Why the Reproductive Justice Movement Must Be Intersectional

The overturning of Roe v Wade and the failure to codify rights to abortion as legislation symbolize a slide backward for the progress that decades of organizing efforts made toward reproductive freedom and justice. Amid the anger and fear created by this new reality, there is also a vibrant movement emerging to ensure women have access to reproductive health while coming up with strategies to finally embed this right into legislation.

But as Vanessa Daniel discusses here, there are also aspects of the reproductive justice movement that are important to emphasize as we move forward. Historically, the U.S. government has targeted poor people (mostly women) – and poor women of color in particular – for eugenic sterilization. This hidden history is beginning to emerge in some academic and activist corners, though as I detailed in my documentary, A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics, Genetics, and the American Dream, these efforts diminished after WWII. On the contrary, rates of sterilization rose exponentially in the 1950s and particularly during the 1960s.

The Nixon administration lifted a ban on the use of government assistance to pay for sterilization procedures but never sent guidelines to the doctors in hundreds of federal clinics around the country to ensure this new rule wasn’t abused. As a result, many doctors took it upon themselves to determine who would and wouldn’t have children. Up to half a million mostly Indigenous and African American women and girls were sterilized without their knowledge or consent, and were coerced with threats to withhold federal assistance if they didn’t agree to an operation. No one has been held accountable. A lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center helped to stop the second wave of sterilizations in the U.S., but abuses have continued in some prisons and hospitals.

Another aspect of the reproductive justice movement to understand is how this multifaceted movement has evolved over time to protect women and girls from these kinds of human rights violations. So many people who get involved come from very different experiences and with a wide range of knowledge of the movement’s history.

I spoke with Vanessa Daniel about these and other topics. This is an excerpt from our interview.

Vanessa Daniel

VANESSA: So reproductive justice is really defined by a few key variables: one is the leadership. The movement was founded by black women, and it’s a little over 20 years ago now that the term reproductive justice was coined. It’s now a multi-racial movement, and there are many white women and genderqueer and transgender people of all races who are part of it, but the leadership of women of color remains predominant and unique, I think, as far as social movements go in this country.

The second element is that it’s multi-issue. The traditional reproductive health and rights movement really invited people in through one doorway, which is around abortion rights, the legal right to abortion specifically, and then, to some extent, contraception. Reproductive justice groups have said those doorways make a lot of sense in terms of the top priorities for middle and upper-class white cisgender women. But for the broader set of people, including low-income white women, people actually want to enter the movement through different doorways. Some young people want to enter in through comprehensive sex ed or through the importance of reducing stigma and school pushout for teen parents. 

You have a whole swathe of people who are entering around environmental issues. Native women are saying abortion is an important issue for us, but not our top issue; our top issue is the fact that our aunties and cousins and so many folks on our land are actually experiencing reproductive health cancers from toxins and uranium mining and pollution. You have many women of color entering through surviving the U.S. prison industrial complex with issues around stopping the shackling of pregnant women during labor and delivery who are incarcerated, conditions of confinement, stopping the pipeline into prisons. There are a whole host of issues. 

The separation of families at the border is a reproductive justice issue that echoes a legacy that we’ve seen in so many communities of color, whether it’s the separation of black families from their children on the auction blocks in slavery to theft of native children who were taken into mission schools and abused, causing generations of trauma, to the internment of Japanese and the separation of families through deportation and exclusion acts in this country. It is a very recent manifestation of a very long-standing American tradition in fact in this country, and it’s a reproductive justice issue.

The fact that black women still suffer maternal mortality rates that are four times that of white women in this country is a reproductive justice issue. Birthing justice, the ability to access midwifery care, doula care. So this full spectrum of things.

Reproductive justice has shown and proved that if you create more doorways for people to open to enter the movement, more people come in, you have a stronger grassroots base of support, and you have a base that actually has the strength to win against the very united opposition that we are facing, which is very lockstep anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant, anti-abortion access, white supremacist. We need a very diverse movement, and as Audre Lorde said, there’s no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives. And that really is the ethos of reproductive justice.

STEPHANIE: Are you seeing more awareness about the different experiences that white women and women of color have had historically when it comes to reproductive justice? How are these multifaceted organizing efforts going?

VANESSA: That’s an excellent question. I think that one of the fundamental things to understand about the different experience of white women and women of color is that historically, patriarchy has exerted itself on white women’s bodies with a pressure to have children, to procreate white children who are “desirable” additions to the population. So it makes sense that for white women, priority issues would be the ability to actually have the agency to choose not to do that, and so thus very focused on access to birth control, on the right to abortion, the right to sterilization if they choose. That’s fine and that makes sense in that context. 

With the exception of what was forced child-bearing of black women during slavery in order to create more people that were considered property under slavery, women of color who can bear children have been seen as producing children that are “undesirable.” So there’s been a pressure to control and suppress that reproduction. Thus you see forced and coerced sterilization and those types of things. You also see the way in which our children, even children who are born, the virulent attack through state violence and racism on their ability to live and survive – and in the case of many groups – even make it past the age of 20 is a real factor. So for women of color, it makes sense that reproductive justice must include the right not to have a child, but also the right to have children, the right to parent them in safe environments. 

So part of what’s happened in race relations is because of the power differential – that white women have more wealth just as a group comparatively to women of color, have more access to power, that in institutions like the one where I worked, in philanthropy – the priorities that white women identify as at the top have been what’s resourced, what’s defined as credible and important, is to the exclusion of many of the issues that impact women of color. So you have white women feminist organizations going onto reservations and saying come and join us and help us in the fight for abortion to native women who are literally dying because of uranium mining that is causing rampant reproductive cancers in their communities. 

There is a lot of work that needs to be done in the feminist movement to mend the Achilles heel of race that has divided us in ways that make it harder for us to win for anybody. There’s more work happening now to try to heal that. There are many white women who are doing a lot of their own internal work to undo white supremacy in their own consciousness and to stand in solidarity with women of color, and not just verbally. 

Like my good friend and colleague, Mia Birdsong, who says you cannot call yourself my friend and do nothing to dismantle the systems that are trying to kill me and my children. So it’s not about saying the right things. It’s about, do you actually stand up. Are you standing up when black people are being murdered by the police? And some of them are standing up, and more of them need to.

STEPHANIE: When I was working on my film, I followed the work of a group that was seeking justice for women who’d been sterilized in California against their will. Can you talk a little bit about that history and whether that human rights issue is coming up in the movement, and if there’s a concern that it will continue, particularly for women who are incarcerated? 

VANESSA: There’s a long history of forced and coerced sterilization. In recent history, we have Puerto Rico, where close to one-third of the child-bearing population was sterilized to the extent that they shut down many schools there because there weren’t enough children to attend. There’s an incredible documentary called La Operación that documents that. Many Native American women have been sterilized against their will, many disabled people who have been sterilized, and in California, some lawsuits have resulted in settlements, though there are also cases in which nothing has been done. But I think we need to look at that as part of the broader constellation of ways that the bodies of people who can get pregnant are controlled and where our constitutional rights are taken away. 

Reproductive justice really provides a framework to think about returning that agency to all of us in the many ways that it shows up and that these are not different things. Oftentimes we think, oh, the woman who has kids is different than the person who gets sterilized, is different than the person who’s denied access to contraceptive care. In fact, these issues are all interconnected ways that the bodies of people who can get pregnant – and I include women and transgender and genderqueer folks in that – are really controlled by patriarchy, by white supremacist systems. So we need to see all of that together and work against it. 

When we think about the right to birth, and the right to birth in the way that we feel is empowering – whether that’s in a hospital, whether that’s having a midwife or a doula, whether that’s having traditional cultural practices that are important to whether a woman is in a native community or Afro-diasporic community – that is part of and connected to the right and ability to access abortion that’s safe and affordable. 

The other thread that connects all of those is the way in which women of color in particular, and people of color who can get pregnant are disproportionately impacted by barriers to accessing those things. We know that the sterilizations that have occurred have disproportionately impacted those groups, and that is who disproportionately was in the California prisons who were impacted by that.

STEPHANIE: There was also the case in the mid-90s when doctors were pushing long-term birth control on young women of color, some were coerced into being guinea pigs for various experimental drugs, some were bribed. It was only through women fighting back that this program was canceled, right?

VANESSA: Yes, there was a group of young women of color in the Bronx who were organizing around this. They said they would go to the doctor for appointments, and doctors were very aggressively marketing long-acting contraceptives to them. Of course, we want choices, like a menu of options that may include some of those long-acting methods, but it is a problem when that is being pushed over other methods. There should be a neutral delivery of the information, the benefits, and the risks to all these different methods, so the patient can make an informed decision for themselves. It shouldn’t be marketing because of money from foundations or pharmaceutical companies or indicators of success that are kind of driving towards one method or the other. 

There’s a long history, I think, in communities of color of not only aggressive marketing of these things, but of some of these products being tested on our communities, treating them as guinea pigs. The original birth control pill was tested on women in Puerto Rico. I think it was about 50 or 60 times the strength of the pill now that we know to be safe. The same thing with the HPV vaccine. There was a campaign to get the CDC to cease and desist from requiring this for young girls who were immigrating to come into the country. Coercion has to be taken out of the equation.

STEPHANIE: What is an example of a recent success story when it comes to a coalition working together to address a specific reproductive justice issue? 

VANESSA: One example is the Reproductive Health Equity Act in Oregon. The way that this was won was a set of people of color-led organizations from reproductive justice, and other social justice sectors ended up getting involved in what was a historically all-white coalition for reproductive rights in the state of Oregon, and they lobbied very hard within that coalition that there be a bill that would be inclusive of the full spectrum of reproductive healthcare, and public funding for it, and it would also be inclusive of all groups, including – and this was a very radical proposition – undocumented immigrants and transgender, gender non-conforming people. 

They got a lot of pushback, saying there’s no way that we can move this through with those groups, we need to take those groups out of it because it is going to be easier and more palatable to pass, it won’t be as threatening. They were able to create a multi-racial coalition to have a conversation and come to the agreement that they were going to leave these groups in. As a result, there were other coalitions in the state that cared about immigrants, that cared about the LGBT community, that really cared about expansive safety nets, who then galvanized along with them and created even more momentum for it to pass. And there was enough momentum that even when they tried to repeal it a year later, it couldn’t be repealed. 

So I think there’s a real lesson here. Oregon is not the most conservative of the states, but it’s definitely not the most progressive of states. There’s a strong white supremacist thread in Oregon, dating all the way back to when it was founded, and there are a lot of issues in that state. But successes like this are possible. 

It is possible for us to wrestle with the work and stand together. I think that that is work that all of us have to do, even in communities of color, looking to the groups that are marginalized and actually fighting for solutions that protect them as well. For example, for myself, I know that as a queer South Asian woman, I know that if black transgender women of color are free in this country, I’m definitely going to be free. So I think if you can support solutions that allow the most vulnerable and the most marginalized populations to have safety, have stability, to thrive, to have dignity, then that is the way to lift all boats. In fact, sometimes looking to those populations for some of the solutions is very smart, because many times the people that live their lives at the sharpest crosshairs of race, class, gender, colonization, oppression see with greater clarity than anyone the path that we can all travel to get to freedom. I think we see that, even in the case of black women in this country.

Black women are really unparalleled in terms of demographic groups for their moral and political clarity. I mean, they vote down hate more consistently at the ballot box and are clearer and more progressive on most issues than any other demographic group. So I think there’s also a way in which all of us – white women, white people, other people of color – also can lean in and open our ears towards the folks that we should be putting at the center who have a lot of wisdom about how to lead us out of this. 

There is so much brilliant work happening across the country. There’s an opportunity for folks to become a part of building a multi-racial community where we can practice what it means to heal a lot of the core wounds that were part of what this country was founded on.

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