, the right to have children, the right to not have an abortion, and the economic realities that cause women to undergo unwanted abortions. These things are, in fact, all clearly about justice. And yet, to me, they are also about the right to self-determination. I don’t feel that the concepts of justice and human rights are really all that different.

Many seem to choose the term reproductive justice because of the negative history of reproductive rights. It is, indeed, pretty bad. Historically speaking, it has been about abortion. And it has also been about white women. Early reproductive rights activists pushed aside the concerns of women of color and in fact occasionally made their situation even worse, like the case in which they opposed mandatory waiting periods on sterilization procedures. I in no way want to minimize that impact. But I do think that things have changed significantly, and reproductive rights activists are far more likely to take the concerns of all women into account.

It seems to come down to a matter of focus. Reproductive rights people care about a whole range of reproductive health issues, but mainly focus on abortion. Reproductive justice people care about abortion, but do not see it as the most pressing matter facing women’s reproductive health.

So what do we do? I’m uncomfortable with dividing into groups and seeing how it goes. That would not only serve to exasperate current problems between white and woc feminists. It also wouldn’t do us a whole lot of good. Running two different movements would not only make us look politically fragmented (moderate concern), but would also make things a hell of a lot more difficult to get done (major concern).

As outlined above, I do think that educated and serious reproductive rights activists (not your average run of the mill person who identifies as pro-choice when asked) are on the same page as reproductive justice activists. Certainly, conversations and debate are not over. I don’t know that they ever will be, and I think that conversations and debates within a movement are a good thing.

But it does leave a question: where do we go with branding? What is most time-effective, politically-effective and harmonizing among women? Do we start calling ourselves reproductive justice activists and spend a hell of a lot of time explaining what that means? Or do we try to more-publicly alter the framework of reproductive rights?

Those questions make it seem like I’m favoring the latter. And maybe I am. But I also see the benefits of each option. Calling ourselves reproductive justice activists will allow somewhat of a fresh start and demonstrate solidarity. But calling ourselves reproductive rights activists allows us to retain a mainstream presence while still fighting for reproductive justice issues. [As a side question, what do you think resonates more with the American public? “Justice” or “rights?”] And yet, back to the other side, I don’t want to dismiss the concerns of women of color and low-income women (for the one millionth time). The symbolism behind choosing the reproductive justice label may in fact be worth the complications it would cause.

Though I still currently use the term “reproductive rights,” I haven’t made up my mind. I think that this is a discussion that we need to have many, many times. I think La Lubu for opening it up.  And I’m interested in hearing voices from all sides.

0 thoughts on “Reproductive Rights or Reproductive Justice?

  1. Kate

    ” where do we go with branding? What is most time-effective, politically-effective and harmonizing among women? Do we start calling ourselves reproductive justice activists and spend a hell of a lot of time explaining what that means?”

    You know, I’m not so sure that spending a hell of a lot of time explaining would be a bad thing. Like you said, “reproductive rights” seems to have a largely negative connotation to it. Perhaps within the feminist community, perceptions of what it stands for and encompasses has changed, but I’m not convinced that the public at large has caught on. (The general American public tends to be very stuck in it’s ways.) Considering that it is the public whose minds we have to change, I am thinking that it might be a good way to get a message out to the mainstream. The opportunity to explain our views to people who normally wouldn’t listen because they think they already know, could be a great opportunity for the cause. If people start asking questions, they might just start listening to the answers.
    Great discussion point to bring up!

  2. Jay

    I think “justice” has a stronger ring to it, and I think “rights” has gotten bad press in much the same way “liberal” has. The right-wing takeover of language…aargh.

    We’ve focused on abortion because the antis have focused on abortion; we’ve been fighting with our backs against the wall. Full support for having and raising children means opening up a wide range of programs – and that seems as if it would be harder to sell to the general American public. Especially in a looking-glass political world where “pro-family” politicians vote against sCHIP.

    I prefer the term “reproductive justice” and I agree with Kate that having to explain it could be a good thing. But I’m not hopeful that we’ll get there.

  3. Cara Post author

    I also think that Kate’s suggestion, in theory, is an excellent one. The problem is that I’m not sure it would work in practice. Thinking about how little our issues get covered by the media from any perspective other than anti-choice, I doubt that we would be given time because of a name change. Without being given big-time attention, I’m concerned that we might just end up confusing people more than we change their minds.

    But then again, maybe I’m underestimating the media and the American public. All I know is that when I give them any sort of credit, I’m usually let down.

  4. secondhandsally

    Last year one of the members of sister song ( came to speak in my community. She explained that when they were asked to help with the March for Women’s Lives (which up until that point had been called the March for Choice) one of the requests they made before committing was the name change (because of the distinctions between “choice” and “reproductive justice”). I remember when I heard about the name change, I was so disappointed, because I felt like it dilute what the march was about (to me), abortion rights.

    The march, her speech, and subsequent research did a lot to open my eyes to the wide range of issues associated with reproductive justice.

    In a way, it’s a shame because the word “choice” really could encompass all these issues, but I think in many people’s minds it is just about abortion.

    Anyway, if you haven’t already, check out sister song!

  5. Cara Post author

    Was it Loretta Ross? I have also seen her speak, and she told that same story. Loretta Ross is an amazing woman and amazing speaker. I already believed in the framework of reproductive justice before ever hearing her speak. When I was listening to her talk, it was also the first time that I heard the term. Again, I already agreed with the principles, but the fact that I so greatly respect Ross’ opinion is quite honestly a big part of the reason that I take the different phrase seriously.


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