Activists connect choice to reproductive justice

By Molly M. Ginty   |   March 12, 2013 at 5:23 PM   |   0 comments

{WOMENSENEWS}--Is "reproductive justice" the magic incantation that will save Roe v. Wade?

Fans of the phrase say yes, now that mainstream abortion-rights groups have started using this term alongside (or in favor of) the word "choice."

Via Facebook and Twitter, they predict 2013 will be the year "choice"--like the bloomers worn by Seneca Falls activists in the 1840s and the bellbottoms favored by Gloria Steinem in the 1970s--moves into feminist history.

Older-guard activists are not so convinced. Does the average person even know that 'reproductive justice' means 'pro-choice'?" one person wrote in response to "Is 'Pro-Choice' Passe?"--a Feb. 4 blog post on The Nation.com by Katha Pollitt. Another activist griped, "How is that even a label? It's not even an adjective."

Some activists argue that "reproductive justice" should supersede "choice," just as "LGBT" came to replace "homosexual." Others claim choice is a better rallying cry because it is time-tested, punchy and decisive. But both sides agree the abortion-rights movement is under intense fire. Its need for fresh support is the reason some activists are pushing for new language now.

At the January 2012 West Coast Rally for Reproductive Justice, activists used both phrases in the chants they bellowed and the placards they hoisted while thronging the streets of San Francisco. And while gearing up for the 40th anniversary of (the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on Jan. 22, 1973), abortion-rights activists started using reproductive justice in addition to choice to frame their discussions and garner support.

The National Organization for Womenn and Medical Students for Choice are now using both terms freely. And on Jan. 15, Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of abortion services in the United States, announced it was formally embracing reproductive justice, boosting the term's popularity--and the controversy surrounding it.

'Changing of the Guard'

This shift in semantics represents what Monica Raye Simpson, director of the Atlanta-based SisterSong, calls "a changing of the guard."

Coined in the 1970s in the burgeoning feminist movement by women struggling for autonomy, choice spoke to what was then on the agenda: empowering women to have control over their own reproductive destinies. Being pro-choice came to mean supporting a woman's right to safe, legal abortion.

Reproductive justice entered the dialogue in the 1990s, when female activists of color convened in Chicago following the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt in 1994.

"We realized choice was an aspiration and not a reality for many of us, and was too narrow to speak to people without privilege," says Eleanor Hinton Hoytt, president of the Black Women's Health Imperative, in Washington, D.C. "We decided what we needed was reproductive justice--the removal of the structural inequalities that blocked our access to choice."

As defined by Simpson of SisterSong (a health group for women of color that has promoted the new phrasing), reproductive justice means "the right to have a child, the right not to have a child and the right to parent your children and control your birthing and childrearing options." This term encompasses not just the stand-alone subject of abortion, but the greater socioeconomic, political and racial context surrounding it.

"Inequality exists, and reproductive justice is meant to shine light on that," says Nicole Clark, a health consultant in New York City.

Proponents of reproductive justice say prioritizing this concept over choice means putting the horse before the cart and ensuring that choice will indeed become a reality.

Planned Parenthood announced it was adopting reproductive justice alongside choice the same day it launched a public-awareness campaign to show "how the pro-choice and pro-life labels don't reflect the complexity of the conversation about abortion, and the way that Americans think and talk about abortion today."

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood, told Women's eNews, "We believe this way of framing the conversation will make it more robust and allow everyone who wants to have this conversation to find their way in."

Expanding the Conversation

Just who are mainstream organizations trying to engage in conversation?

First, they are reaching out to women of color, who did not have adequate representation in the feminist movement in the 1970s and who have since then launched vibrant initiatives of their own (such as the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, in New York City, and Forward Together/ Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, in Oakland, Calif.). Today, women of color represent a vital share of the broad-based women's rights leadership.

These groups are also trying to garner support from "millennials," born after the year 1980, who say they favor reproductive justice over choice because it is more fluid and all-encompassing.

"People in my generation say 'I'm not a feminist, but I believe in those ideals,'" says Kelsey Warrick, 19, president of the student group Hoyas for Choice at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "They say, 'I'm not pro-choice, but I support the right to choose."

Also receptive to the reproductive justice label are the growing number of Americans who express ambivalence about abortion. A January 2013 NBC poll showed 70 percent of people believe \should be upheld even if they would not chose to have abortions themselves. Paradoxically, a May 2012 Gallup poll showed only 41 percent of people identify as pro-choice--a record low since polling began.

"Given the reality of 3-D sonograms and technology that pushes back the time of viability, there is growing cognitive dissonance over the issue of abortion," says Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, an anti-choice group in Washington, D.C.

Infusing New Vitality

Just as it is being used to speak to a younger, more diverse and more ambivalent audience, reproductive justice is also being used to infuse new vitality into the long-embattled abortion-rights movement.

Though nearly 1-in-3 American women terminate pregnancies by age 45, their access to abortion is far from secure. Starting with the 1977 Hyde Amendment, which denies abortion-care coverage to low-income women on Medicaid, a steady barrage of anti-choice measures have slowly chipped away at Roe.

In the last two elections, Republicans--many of whom are staunchly anti-abortion--seized majority representation in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the state legislatures. In 2011 and 2012, Congress considered 14 anti-choice measures, with some of the most extreme ones defeated only narrowly. State legislatures enacted a record number of such provisions (a total 135 in 2011-2012). And on March 6, Arkansas passed the earliest-term restriction in the nation, outlawing most abortions after 12 weeks.

Today, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota have just one surgical abortion clinic per state. So-called TRAP laws, which promote "targeted regulation of abortion providers," have further undermined the protections provided by Roe. In Virginia, a new rule requires clinics to have hallways that are five feet wide--or shutter their doors.

In the past 30 years, reports New York City's Guttmacher Institute, the number of U.S. abortion providers has dwindled 40 percent, and 87 percent of U.S. counties now have no abortion provider at all.

"We need language that motivates people," says Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, in Washington, D.C. "We need to get them to stand up and defend women's rights."

In a New York City theater lobby, surrounded by women's rights advocates before a production of her play, "Words of Choice," feminist writer Cindy Cooper furrowed her brow, then shrugged.

"I'm working with activists from all over the globe, and they're using reproductive justice more and more while simultaneously using choice," she said. "But the semantics don't matter much to me. What matters to me is what works."

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