Your Guide to Reproductive Justice
Reproductive issues are all around us. For instance, there are frequent headlines about the future of access to a safe and legal abortion in the U.S. and ongoing battles about what we can learn (or not learn) in a sex education class.
But what exactly is Reproductive Justice (RJ)? SisterSong, a national organization founded in 1997 by women of color to advocate for racial and reproductive justice, defines it as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
In this article, I’ll explain more about the history of RJ and why it’s an important issue for young people to know about.
What Do We Mean by “Reproductive Justice”?
It’s easy to assume that RJ is just about the right to contraceptives and choice when it comes to abortion. Granted, these rights are a key part of RJ, but there is more to consider. “The most important thing that young people should recognize is that knowing about and advocating for reproductive justice is something that begins early, long before a person makes decisions about pregnancy, or even being sexually active,” says Tracie Gilbert, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Human Sexuality at Widener University’s Center for Human Sexuality Studies. I spoke to Dr. Gilbert at length about the importance of RJ.
At its core, RJ advocates for a person’s right to make decisions about their bodies in a safe and healthy environment. It’s less about what the decision is—whether it be giving birth safely, choosing to have an abortion or feeling heard and respected by medical authorities—and more about making sure everyone has opportunities, resources and autonomy. Don’t we all deserve that?
At its core, RJ advocates for a person’s right to make decisions about their bodies in a safe and healthy environment.
Unfortunately, the need for reproductive justice is nothing new. Marginalized groups have been disproportionately affected by reproductive injustice for centuries. There was injustice when J. Marion Sims, nicknamed the “father of modern gynecology,” performed nonconsensual surgical procedures on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. There was injustice when African-American, Indigenous, Latinx and disabled women were forcibly sterilized without their consent and often their knowledge; these procedures have occurred for many years and even potentially in the present as immigration detention centers have been accused of the practice.
The need for reproductive justice is presently found in a range of places, from prisons which often lack access to menstrual hygiene products to hospitals where African-American, Native American and Alaska Native women in the U.S. are two to three times more likely to die from causes related to pregnancy than white women. “Maternal health is one of the first things that comes to mind” says Dr. Gilbert when asked about important aspects of RJ, “particularly the experiences of Black women and girls who interface with medical facilities that don’t always have their best interests at heart.”
Paying Attention to the RJ Conversation
It’s important to learn and raise awareness about RJ, regardless of whether you feel personally affected. But you might be surprised to learn you may be impacted by RJ without even realizing it! “Being able to get accurate information about your body and how it works, as well as getting the right information about sex and sexual health services if and/or when something goes wrong, are all reproductive justice issues,” says Dr. Gilbert. “So when teens are paying attention to the RJ conversation as it happens they are learning about the matters and topics that will directly impact their lives.”
By learning about the long history of reproductive injustice, we can recognize that racial disparities in maternal health, access to menstrual hygiene and a general distrust of healthcare aren’t random—they’re systemic issues that need to be fixed. We have the power to help reconstruct a system that takes into account how race—as well as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability and socioeconomic background—plays a role in reproductive health.
How You Can Support the Movement
Although frightening headlines can make the hope for RJ seem grim, remember that there is a strong coalition of people who are making progress towards achieving it. And you can, too!
Dr. Gilbert has some ideas about how RJ can be taught: “Discussing reproductive justice as a movement and ideology is a good place to start. From there, I’d like to see educators discuss how it intersects with other sexual health topics, like contraceptives, abortion, interpersonal violence, disability, etc.” Dr. Gilbert invites young people to “extend the conversation outside of the classroom, using their voice and platform to let others know about the movement, how they can get involved and even share new ideas they may generate from their studying and learning.”
You can learn more by paying attention to the news, including what is happening in Congress and the Supreme Court. If you are 18, make sure to register to vote for politicians who support the issues that matter to you. You can email legislators and research RJ issues in your area. Join or organize a march that supports RJ-related legislation—make your case loud and clear! Marches are also a positive way to gather a community that’s passionate about a cause.
Let’s not forget that we now have the ability to share ideas in a very powerful way. “Young people can learn about reproductive justice right on their phones via Google and YouTube,” suggests Dr. Gilbert. “Following the #reproductivejustice hashtag on any social media app can likely connect them to the thought leaders who are talking about this topic.” Amplifying those voices through re-shares and posts is an effective way to continue the conversation.
Be Still, Listen and Think
Most importantly, supporting RJ requires a great amount of listening to voices of women of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+ folks and disabled people who have been targets of this injustice. They have led the RJ fight for decades. “It’s important to keep an intersectional perspective in all ways when thinking about the needs of the marginalized,” says Dr. Gilbert. “While Black women are of first and foremost importance when thinking of why the movement was created, improvements in practices and policies that impact them have the potential to have a direct positive impact on other marginalized pregnant people—including non-Black trans and gender nonbinary folk, as well as people with disabilities.”
Above all, Dr. Gilbert encourages us to be mindful and reflective: “Be more willing to learn than to automatically move to a place of advocacy. Oftentimes the best ‘advocacy’ a person can take, especially when they’re coming from a place of privilege, is to be still and think more personally about how their privileges play a part in perpetuating injustices for others. From there is where the real opportunities are to make change, but they have to be created from our imagination—from what may not yet be realized.”
Photo by IIONA VIRGIN on Unsplash