As the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective celebrates its 20th year of organizing and activism on behalf of women of color across the globe, the organization’s members and supporters have compiled an essay collection called Radical Reproductive Justice covering a range of reproductive justice perspectives.
Killing the Black Body author Dorothy Roberts aptly explains in her foreword to the anthology, “RJ is a model not just for women of color, nor just for achieving reproductive freedom. RJ is a model for organizing for human equality and well-being. The world needs radical reproductive justice.”
The book is as revolutionary and revelatory as it is vast, with writers who are fighting for their inclusion despite their anti-abortion stance; critiquing what it means to be an ally, as an ally; and creating space for more difficult conversations about how programs and organizing around reproductive health and autonomy often erase trans people. It is these moments, appearing throughout the anthology, that reveal what the editors—SisterSong co-founder Loretta Ross, CUNY School of Public Health professor Lynn Roberts, New Mexico Highlands University professor Erika Derkas, University of Michigan consultant on race and ethnicity Whitney Peoples, and the late activist lawyer and legal scholar Pamela Bridgewater Toure—mean by radical reproductive justice, and why the theory is an imperative for people who support bodily autonomy in how they think, act, and write about these issues.
Reproductive justice, a term coined by Black women in 1994, centers “three interconnected human rights values: the right not to have children using safe birth control, abortion, or abstinence; the right to have children under the conditions we choose; and the right to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments.”
I’ve read numerous books, essays, and articles on the framework, including a few by its co-founder Loretta Ross. The essays contained in Radical Reproductive Justice offer the most powerful critique of the ways in which “allies” tend to normalize oppression, consciously or not. Divided into four parts—historical context; theory; policy, practice, and activism; and poetry—the anthology empowers readers to better understand the roots of reproductive justice and how the theory can be molded and used by other fresh perspectives “to build an [even more] expansive vision for universal justice” than what the founders may have envisioned.
Ross explained to me on the phone that RRJ, as she calls the book, “is different because we took a more radical approach to describing reproductive justice than I have in my previous writing. It has a stronger critique of white supremacy, neoliberalism, [and] identity politics,” she said.
As just one example, INCITE! co-founder Andrea Smith, in her essay “Beyond Pro-Choice versus Pro-Life: Women of Color and Reproductive Justice,” explains how the “pro-life versus pro-choice paradigm is a model that marginalizes women of color, poor women, and women with disabilities. It reifies and masks the structures of white supremacy and capitalism that undergird the reproductive choices women make, and narrows the focus of our political goals to the question of the criminalization of abortion.” She instead pushes for a “nationally coordinated women of color movement” that makes “the dismantling of capitalism, white supremacy, and colonialism central to its agenda, and not just as principles added to organizations’ promotional material designed to appeal to women of color.” Such a movement would offer advocates more freedom “to think more creatively about who we could work with in coalition while simultaneously allowing us to hold those who claim to be our allies more accountable for the positions they take.” (Read my Q&A with Smith here to learn more about her essay.)
Ross highlighted in our interview how the reproductive justice framework “is broad enough to include a lot of different perspectives,” including those that the co-founders didn’t necessarily agree with. “But that was our point,” said Ross, “to show how we could use the framework in some inventive and creative ways to build a forward-looking movement.”
One such article is a piece that also took me by surprise. It’s an essay written by poet Mary Krane Derr, published posthumously and titled “Card-Carrying Marchers and Sister Travelers: Pro-Life Feminists and the Reproductive Justice Movement.” In it, Derr makes the case for collaboration between reproductive justice advocates and self-described pro-life feminists who do not support abortion—nor do they support its criminalization or harming people as a consequence of their stance—but do support contraception.
Ross explained that during the ten years that this book was in production, “Mary Krane and I had extensive conversations about her essay before she passed, and I frankly told her there were parts of [her] historical account that I didn’t agree with; she is misinterpreting things that I don’t remember or the evidence doesn’t support.”
“But at the same time, she got me to understand that within the anti-choice movement, there is a left, a center, and a right, and she represents the feminist wing of the anti-choice movement,” Ross continued. “And they are under severe attack and critique within their own anti-choice movement for being so feminist …. That [is something] I didn’t really understand or know about.”
“But Mary’s wasn’t the only ‘pro-life’ essay in there, it’s just that she was the only one out as being ‘pro-life,’” Ross pointed out. “If [a contributor] didn’t choose to write about their identity, one doesn’t know that the book contains all of those registers of voices.”
RRJ shows the reader the potential reproductive justice has to transform our society into a culture that is accepting of human rights-centered folks with different views toward achieving justice. But those conversations aren’t easy to have, and those relationships aren’t easy to maintain. When asked for advice on having those tough discussions, Ross said, “with love and respect for ourselves first, because if you don’t love and respect yourself, it’s hard to extend it to someone else.”
“I think the best way to approach this is with strength and integrity and honesty,” Ross added. “Know what you believe in, analyze why you believe it, and then make space for other people to have their beliefs.”
Storytelling is a critical component of the process because it allows reproductive justice advocates to center their truth in their work and organizing. “Storytelling is a reclamation project of reclaiming your voice, your self, your truth, helping you to discharge all of the negative things you’ve internalized about those things, so that you can use your fullest and best thinking to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life,” explained Ross.
An essay that exemplifies that is Lucia Leandro Gimeno’s contribution, titled “The Reluctant Reproductive Justice Organizer and Birthworker.” As the director of the Queer & Trans People of Color Birthwerq Project, Gimeno reflects on his experience as a transmasculine femme doing justice work, calling attention to the “tension and disconnect between RJ and trans justice … and how [people] deal or don’t deal with the contradictions and big questions around honoring where we come from in order to figure out where the hell we’re going.” One such question that is begging to be addressed, he notes, is how “we enter a conversation that acknowledges the misogyny and erasure of women and the transphobia that also erases women (cis and trans)?”
Building from Caroline R. McFadden’s example in a different essay (about “critical white feminism” theory), it’s on cisgender people to identify the ways in which we uphold transphobia by generalizing our experiences as the norm, thereby continuing to erase trans people from conversations critical to their survival. As Gimeno writes, “If we look at our traditions around birth and community and family, they have always included [cis and trans and queer and straight folks]. Part of what colonization and white supremacy have done is erase the fact that we need each other and that we are being attacked by the same systems.”
In McFadden’s essay, the anti-racist feminist writer speaks directly to white “allies,” who have more work to do when it comes to examining their own stories and the ways in which they experience reproductive privilege. Titled “Reproductively Privileged: Critical White Feminism and Reproductive Justice Theory,” the essay lays out her fear of repeated history in which white feminists “generalize our experiences as the norm” and fail to show true concern when “our experiences aren’t at the center of a theory or a praxis.” Writes McFadden, “white feminists understate the ways in which whiteness and privilege facilitate problematic theorizing that assumes a hubristic universality, while at the same time criticizing cisgender white men for doing the same.” She adds that although “the feminist movement loudly rejects instances of overt racism, the movement reflects the dominance of whiteness by normalizing it.” As an example of this theory in practice, McFadden describes how white organizers of the Women’s March initially “failed to incorporate the same anti-sexist and anti-racist frameworks of the black women’s march in 1997” all while co-opting the name of that Philadelphia march—the original Million Women’s March.
McFadden argues that anti-racist white women must focus on their own communities and actions instead of trying to effect “change in communities of color.” She concludes, “White feminists must take responsibility for ourselves and our mistakes, demolish and rebuild our current conceptualization of reproductive oppression, and use our shared power to move forward toward a world of infinite possibilities achieved through reproductive justice.”
As someone who works in the media, I wondered while reading the book about the ways in which my fellow journalists might help to reinforce a human rights culture. A logical conclusion would be for those working in the media to consider their role in pathologizing communities of color through every editorial move they make. Personally, I’m thinking about whether there are areas where I’ve dehumanized communities of color (I’m a Black woman, but white supremacy does not infect only white people) in my everyday decision making, from assigning stories to, on a more basic level, perpetuating damaging frameworks. Rewire does a great job of centering those most affected by systemic oppressions, but there’s always room for growth, especially as we dig deeper into the injustices faced by people who’ve been polyvictimized, including undocumented immigrants and Native communities.
People in the media can also do more to stay vigilant about asking the right questions when it comes to individual events. In the book, Ross discusses the story of Keisha, a pseudonym. Ross took the 12-year-old to an abortion appointment, and to this day, some seven years later, the image of the young woman sucking her thumb has stayed with her. “It just broke my heart,” said Ross on the phone. “And then her mother’s boyfriend was just hovering over us.”
When reporting that story, there’s a lot of context and questions to raise, but which is the most important angle? For advocates like Ross, “the problem wasn’t that Keisha needed an abortion, the problem was that she shouldn’t have had [to get one]—why did she need one? What else was going on in her life?”
And there’s the fact “that [Keisha and her mother] had to come from Chicago to Atlanta to have those services. Why weren’t those services available where she was, locally?” Ross asked. There’s also the abuse part of Keisha’s story, she explained: “Our failure to protect vulnerable girls like her—it’s not Keisha’s fault.”
Ross raised the issue of contraception too. “I particularly was pained by the fact that her mother refused birth control for both of them,” said Ross. “And, of course, when you’re being an abortion doula you can’t ask these intrusive questions.” But there are larger context questions around why someone might “equate taking birth control with being sinful,” Ross pointed out, and why people are “still taught that sex and sexuality concerning women is a sin.”
“There’s just so many things going on with [Keisha’s] story—that just was an emblem of why we needed [reproductive justice theory], because we couldn’t explain all these other things without that,” said Ross.
Reporting through a reproductive justice lens, then, empowers publications to tell fuller stories and to view their subjects as whole people.
There’s also the ongoing problem of false equivalence. As Ross explained to me during our interview, “You see it a lot in covering of the white supremacist movement, where [in news stories] there has to be white supremacists who are pro-fascists and equivalent to them are anti-fascists …. That’s just like saying, everybody’s human and being a multimillionaire human is no different than being an impoverished one.”
This comes into play when the reproductive justice framework is pitted against “pro-choice” or “pro-life” ideologies. As the editors of RRJ explain in their introduction, “It is important to underscore … that RJ is neither an oppositional nor a peace-making ideology; it is an emergent radical theory that recasts the problem using the human rights framework.” Or, more to the point: “RJ centers the lives of communities of color instead of the middle-class white people on both sides of the abortion debate.”
As we move into a radical reproductive justice future, our role as media makers is to continue searching for and telling honest stories, and that includes not painting any particular experience with one broad brush. Radical Reproductive Justice reminds us that no movement is a monolith and no one experience is the norm. Our stories should reflect that truth.