A Tale of Two Movements

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Jan 22, 2015

Update: 1-22-14 at 10:40 a.m. ET: The House of Representatives was scheduled to vote on a 20-week abortion ban today but Republicans withdrew the bill last night because they didn’t have enough votes to pass it. ===========

Today is the 42nd anniversary of the historic Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that opened the door for legal access to abortion in the United States. In the decades since, particularly in the last five years since the 2010 midterm elections, we’ve seen a steady rise in laws designed to limit or even eliminate that access. On the first day of the new Congress early this month, five bills alone were introduced that focused on restricting abortion access. Today the House of Representatives are set to vote on a proposed 20-week abortion ban.

While Roe v. Wade was a historic turning point for the reproductive rights movement, a new movement has blossomed in the decades since: reproductive justice (RJ). This 21-year-old movement seeks to change how we fight for abortion access by pairing it with the broader struggle to create, support and nurture the kinds of families we want. For RJ leaders and activists this idea is second nature, but the movement hasn’t yet reached critical mass. For the uninitiated, here are six key differences between the reproductive justice and reproductive rights movements.

1. Race Matters

Race is a major dividing line between the two movements, both in terms of leadership as well as approach. RJ architects such as Loretta Ross developed a frame that focuses on the experiences of those marginalized by racism and discrimination because they felt that communities of color and the issues most important to them were not being represented in the traditional reproductive rights movement. Monica Raye Simpson, executive director of the Sistersong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective lays this out: "Women of color are concerned about feeding their children, they are concerned about making sure their child gets the medication they need, they are worried about their job security, they are worried about whether or not their child or partner will become the next Mike Brown or Eric Garner. All of these issues are RJ issues."

2. Poverty Does Too

Race is implicitly tied up with class in the U.S., so RJ analyzes how class–particularly poverty–shapes people’s ability to choose when they parent. On the policy level, the movement has tackled the Hyde Amendment, a law passed in 1976 that severely restricts the use of federal funds for abortion services by people on Medicaid and Medicare and federal employees.

Some states have stepped in and funded these services, but most don’t. That means that unless you have private insurance you must pay for abortion procedures out of pocket. This is just one example of how legal access to abortion means little to those who can’t jump other hurdles such as cost. Procedures can cost anywhere from $300-$3000. Maria Elena Perez, director of policy and strategic partnerships at the National Institute for Reproductive Health, explains this further: "The right to reproductive health care is insufficient if low-income women can’t afford those services or don’t have transportation to the clinic or lack workplace policies that allow them to take time off for appointments." In response to financial hardship, grassroots groups have raised money to help people pay for their procedures through local abortion funds. Many of these groups utilize a reproductive justice analysis in their work.

3. The Most Marginalized Are at the Center

"Reproductive justice recognizes that legal rights do not always translate to meaningful access. It centers the experiences of the marginalized–immigrants, people of color, queer and trans folks, youth, and low-income communities," explains Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. This ideology is a marked departure from reproductive rights–where focusing solely on legal access effectively puts those whose other needs are already being met at its center.

4. RJ Takes a Holistic Approach

Verónica Bayettí Flores, a queer immigrant writer and activist, explains: "A reproductive justice framework takes into account whether a person can afford an abortion; whether a gender non-conforming person can feel safe from the threat of discrimination or violence while accessing such gendered care; whether a person has a clinic nearby or whether they have to travel a significant distance; whether there’s an immigration checkpoint along the way; what access to transportation looks like; the economic impact for a person who does not have paid sick leave of taking several days off due to long-distance travel and waiting periods; whether the clinic is wheelchair accessible, and on and on."

Tannia Esparza, executive director of Young Women United, says that this frame includes people other than the woman seeking an abortion: "While the reproductive rights movement has advocated for much-needed abortion and contraception rights, the reproductive justice movement acknowledges the realities of whole people, whole families, and whole communities and asks us to challenge the systems that impact us the most."

5. A Focus on the Right to Parent

In addition to securing women’s abortion rights, RJ emphasizes the right to parent. This is another place where race–and the experience of racism–shapes women’s experience. Women of color have faced major barriers to parenting through policies like coercive sterilization in public hospitals and prisons and racist stigma about who is fit to parent. "Reproductive justice works to ensure that we can express our sexuality without judgment, plan and prevent pregnancy and also have healthy pregnancies," says Cristina Aguilar, executive director of Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR). This emphasis on parenting, and the challenges facing women of color who want to parent, has been a cornerstone of the RJ movement.

6. Building Connections Across Movements

Policy change using the RJ approach means combining efforts with other movements. "We think about our policy change work from a perspective that is multi-issue," says Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. "We actively try to link organizations and leaders across silos." This type of cross-sector alliance-building has been a strategy of reproductive justice groups. "If we want to see these anti-choice policies disappear," says Sistersong’s Simpson, "We have to be willing to show up for our other movements so that we can build our collective power."

Yeung points to the San Francisco-based opposition to sex-selective abortion bans as an example of the potential of cross-issue organizing. "We’ve been highlighting the racial injustice aspects of sex-selective abortion bans that target our community, and it gives us potentially a whole new set of allies to engage with us." COLOR, the Latina RJ group in Colorado, has also successfully rejected a "personhood" ballot measure three times now, in part thanks to their successful organizing in Latino communities which resulted in "record-high turnout," according to Aguilar.

Tamika Middleton, interim executive director of SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW based in Atlanta, says that RJ activists must be on the offensive: "Offering a policy agenda that is rooted in reproductive justice principles gives us the power to force conservatives to engage in a debate that is framed by us rather than them," she says. "By offering a policy agenda that seeks to address issues like poor sexual health outcomes, a living wage and police accountability–while being steadfast in our opposition to anti-choice policy–we can ensure that we are having a conversation about what we are for rather than what we are against."