From “Choice” to Justice

For years, pro-choice feminists equated the right to abortion with reproductive justice. But for scores of women, access to abortion is just one element of a multi-pronged battle. As socialists, we need to join with women of color in the fight for reproductive justice and move away from pro-choice single-issue organizing. The reproductive justice movement will help ground our work in the material conditions of women of color, women with disabilities, and working-class women whose needs are not reflected in the mainstream feminist agenda.

The United States has a long and unacknowledged history of harsh and authoritarian population-control policies in the form of forced sterilizations, unsafe contraceptives, welfare family caps, and racial disparities in healthcare. Black women at all economic levels have an infant mortality rate of three to four times that of white women and are more likely to face life-threatening complications during childbirth. They are also more likely to be uninsured and to receive late prenatal and no postnatal care when Medicaid does kick in. With these racial inequalities in mind, activists have worked to change the focus of the conversation from choice to justice.

Contemporary pro-choice rhetoric stems from Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal through a privacy-based claim to bodily autonomy. This rationale, which has been widely criticized by legal scholars, makes abortion a matter of individual choice in which the government cannot interfere, not even to provide federal funding. As a result, restrictions take the form of such legislation as the Hyde Amendment, which prevents the government from helping to make abortion accessible. Choice rhetoric also feeds into marketplace individualism, as only those with access (able-bodied, white, middle- to upper-class women) can choose among reproductive alternatives unavailable to poor and working-class women.

SisterSong, a collective of women of color organizing for reproductive justice, defines reproductive justice as three related values: the right to have or not have children, the right to choose the conditions under which one has children, and the right to raise children free from violence. This framing considers the impact of oppressions rooted in class, race, ability, sexuality, and citizenship status, all of which influence one’s reproductive freedom.

The reproductive justice movement represents a more expanded socialist vision for reproductive rights in line with our goal of removing all political and economic barriers to full participation in society. It makes common cause with movements to end police brutality, raise wages, expand public housing, and win Medicare for All. Leaders in this movement such as SisterSong and Forward Together have been defeating oppressive ballot measures, building a base in their communities, and publishing books and key research. Meanwhile, the pro-choice camp has engaged in narrow legal and electoral fights to keep Roe intact. Despite their efforts, there are fewer and fewer clinics, laws regulating abortion grow more burdensome, and anti-abortion protesters have become increasingly violent in their tactics.

During the last quarter of a century, grassroots groups have worked to include the goals of the reproductive justice movement in the traditional pro-choice movement. Large gaps remain. In a 2014 open letter to Planned Parenthood, SisterSong executive director Monica Simpson describes an electoral campaign to stop two conservative ballot initiatives in Mississippi. One initiative was to implement voter ID laws and the other would have established fetal personhood at the moment of conception. SisterSong fought to defeat both measures, recognizing that each of these bills violated the tenets of reproductive justice. Planned Parenthood focused its efforts on stopping the personhood bill only, because it violated Roe. Personhood was defeated, but the voter ID law passed. As Simpson says, this bill leaves “Mississippi more vulnerable to new ‘personhood,’ anti-abortion, and other discriminatory and counterproductive laws in the future.” The singular focus on abortion prevented Planned Parenthood from recognizing the voter ID law as an attack on black women.

In a post-Roe world, the notion of choice will become even less important. Reproductive justice activists understand the challenges we may soon face, as they have been working in states with highly restrictive abortion laws for years.

Activists have already established travel networks between states with restrictive abortion laws and those with more liberal statutes; coordinated efforts to lobby state legislators to provide funding for and access to all reproductive care; and disseminated information on sexual education, including facts on contraception and maternity care. These efforts have been part of a broad-based social justice platform that gives priority to healthcare access and alleviating poverty.

Embracing the reproductive justice framework will allow us to attract women estranged by the feminist movement but still interested in fighting for themselves and their families. To stand in solidarity with these women, we need to stop being merely pro-choice and instead make a commitment to full reproductive justice in our rhetoric, our strategies, and our tactics.

Ed. Note: As this article went to press, voters in Alabama and West Virginia approved “trigger” laws that would either make abortion more restrictive or make it illegal if Roe is overturned.