Reproductive Justice and Black Lives Matter: Remembering the roots of RJ

By Dana Ziegler
Associate Editor, Vol. 21
Online Publications Editor, Vol. 22

On February 9, 2016, advocates from Black Lives Matter (BLM), New Voices for Reproductive Justice, and Trust Black Women held a conference call to reassert the connection between the BLM and reproductive justice movements while discussing strategies for intersectional activism. In connection with the call, reproductive justice advocates from Trust Black Women Partnership issued a solidarity statement. The statement stressed that the purpose of the sister movements is “to affirm the value of Black lives, to protect the dignity and autonomy of Black bodies, and to dismantle the systems that harm and oppress Black communities.” The statement furthermore called for “an analysis that centers Black women, low wage workers, LGBTQ people, and those living at the crossroads of these identities,” and offered BLM its commitment “to hold gender justice as dear as racial justice, with Reproductive Justice as the core of both these aspirations.”

The connection between the reproductive and civil rights of Black Americans is not new. According to Alison Dreith, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, “Black women have had very little reproductive choice, historically. During slavery, they were forced into childbirth. Then, they were forced into methods for sterilization.” Thus, “reproductive health is intrinsically linked to racism and to the Black Lives Matter movement.” Today, according to the National Black Women’s Reproductive Agenda, Black women continue to face challenges to their reproductive health by being disproportionately denied access to comprehensive sex education and contraception and by experiencing higher rates of unintended pregnancies and pregnancy-related complications than white women.

In fact, the term “reproductive justice” (RJ) was coined by African American women after the 1997 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. It became popularized beginning in 2003 by SisterSong, a women of color RJ collective, as an intersectional, theoretical human rights framework informed by the experiences of women of color and “based on the understanding that the impacts of race, class, gender and sexual identity oppressions are not additive but integrative . . . .” SisterSong explained that white supremacy facilitates “reproductive oppression” against women of color by controlling and exploiting their “bodies, sexuality, labor, and reproduction.” As explained by the Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, “reproductive oppression” is implemented through “discriminatory foster care enforcement, criminalizing pregnancy, immigration restrictions, preventing LGBTQ individuals from parenting, and forced abortions for incarcerated women.” Thus, SisterSong defines reproductive justice as “a positive approach that links sexuality, health, and human rights to social justice movements by placing abortion and reproductive health issues in the larger context of the well-being and health of women . . . .”

The broad framework of reproductive justice extends to issues beyond abortion rights, such as the Flint water crisis. La’Tasha D. Mayes, founder and Executive Director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice stated in the conference call, “Being able to live and raise your children in a healthy environment is a reproductive justice issue.” The renewed synergy between the BLM and reproductive justice movements is also a response to the recent appropriations of the BLM movement, such as the use of the phrase “all lives matter” by anti-abortion activists. According to Mayes, the cooptation of this phrase is “absolutely insulting,” and she believes that progress will require a “pro-active approach in changing the culture and stigma around Black women and abortion.”

It’s important now more than ever that advocates return to the roots of the reproductive justice movement by considering the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexual identity in their advocacy and analysis. The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws in Texas in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, and will hear a RFRA challenge to ACA’s contraceptive-coverage mandate in Zubik v. Burwell in late March. The fight will not be over until all people have sufficient resources to exercise their right to “decide whether, when, and how to have and parent children with dignity, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence.”