I started working in the pro-choice movement my first year in college as an Access Counselor at the Women’s Medical Fund, an abortion access fund that helps women pay for the cost of their abortions through no-interest loans. I was on their hotline 8 to 10 hours a week, giving women these loans and other basic referrals to clinics in the Philadelphia-area. I became more and more pro-choice as I heard stories of women who couldn’t afford to care for another child, who were raped by boyfriends, whose birth control failed, whose pregnancies were not viable. I left work feeling confident that I was doing meaningful, compassionate work, that I was connecting the dots from my women’s studies classes to reality. And then I talked to Tasha*.
Tasha was not only my exact age, we had the same birthday. Like me, she was a strong student, but liked to relax every once and a while and party with girlfriends. She was also a freshman in college, had two younger sisters, and was using the same form of birth control as me. Yet Tasha found herself in an unpredictable situation. She went to a party, was drugged, raped, and left naked in someone else’s house. When she told me that, I couldn’t speak. Why had that been her instead of me? Why was she pregnant, while my biggest worry was a paper due the next week? I helped Tasha secure the funds for her abortion, but her story haunted me long after I hung up the phone.
That summer I started volunteering on the crisis hotline of the DC Rape Crisis Center, and the pieces started coming together for me. Tasha’s rape, pregnancy, and abortion were part of a larger picture that wasn’t part of the dialogue surrounding choice. Yes, thankfully, Tasha had the ability to decide whether or not to carry the pregnancy to term, but that is only the beginning of the issue. In my pro-choice community, we talked about birth options, abortion, emergency contraception, birth control. What we didn’t address: the systemic forms of oppression, ignorance, and injustice that women and girls encounter on a day to day basis that disable them from controlling their reproductive lives.
This, I later learned, is the focus reproductive justice movement, spearheaded by the indescribably awesome organization SisterSong. Loretta Ross, Executive Director of SisterSong, puts it this way:
Reproductive Justice is a commitment to the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social, and economic well-being of women and girls, based on the full achievement and protection of women’s rights. This includes the right to have a child, the right not to have a child, the right to parent the children women have, the right to control birthing options, and the right to an empowering education so that all women are aware of these invaluable rights. Reproductive justice also encompasses the commitment to ensure that all women have the ability to determine their own reproductive destiny through supportive legislation and opportunities and access in communities.
Does this mean I’m abandoning the language of choice? No, but I do think it needs to be expanded to facilitate a conversation about access, resources, and rights that extends far beyond abortion. What the reproductive justice movement is demanding is more than the right to decide when and if we become mothers. It’s about the right to own every aspect of our lives.
For those interested, here are some reproductive justice resources:
- Understanding Reproductive Justice (pdf)
- Reproductive Justice is Every Woman’s Right
- Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice
- Spark Reproductive Justice Now
- Black Women for Reproductive Justice
- Reproductive Justice Briefing Book (pdf)
- Achieving Global Reproductive Justice: Recommendations from the Front Lines
- Expanding the Movement for Empowerment and Reproductive Justice
- Investing in Reproductive Justice for All (pdf)
*name changed for obvious reasons.