An Open Letter to the New York Times: Race and the Reproductive Rights Movement

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Jul 31, 2014

Dear Jackie Calmes:

I know what it’s like to be a journalist in today’s environment. Limited budgets, limited resources, limited time. I often interview fewer people than I’d like because I simply can’t afford to spend that much time on each article. But I just can’t give you a pass on your recent piece in The New York Times about reproductive rights advocates moving away from the term "pro-choice." It’s simply too egregious.

Your article had a really major, glaring, gaping hole. It completely ignored, erased and denied the role women of color in this big shift.

It’s true that you never outright said that the movement was only white women, and neither did any of your interviewees. But the thing is, when you don’t mention race in a topic like this, when you don’t quote even one woman of color (in an article that quotes seven white women), that’s what you’re doing. In our society, the absence of a mention of race is equivalent to making something all about white people. Whiteness is the default in a racist and white supremacist culture, which is what the U.S. is, if you weren’t aware.

You may not be the only one to blame for the absence. It’s possible that of the seven white women from big, majority-white organizations that you interviewed, none of them mentioned the role of women of color and race-based tensions in the pushback against the term. Unfortunately if that is the case, as a woman of color involved in this movement going on 10 years, it’s sadly not surprising (see racist white supremacist culture above).

There were countless people of color involved in this push away from "pro-choice" toward the wider framework of "reproductive justice." Loretta Ross and the organization she co-founded, Sistersong, is an often-named leader in this shift. Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (now known as Forward Together) put out a groundbreaking paper in 2005 that laid out the theory behind this new framework. There is an entire book that tries to tell the story of this history: "Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice." I learned about the reproductive justice framework while working with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. And there are many, many more people involved than I reference here. Even Wikipedia lays out way more of the history than you or your interviewees did.

You might sense that I’m a little bit angry, Ms. Calmes. And in reality, this isn’t about you. Your article is just one more piece of reporting that highlights what has been going on for decades and what may really be the downfall of the reproductive rights movement–the constant erasure and co-optation of the work of women of color.

The fact that white-led organizations are now taking the credit for moving us away from pro-choice, when that charge has been led by women of color for decades, is just salt on an already long-standing open wound. The fact that your article didn’t even mention the movement for reproductive justice is evidence of the coming irrelevance of these players.

You write: "Just as longtime activists and historians of the abortion movement cannot cite a moment when pro-choice became advocates’ preferred label, current leaders of women’s organizations cannot pinpoint when it began losing popularity." I may not be able to pinpoint the exact moment, but I can definitely tell you a lot more about the history there than your article did. So let me fill you in.

Women of color have long been pushing the women’s rights movement to be more inclusive of the issues that affect our communities. This diverse array of issues (what one of your interviewees refers to as not being a "single issue voter") includes things like access to abortion, but also access to transportation, job security, housing, birth control, immigration, voting rights and the list goes on.

Rejecting the pro-choice label is just one outcome of this long-term struggle to build a movement that has a wide-enough lens to truly have a shot at improving lives in our communities. Because that’s another big hole in your article–a major reason the "pro-choice" frame no longer works for us is because many people in our communities never really had a choice. A legal right to an abortion doesn’t mean much if you have no way to get to the clinic in your area (or there isn’t one). A legal right to an abortion doesn’t mean much if you don’t have the means to pay for it. A legal right to an abortion doesn’t mean much if your immigration status makes you afraid to leave the house. There is little choice for the women in those scenarios, and so a movement galvanized around choice falls way, way short.

The thing is, there’s a lot at stake here. This isn’t just about your article, or even the media. Part of the reason you quoted the people you did is about the way access to resources is shaped by racism in the non-profit arena. The groups with the most funding are not the groups that represent women of color. The organizations with the best media teams, the most access to reporters like you, they are also not the groups with real connections to the women on the ground who are facing the biggest hurdles to creating the families they want to create. 

The tide is turning, and there is a groundswell of people already organizing behind a broader framework. Call it reproductive justice, or just call it common sense, but no matter how much these groups try to claim they were responsible for this shift–those of us involved know it just isn’t true. While the majority of resources may remain with these groups, their serious lack of diversity in leadership, both in terms of race and age, is setting them up for a future where the majority young and of color population isn’t going to have any interest in their movement.

If you’re ever interested in writing a follow-up article on this topic, Ms. Calmes, feel free to get in touch. I’ll point you in the right direction.