The Meaning of Reproductive Justice: Simplifying a Complex Concept

Reproductive justice can't be easily communicated in a sound bite or phrase. Does it matter?

When I introduce the concept of reproductive justice to new audiences, at lectures or workshops, I always frame it in the same way. I use a really simple exercise, where I draw a stick figure on a piece of butcher paper, or an easel, or a chalkboard. Then I ask the question: “What things in this person’s life will impact their ability to create the family they want to create?” Usually it takes a few minutes for the audience to get going, but within five or ten minutes the result is a stick figure with many, many issues written in bubbles around them. Things like religion, money, environment, language, race, gender, sexuality, laws, incarceration end up surrounding the person.

This activity is a pretty decent illustration of my definition of reproductive justice—it’s working to build a world where everyone has what they need to create the family they want to create. And that work requires incorporating and taking into account all of those items written in bubbles on the diagram, as well as many we probably leave out. Almost always this exercise results in “ah ha” moments, and it’s had a striking universality—from using it with college students to using it in Latina immigrant communities on the border. Reproductive justice is an easier concept to explain in ten minutes than in a two-word soundbite, like pro-choice, but that additional context also allows for so many more of the issues and challenges or our every day lives to be made visible and explicitly included in our work.

I spent a day earlier this week with a group of people in the reproductive rights and justice movement who wanted to address the question “Are our communications frames working?” CoreAlign, a year-old initiative that works to “build a network of leaders working innovatively to change policies, culture and conditions that support all people’s sexual and reproductive decisions,” hosted the meeting.

As a reproductive justice activist who does much of my “work” in this movement through writing, specifically blogging and covering these issues through columns and investigative journalism, I’m really interested in this question of how we talk about what we do, why we do it, and through what lens. There has been much innovation over the life of this movement around the language and terminology we use to describe both who we are and what we believe. And these evolutions continue. Some of them happen in smaller ways, around the country, as individuals organically finds ways to talk about their beliefs around reproduction, family creation, sexual health. Some of these shifts happen in the media spotlight, when major national organizations like Planned Parenthood decide to step away from terminology like pro-choice, or other groups adopt the language of reproductive justice. And thousands more of these shifts happen in the online spaces where many of us spend significant time, where writing about our lives has taken incredible prominence, whether through tweets, facebook updates, tumblr posts or any of the other myriad ways we connect with one another digitally.

One of the beautiful things about this shift is that the messages about our lives, the “frames” that are used, the way we talk about the things that are important to us, are no longer so tightly controlled by a few sources. While the loudest microphones are still limited, many many more of us have the ability to choose our own frames and shift the conversations we participate in. I think this shift has the potential to allow for incredible amounts of innovation in the reproductive rights and justice arena. No longer are just a few key national leaders making these decisions and holding the microphone, deciding the language we should use.

One example of this is the term “full-spectrum doula.” A term that to me marries reproductive justice and doula work, it’s language that has its origins in just the last few years, maybe five at most, originated by doulas most of whom were part of small grassroots groups, without real funding or resources, that came together to support pregnant and parenting people through all the phases of pregnancy—abortion, miscarriage, birth, adoption. Rather than calling themselves pro-choice doulas, they’re adopting new language to reflect the act of supporting someone throughout all the interrelated and complicated decisions regarding pregnancy. It’s a pro-choice position, but in many ways it goes beyond that concept, to the belief that the opinion of the doula matters much less than the desire to provide nonjudgemental and unconditional support to pregnant and parenting people.

Language matters. It can invite people in, or discourage people from joining. It can allow people to feel seen. For me, the discovery of the reproductive justice framework when I first started working with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health as a recent college graduate had a big impact on my decision to work within this movement. Learning about reproductive justice helped me to understand why I’d felt alienated by my semester of reproductive rights organizing on campus, during which the groups I worked with lacked much of an analysis or inclusion of topics like race, class, gender and much more. It also provided me with a framework for understanding the change I wanted to see in the world around me and how, on a very personal level, I fit in. It allowed me to understand how all the pieces of my identity, my race, my class background, my gender identity and sexuality, how they fit in and were part of the reproductive justice movement and this view of the world we are working towards. This wasn’t just a matter of politics—it was a matter of belonging. There is no way I would be as involved and dedicated to the reproductive justice movement if I had not felt I could be my whole self within this work.

Reproductive justice isn’t a simple concept that can be explained in a sound bite. But because of that, it also better mirrors the complex world we live in than a label like pro-choice or pro-life ever could. To communicate that kind of complexity, we’ll likely need many different phrases and frames, and I’m excited to see what develops, both from movement institutions and from people who care about this work. Reproductive justice will be communicated through the many different ways we each choose to make sense of it, in our own lives and in our own work. We’ll all use different language, invent new terms, retire old ones—but I hope the end result will be a beautiful word cloud of meaning that keeps us on a path toward justice.