Apr 22 2010

Reproductive Rights/Justice

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In the years leading up to Roe v. Wade, a debate arose over “abortion rights,” or women’s right to obtain a safe and legal abortion. Although the issue had existed for years, the rhetoric surrounding it was new, particularly its framing as a political right (previously, issues dealing with reproduction or other bodily functions were considered personal and therefore not political). Gradually, the feminist (”pro-choice”) rhetoric around the abortion controversy began to shift, from “abortion rights” to “reproductive rights.” In the U.S. context, this did not signify a significant meaning shift or reframing of the argument. Rather, “reproductive rights” came to signify “abortion rights” to politicians and lobbyists alike. Political groups like the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now NARAL Pro-Choice America), particularly focused on the right to have an abortion and various auxiliary abortion rights (e.g. teenagers’ right to have an abortion) within this “reproductive rights” framework.

Other feminist organizations, particularly Planned Parenthood, worked to shift the focus from abortion to general reproductive health services. In the 1980s, Planned Parenthood ads depicted Planned Parenthood as a healthcare provider caught in the crossfire of the greater abortion debate, rather than as an abortion provider, which most (though not all) Planned Parenthood clinics were.  Planned Parenthood, and other clinics, worked to push the reproductive healthcare brand, and talked about the right to obtain reproductive healthcare services generally. This language ultimately is best reflected in international policy regarding “reproductive rights,” which are figured as any rights pertaining to reproductive healthcare, for both men and women, as opposed to the abortion-exclusive debate in the United States.

In the early 1990s, many women (particularly women of color) were grappling with the use of “reproductive rights” as synonymous with “abortion rights.” They argued that the reproductive-rights-as-abortion-rights framework largely excluded them, citing long-standing reproductive grievances like the sexual abuse of enslaved black women and the forced sterilization of Black, Native American, and Puerto Rican women.  In 1994, a group of American women of color attended the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and were hugely influenced by the dialogues on social justice that they heard there. Two months after the September conference, a group of black women organized an informal Black Women’s Caucus at the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance-sponsored pro-choice conference in Chicago. It was there that they coined the term ‘Reproductive Justice,’ initially conceived as a bridge between reproductive health issues and social justice concerns. The idea was expanded by the recognition that class too played a major role in the way women’s lives are constrained. Eventually, Reproductive Justice came to be viewed as the way to address the intersecting oppressions that women face, with regards to both biological and societal reproduction.

The following digital exhibit traces the development of these terms through an analysis of various documents issued by some major feminist organizations.

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