Anti-abortion and pro-choice demonstrators argue in front of the Supreme Court during the March for Life on January 24, 2011, in Washington, D.C. The annual march marks the anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In Search of ‘Reproductive Justice’

Outraged and energized by aggressive anti-abortion legislation in 2011, feminist activists look to re-frame the debate.

BY Sady Doyle

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After several decades of theory and practice, it should be obvious that any movement that invokes a universal "woman"—without race, without class, without history—will fail to obtain.

In the spring of 2011, pro-choice activism seemed to be undergoing a renaissance. The right to abort a pregnancy, secured by Roe v. Wade in 1973 is one of the most definitive victories of the feminist movement–and remains one of the most vehemently contested. Still, the right has long felt relatively well-defended by large organizations, like NARAL and Planned Parenthood, which made it seem there was no reason for novice activists to join the fray.

HR 3 and HR 358–the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” and the “Protect Life Act,” respectively–changed that, sparking off a wave of resistance that seemed poised to define a large part of what it meant to be feminist in 2011. Yet as the year draws to a close, it’s easy to feel disappointed.

The resistance began in response to several immediate threats. HR 3 aimed to restrict federal funding for abortion (which is already banned under the Hyde Amendment), and specifically penalize insurance plans that covered abortion. HR 358 would make it possible for doctors to kill their patients, rather than provide life-saving abortions. The extreme nature of these bills – HR 358’s legalization of murder by neglect, HR 3’s attempts to crack down on rape and incest exemptions by forbidding coverage for all but “forcible” rapes–was frightening. The legislation underlined precisely how fragile established gains like Roe v. Wade were.

Grassroots initiatives (including one that I helped to spearhead, the #DearJohn hashtag) sprang up. Feminists began to speak of a “War on Women.” Petitions were created; rallies were held. The power of the moment felt inspiring.

But HR 3 passed the House this spring. HR 358 passed the House on October 13. The Senate has had to vote down an initiative to defund Planned Parenthood. And a multitude of radical state-level initiatives–Ohio’s bill forbidding abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, Oklahoma’s forced ultrasounds, the “fetal personhood” movement currently gaining steam in Mississippi–have been introduced, and sometimes made law.

It would be easy to view this as defeat. I did, initially. But, as I learned from speaking to advocates, the truth is far more complicated. If the resistance seems less visible, that may just be the result of looking at it through the wrong frame.

“There’s an interesting thing that is happening around resistance that’s more complicated than just visibility,” Eesha Pandit says.

Pandit–with whom I worked, during #DearJohn–stresses that the resistance to all this legislation is ongoing, and that much hard work has gone into it. But she also spoke of re-framing the very nature of the debate.

“What we’re seeing as a potential pivot point for us,” she said, “is a real chance to step back and put all of it on the table, in terms of reproductive justice, not just abortion.”

“Reproductive justice” was also the preferred frame of advocate Andrea Plaid. In an e-mail, she delineated the difference between this and the more familiar terminology of “reproductive rights”: Reproductive rights, Plaid wrote, meant “seeing abortion as a ‘choice,’” whereas reproductive justice meant “seeing abortion as part of a larger framework of access to reproductive-health options and decisions–including having children–and how issues like racism and class impact access and decisions.”

This is directly relevant to issues such as the attempted de-funding of Planned Parenthood. Although conservatives framed their attack on that organization as a matter of opposing “abortion,” in fact they were working to prevent people–especially low-income people–from accessing a wide variety of medical care, including cancer screenings, birth control, and prenatal care. Similarly, although HR 3’s attacks on insurance providers stand to be far-reaching, it also forcefully and unapologetically strips coverage from the poor.

After several decades of theory and practice, it should be obvious that any movement that invokes a universal “woman”–without race, without class, without history–will fail to obtain. Reproductive justice takes the conversation about abortion onto more complicated, more accurate ground. The very terminology of a “War on Women” ignores the fact that trans men and non-binary people may also find themselves in need of abortion.

Advocates have pointed to the history of forced sterilization and eugenics, which still continue in regard to the disabled, noting that forcibly controlling a person’s lack of reproduction can be just as emphatic a violation as forcibly compelling someone to reproduce. And, in a country where poverty is both racialized and feminized, it’s worth noting that women of color and poor women are continually demonized for having children, even as conservatives push to control and limit their options for family planning.

“I’ve sensed that [‘choice’] sometimes appears to be another manifestation of White Female Privilege,” Plaid wrote. “Quite a bit of the rhetoric and activism centers around the bodily integrity and ‘choices’ of white able-bodied middle-class cisgender women.”

Meanwhile, Plaid said, “If one takes on a reproductive justice rhetoric and activism (and all the intersections of race, class, body, gender, childbearing, sexual health, and so on), one may be celebrated, but a person may also get told that ze is ‘muddying the waters.’” (“Ze” is a gender-neutral pronoun.)

But it is precisely in finding intersections between reproductive health and other movements where the resistance seems to be most vital. Plaid spoke of removing racist anti-abortion billboards–reading “the most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb”–from neighborhoods of color. In our phone conversation, Pandit (like nearly every other activist I’ve spoken to this month) mentioned media coverage of Occupy Wall Street, and how that might lead to other initiatives becoming less visible. But she also spoke of how intimately reproductive justice was tied to Occupy.

“What’s going to be transformative,” she said, “is to say ‘what are we really talking about?’ We’re talking about access to healthcare, and we’re talking about access for low-income people, and some of our most marginalized populations.” Those populations are firmly within the 99 percent, and any movement accountable to them is accountable to their reproductive health: “The fight for public funding for abortion coverage is a fight about economic justice,” Pandit told me.

This is not language about a “War on Women,” and it’s not as simple as “choice.” It’s a fuller, more complete understanding of how state control of reproduction is tied to oppression–multiple oppressions, requiring multiple and nuanced forms of resistance and tied intimately to every other form of protest and resistance.

It’s a movement that speaks to lived realities rather than a universal woman, a movement that is for choice and bodily autonomy in the fullest sense of those terms. In this, it may not be exactly the renaissance we expect. But it is the renaissance we need, to deal with the complicated and urgent realities of our time.

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Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle.

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