At a time when state legislatures continue to break new records for the number of restrictions on reproductive health-care access introduced, passed into law, and placed on ballots, when lawsuits against birth control coverage continue to trickle into the courts, when political candidates can’t even get it right on rape and the White House has repeatedly used abortion and birth control as bargaining chips, those of us who support reproductive autonomy face critical questions. One question should not be, as some have recently posited, whether or not a group adheres to a pro-choice or a reproductive justice frame when doing its work. It should be how each of us, individually and as organizations, can best use our knowledge, strengths, resources, and values to bring about change that makes women’s reproductive autonomy a reality.
Right now, we need every voice and perspective we can get to speak out loudly, strongly, wherever, and to whomever they can, in whatever language they speak best, to protect rights that many thought were guaranteed. A movement that is monolithic does not use the best everyone has to offer. One that allows all organizations and individuals to identify as they see fit and truly put their passions to work on shared or complementary goals will thrive. We win when we have a definite, common goal that requires real action, and we win when we allow a variety of groups to speak to their own communities with their own voices. We recently saw this in Florida, where women’s organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the League of Women Voters; religious organizations such as Catholics for Choice, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; and reproductive justice organizations such as the Miami International-Latinas Organizing for Leadership and Advocacy (MI-LOLA) all worked to soundly defeat two ballot measures aimed at curtailing abortion access and real religious liberty.
Unfortunately, some advocates for reproductive health, rights, and justice insist we wordsmith the movement rather than take action. Some folks are paralyzed by semantics, stuck in a vain search for a magic word or phrase that will convince everybody to agree with us. In doing so, the focus is taken off what we believe and what we need to do, and we are reduced to creating word clouds of marketing frames outlining why we must replace the concept of “choice.” “Reproductive justice” has been suggested as this magic phrase.
Both choice and reproductive justice have a place in our battle for women’s autonomy. But one cannot take the place of the other.
At Catholics for Choice, we approach the word “choice” from an ideological standpoint, one that includes justice at its very core — social justice. We are called by our faith to advocate most strongly for policies that protect and lift up all people, particularly the most marginalized and the poorest of the poor. Our religious beliefs compel us to recognize the dignity and rights of all people, who deserve respect and equal access to reproductive health care, no matter their race, color, class, or creed. We cannot settle for any less. Why some people have failed to recognize that justice is an inherent part of what we do is a mystery to us.
We believe, however, that the reproductive justice model is an important piece of the reproductive rights movement. It works for some groups to reach the constituencies that they must reach. It reminds the rest of the movement that we are not, nor should we be, a homogenous steamroller.
As our colleague Loretta Ross, the co-founder and national coordinator of SisterSong, has noted, it was American women of color who first coined the term “reproductive justice” almost 20 years ago, in 1994. They did this to embrace a broader range of concerns that many women of color in the United Sates shared and that were not being addressed by some in the pro-choice movement. They found a phrase to express their unmet needs and through which they could develop solutions. SisterSong continues to highlight these concerns, and we are a stronger movement because of their efforts.
Unfortunately, as others have adopted this framework, some people have chosen to denigrate the language and framework of choice, even sighing a “huge sigh of relief” when others choose to stop identifying as pro-choice. We do not need to tear down each other in order to build ourselves up, and it is misguided to assume that there is a single way to approach a common goal or a single way of viewing the work that we do and why we do it. Those who have dismissed choice have most often misrepresented it. They have pointed to polling data claiming that the number of people calling themselves “pro-choice” is in decline, when most of us already believed that putting “choice” vs. “life” in head-to-head polling is a mindless approach. We’ve long known that Americans have felt that pitting the two terms against each other creates a false dichotomy, and that even those who consider themselves staunchly “pro-life” don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned and do support abortion access at least some of the time.
Some have also claimed that Millennials don’t “get” choice, that choice does not reflect what Millennials need to hear in order to support access to reproductive rights. As Jennie Bristow noted in her perceptive essay on the alleged generation war over abortion rights in the United States, “Winning the argument for choice might be difficult today — though it is hard to see why it is more difficult now than in previous decades. What is certain is that younger generations of women, and their daughters, will lose a great deal if we turn our back on the ‘pro-choice label.’” It is, on the one hand, patronizing to assume that young people do not understand what being pro-choice means or must be told something different in order to gain their support for reproductive rights. It is equally troubling that many of those claiming that we need to use something other than choice to speak to Millennials view young people as a problem to be solved rather than a source of energy and people power for our movement.
Young people are the ones most often out canvassing, working phone banks, staffing, and leading our organizations, and they are more supportive of reproductive rights than other generations. They are the ones who are of reproductive age. The supposed “intensity gap” between pro-choice young people and anti-choice young people today largely tracks the so-called “intensity gap” between people of different generations. That perceived lack of involvement does not mean that young people cannot or will not prioritize choice. It does mean that those of us charged with sustaining the movement need to do less talking at young people about how they are the problem. We need to instead offer them real action that all people — young and old — can rally around.
It is not as if reproductive justice itself is not without its challenges. While it is absolutely right for some organizations, we cannot afford to be Pollyannaish in assuming it is right for everybody. In particular, we cannot be dictatorial in charging every group to use the term or pretend that it is inherently superior to choice in its ideology.
Some of the challenges of the reproductive justice framework illustrate why it cannot be a substitute for choice, as a concept or as a practical strategy. They include the following.