The Herstory of Reproductive Justice
Indigenous women and women of color have a very rich history of organizing and advocating for our bodies, our families, and our lives long before the term reproductive justice was invented to describe our framework.
In 1994, as the Clinton administration implemented its Health Care Reform to ensure that all US citizens and permanent residents had affordable health insurance, black women gathered in Chicago, IL to discuss the health of women of color. They had just attended the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, where global activists agreed that reproductive rights are essential to social justice. Discussing their lives and communities in these contexts, the women gathered saw that as black women in the US, they could relate to the lived experiences of communities that were historically unable to access healthcare services and left out of discussions on healthcare. They also understood the inability of the mainstream women’s rights movement to fully access and advocate for the needs of marginalized communities. They identified a need to craft a national response that would summarize what was at stake for black women, and that would hold legislators accountable for making the right decisions on behalf of black women, their families, and their communities.
After much organizing, these women collectively named themselves Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, and the term Reproductive Justice was born. The RJ framework from its beginnings merged social justice and reproductive rights, rooting itself in the internationally-accepted human rights framework. The collective developed a statement of their values and goals, which became a full-page signature ad with over 800 signatures. Entitled “Black Women on Healthcare Reform,” it was published in the Washington Post and Roll Call. This now-historic action was the start of the Reproductive Justice (RJ) movement.
The term Reproductive Justice lay dormant until Loretta Ross, founding National Coordinator of SisterSong, revived it at the organization’s first national conference in 2003. Afterward, SisterSong dedicated itself to developing and disseminating the RJ framework to lift up the leadership and needs of all women of color.
We believe that Reproductive Justice is…
A human right. RJ is based on the internationally-accepted Declaration of Human Rights upheld by the United Nations, a comprehensive body of law that details the rights of individuals and the responsibilities of government to protect those rights.
About access, not choice. Mainstream reproductive health and rights organizations focus on keeping abortion legal as an individual choice. This work is absolutely necessary, however it is not enough. Women of color in the US largely experience limited choices due a system that keeps us in poverty, gives us inadequate education and healthcare, racially profiles and over-polices us, discriminates against us, disparages us, and more. Reproductive Justice therefore shifts the conversation from choice to access – because there is no choice where there is no access.
Not just about abortion. In order for women to control our own reproductive lives, we need more than just abortion. Many women see abortion rights as their main issue, but women of color and low income women often have difficulty accessing: contraception, comprehensive sex education, STI prevention and care, alternative birth options, adequate prenatal and pregnancy care, domestic violence assistance, adequate wages to support our families, safe homes, and so much more. Even our right to parent our children is often threatened. Reproductive Justice addresses all of these critical issues.
We believe that in order for Reproductive Justice to be achieved we must…
Focus on addressing intersecting oppressions. “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” ~Audre Lorde
Analyze power systems in order for all people to live self-determined lives. Women of color feel the impact of the oppressive nature of reproductive politics in the US, which are based on gendered, sexualized, and racialized acts of dominance that occur on a daily basis. RJ works to eradicate this dynamic.
Center the most marginalized. We believe that liberation is possible only when the those who are the most vulnerable are able to exercise all of their human rights without fear, discrimination, or retaliation. Our most marginalized communities must have the access, resources, and power necessary to live self-determined lives; only then can we call our society “free.”
SisterSong’s Role in the Reproductive Justice Movement
By introducing the RJ framework, SisterSong has elevated the needs of women of color to the forefront of social justice, emphasizing that this work is about nothing less than basic human rights. RJ shows how reproductive politics in the US is based on gendered, sexualized, and racialized dominance. It enables activists to analyze how intersectional forces are arrayed to deny human rights, and how we can work together across barriers. SisterSong is a key national RJ trainer, thought leader, steward of movement history, the largest multi-ethnic national RJ organization in the US, and the only one based in the South.
Our opponents have become a strong, unified force, while those working for a more compassionate world are divided and stretched thin working alone on single issues…which are all interrelated. As the Far Right launches barrages of clever attacks on our rights, we must flock together to defend each of our needs. Together we can strategize more wisely, work more efficiently, and make a far greater impact on the lives of our sisters, ourselves, and our daughters not yet born. Together we can amplify our diverse voices, and make sure the most marginalized among us are heard. Together we are a force to be reckoned with.
SisterSong therefore sees its role as a primary RJ educator and facilitator of conversation and collaboration within the movement, especially in our home of the deep South, where reproductive oppression is worst. We have built a solid base of organizations and people we can quickly mobilize when our rights are threatened, and we organize the largest conferences of women of color working on RJ in the US. Since launch, SisterSong’s model for collaboration has been based on the commonsense wisdom of nature, as illustrated in our beloved “Goose Story”: Like a flock of geese, we must…
- Fly in V formation, so that those of us in front create lift that eases the work for those behind.
- Make our individual work easier by staying in formation with sisters going in the same direction.
- Cheer from behind to encourage those facing the headwinds as they take the lead.
- Take turns with the difficult job of flying point.
- Stand by any sister who falls and cannot fly, never leaving one of our own unsupported.