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Reproductive Justice as Intersectional Feminist Activism



Reproductive justice activists have dynamically used the concept of intersectionality as a source of empowerment to propel one of the most important shifts in reproductive politics in recent history. In the tradition of the Combahee River Collective, twelve Black women working within and outside the pro-choice movement in 1994 coined the term “reproductive justice” to “recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from the sharing and growing consciousness, to a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression.” Its popularity necessitates an examination of whether reproductive justice is sturdy enough to be analyzed as a novel critical feminist theory and a surprising success story of praxis through intersectionality. Offered to the intellectual commons of inquiry, reproductive justice has impressively built bridges between activists and the academy to stimulate thousands of scholarly articles, generate new women of color organizations, and prompt the reorganization of philanthropic foundations. This article defines reproductive justice, examines its use as an organizing and theoretical framework, and discusses Black patriarchal and feminist theoretical discourses through a reproductive justice lens.
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A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society
ISSN: 1099-9949 (Print) 1548-3843 (Online) Journal homepage:
Reproductive Justice as Intersectional Feminist
Loretta J. Ross
To cite this article: Loretta J. Ross (2017) Reproductive Justice as Intersectional Feminist
Activism, Souls, 19:3, 286-314, DOI: 10.1080/10999949.2017.1389634
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Published online: 16 Jan 2018.
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Vol. 19, No. 3, July–September 2017, pp. 286–314
Reproductive Justice as Intersectional
Feminist Activism
Loretta J. Ross
Reproductive justice activists have dynamically used the concept of intersectionality as
a source of empowerment to propel one of the most important shifts in reproductive
politics in recent history. In the tradition of the Combahee River Collective, twelve
Black women working within and outside the pro-choice movement in 1994 coined
the term “reproductive justice” to “recognize the commonality of our experiences
and, from the sharing and growing consciousness, to a politics that will change our lives
and inevitably end our oppression.” Its popularity necessitates an examination of
whether reproductive justice is sturdy enough to be analyzed as a novel critical feminist
theory and a surprising success story of praxis through intersectionality. Offered to the
intellectual commons of inquiry, reproductive justice has impressively built bridges
between activists and the academy to stimulate thousands of scholarly articles, generate
new women of color organizations, and prompt the reorganization of philanthropic
foundations. This article defines reproductive justice, examines its use as an organizing
and theoretical framework, and discusses Black patriarchal and feminist theoretical
discourses through a reproductive justice lens.
Keywords: abortion, black feminism, human rights, intersectionality, neoliberalism,
reproductive justice, sterilization abuse, white supremacy
Reproductive justice activists have dynamically used the concept of intersectionality
as a source of empowerment to propel one of the most important shifts in
reproductive politics in recent history.
In the tradition of the Combahee River
Collective, twelve Black women (including this author) working within and outside
the pro-choice movement in 1994 coined the term “reproductive justice” to
“recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from the sharing and growing
consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our
Almost precisely twenty years after the historic beginning of the
none defined
ISSN 1099-9949 print/1548-3843 online © 2017 University of Illinois at Chicago
DOI: 10.1080/10999949.2017.1389634
Combahee River Collective, Black feminists created an original intersectional theory
and praxis called reproductive justice, using it as a platform for articulating
our demand for recognition of our full reproductive and sexual human rights.
As the original Combahee statement said in 1977, “to be recognized as human, levelly
human, is enough.”
We created new self-definitions to validate our standpoints,
and offered a fresh worldview of our epistemological power to articulate our
conscious resistance to all forms of reproductive repression.
Reproductive justice has generated new theory and practices that explain the
phenomena at the intersection of race, class, and gender in reproductive politics
to coherently account for events across time and include multiple events. In doing
so, reproductive justice has eclipsed the binaried and under-theorized pro-choice/
pro-life frameworks among both women of color and predominantly white
Its popularity necessitates an examination of whether reproductive
justice is sturdy enough to be analyzed as a novel critical feminist theory and
a surprising activist success story. As a theory, can it be used to explain groups
of facts and make predictions about reproductive politics, particularly in the United
States, explaining how reproductive relations get produced and reinforced in various
contexts and for different individuals and populations?
Reproductive justice theory examines the meanings assigned to reproductive
relations and externally imposed policies and practices. Such theory unmasks the power
relations of the world in narrative forms, to paraphrase Barbara Christian, in “the stories
we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, since dynamic rather than
fixed ideas …[are how] we managed to survive with such spiritedness the assault on our
bodies, social institutions, countries, our very humanity.”
As Patricia Hill Collins has
said, “Assuming that only a few exceptional Black women have been able to do theory
homogenizes African-American women and silences the majority.”
The artificial
separation between theory and practice risks reducing reproductive justice analysis
and activism to a simplistic description of geography, where thinking occurs, rather
than embrace the holistic challenges to domination offered by radical Black women
outside and within the academy across many domains and the futurity of possibilities.
This article will focus on reproductive justice praxis, one Black woman’s way of
thinking and feeling an approach toward optimizing reproductive health, rights,
and justice, to go beyond pro-choice politics using the human rights framework.
Praxis is a term most often used by oppressed groups to change their economic,
social, and political realities through social justice actions based on theoretical
reflections. Reproductive justice praxis puts the concept of reproductive justice into
action by elaborating the connection between activism and intersectional feminist
theory. Activists intentionally employ a complex intersectional approach because
the theory of reproductive justice is inherently intersectional, based on the
universality and indivisibility of its human rights foundation. This article defines
reproductive justice, discusses under what circumstances the concept arose, and
describes how it built a new movement. These are conceptual, functional, situational,
and interactive questions reproductive justice theory and practice address by
applying intersectionality to reproductive politics.
Combahee at 40 287
Intersectionality, according to Kimberlé Crenshaw who named the concept long
previsioned by Black women, “captures the way in which the particular location of
black women in dominant American social relations is unique and in some sense
unassimilable into the discursive paradigms of gender and race domination.”
Intersectionality recognizes the power differentials between self-described identities
and the oppressive nature that society contributes in conversations on race and
gender by describing the places where multiple identities come together, or intersect.
The concept of intersectionality describes the confluence of oppressions, not merely
enumerate diverse identities. How you see yourself is frequently mismatched with
how society views you, often with deadly consequences for Black, trans, disabled,
Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, and non-white immigrant groups of people.
Black women are often asked to separate our racial and gender identities, but
intersectionality demands that all of our identities be honored concurrently to
address the specificities of Black women’s reproductive oppression. Crenshaw was
not the first Black woman to demand an intersectional analysis. She echoed other
intellectuals and activists like Zora Neale Hurston, Frances Beal, Alice Walker, Audre
Lorde, and Barbara Smith, for example, who demanded innovative theory based on
the lived embodiment of African American women. Patricia Hill Collins, for
example, described the intersection of race, gender, and class as the “matrix of
domination” to explain how intersecting oppressions are actually organized.
Intersectionality, however, has become the more popularized term that “refers to
the ways that black women’s marginalization within dominant discourses of resist-
ance limit the means available to relate and conceptualize our experiences as black
women” in an imbrication of white supremacy, patriarchy, and neoliberal capitalism
lined up like dominoes.
Reproductive justice was developed because previous generations of Black
feminists partially documented the reproductive experiences of African American
women and provided the connective tissue for theorizing and organizing around
our embodied experiences to coalesce our epistemological power. We developed
our intersectional praxis outside of the academy and even traditional male-dominated
organizations to build a new movement for influencing reproductive politics because
new political movements do not emerge disconnected from previous movements.
As Black feminist writers challenged the concept of a universalized woman offered
by some white feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, they created the conceptual space for
focusing on the experiences of Black women as a fertile site for creating new theory
and activism based on shared—but not identical—stories of reproductive
We needed theory and practice that could equip us to intervene in
the pejorative dominant narratives of Black women’s reproduction, sexuality, and
victimhood. We had to “use alternative ways to create independent self-definitions
and self-evaluations and to articulate them through our own specialists.”
We desired more analyses that thoroughly analyzed the commodification of Black
women’s reproduction and resistance, that, in the words of Nicole Rousseau, “takes
into account her position as: a person of African descent in a nation fundamentally
rooted in a racialized slave economy; her role as a woman in a profoundly patriarchal
288 Souls July–September 2017
structure; and her position as a laborer: productive, reproductive; and biological,
within a capitalist system.”
In particular, the accounts of Black women’s organiza-
tions in the 20th century need to be revisited through the lens of reproductive justice,
distilling the fragments of evidence that demonstrate that Black women created their
own oppositional narratives to eugenics while fiercely claiming their human rights to
bodily self-determination and racial uplift.
The vilification of Black motherhood and Black women’s sexuality was the topic of
various theories that pathologized Black women’s reproductive behaviors, such as
E. Franklin Frazier, Daniel Moynihan, and William Julius Wilson. Seeking a coun-
ter-narrative, Evelynn Hammonds wrote in 1997 that “To date, there has been no full
length historical study of African American women’s sexuality in the United States.”
When Dorothy Roberts wrote Killing the Black Body in 1997, she refuted such theories
with a strong historical, political, and economic analysis connecting Black women’s
reproduction and mothering and the legal systems of control. She wrote about
the “explosion of propaganda and policies that degrade Black women’s reproductive
decisions” for the political and economic enrichment of white elites.
Only more recently has the gynecological labor of Black women been deeply
explored, such as Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid in 2006.
As Nicole
Ivy reports:
The 19th century surgical theaters in which American gynecological science was
perfected were sites animated by multiple forms–and myriad conceptions—of
labor…the lives and work on enslaved women…were alternately effaced and
re-imagined in support of the dominant narratives of medical progress. …It
troubles prevailing historiography of slavery and medicine by considering the
repetitive representations of black women’s bodies as part of the reproductive work
that they were called to do.
Similarly, aiming to profit from Black women’s gynecological labor, medical
professionals led the campaign to end access to midwifery services in the Black
community. Black “granny” midwives had provided most of our reproductive health
care since the Middle Passage using indigenous knowledges brought from Africa. For
the most part, African Americans were denied services by white physicians and
hospitals because of segregation until the middle of the 20th century. Starting in
the 1950s, laws restricting the practices of midwives were passed around the country.
For example, in 1976 there were more than 100 lay midwives in practice in Alabama
and nearly all of them were Black. The state passed Act No. 499, revoking the permits
of these providers upon whom rural Black women depended. This story of the
massive illegalizing of Black midwives is told in Listen to Me Good: The Story of
an Alabama Midwife by Margaret Charles Smith and Linda Janet Holmes.
Fortunately, more Black women are writing about reproductive politics than ever
before. Historian Cynthia Greenlee and lawyer-turned-writer Imani Gandy, among
others, diligently document the reproductive experiences of Black women. Greenlee
excavates the history of Black abortion providers before Roe v. Wade. Gandy, a legal
analyst, pays close attention to the reproductive laws and policies affecting African
American women. Toni Bond-Leonard, founder of Chicago’s Black Women for
Combahee at 40 289
Reproductive Justice and the first Black woman to manage an abortion fund, is
completing a Ph.D. dissertation developing a theology of reproductive justice,
examining the attitudes of Black Christian women in comparison to the theologies
of their respective religious institutions. She has migrated from frontline activism
to the academy to enrich this emerging body of scholarship using intersectionality
and the legacy of Combahee to develop a theory of “Just Reproduction.”
Obviously, the Black community has a variety of opinions about abortion,
contraception, motherhood, and even Black feminism. Reproductive justice is not
reducible to identity politics and is fundamentally anti-essentialist, because no one
viewpoint can fully express the multiple meanings and subject positions of diverse
people who experience reproductive injustices. Countering caricatures of Black
women’s sexuality begins with deconstructing the racialized, misogynist discourse
that pervades popular culture and social understandings.
Offered to the intellectual commons of inquiry, reproductive justice has
impressively built bridges between activists and the academy to stimulate thousands
of scholarly articles, generate new women of color organizations, and prompt the
reorganization of philanthropic foundations.
Activists created connections with
other movements such as Black Lives Matter by using an intersectional approach.
Some mainstream organizations rebranded themselves in response to the power of
the women of color who conceptualized, birthed, and propagated this new
These are significant achievements for a radical concept created in the
margins only twenty-three years ago.
What is Reproductive Justice?
In June 1994, twelve black women working in the reproductive health and rights
movement birthed the concept of reproductive justice at a pro-choice conference
on health care reform in Chicago.
We created “reproductive justice” because we
believed that true health care for women needed to include a full range of
reproductive health services. While abortion is one primary health issue, we knew
that abortion advocacy alone inadequately addressed the intersectional oppressions
of white supremacy, misogyny, and neoliberalism. From the perspective of African
American women, any health care plan must include coverage for abortions,
contraceptives, well-woman preventive care, pre- and postnatal care, fibroids,
infertility, cervical and breast cancer, infant and maternal morbidity and mortality,
intimate partner violence, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted infections.
In simplest terms, we spliced together the concept of reproductive rights and social
justice to coin the neologism, “reproductive justice.”
Reproductive justice is based on three interconnected sets of human rights: (1) the
right to have a child under the conditions of one’s choosing; (2) the right not to have
a child using birth control, abortion, or abstinence; and (3) the right to parent
children in safe and healthy environments free from violence by individuals or the
Reproductive justice was never meant to replace the reproductive health
(service provision) or reproductive rights (legal advocacy) frameworks. Instead, it
290 Souls July–September 2017
was an amplifying organizing concept to shed light on the intersectional forms
of oppression that threaten Black women’s bodily integrity. It rapidly propelled a
growing movement of women of color activists from many social locations to fight
for reproductive dignity.
Reproductive justice is rooted in the belief that systemic inequality has always
shaped people’s decision making around childbearing and parenting, particularly
vulnerable women. Institutional forces such as racism, sexism, colonialism, and
poverty influence people’s individual freedoms in societies. Other factors—such as
immigration status, ability, gender identity, carceral status, sexual orientation,
and age—can also affect whether people get appropriate care. For instance,
undocumented immigrant women in U.S. detention centers are denied counseling
after sexual assault, reproductive health care, and access to menstrual supplies. Many
are civil detainees, rendering legal aid inaccessible, leaving their health care and
human rights to immigration authorities and the criminal justice system.
Sexuality has become a political and economic driver of late-stage capitalism and
right-wing political mobilizations as neoliberal elites destroy the Keynesian welfare
state of the 20th century to achieve unfettered profits and global domination. As a
concrete example of intersectional praxis, the reproductive justice framework
includes sexual freedom and bodily autonomy, making visible the material
consequences of embodiment. Not only biologically defined women experience
reproductive oppression. By highlighting the distinction between biological sex
and socially constructed gender, our analysis includes transmen, transwomen, and
gender-nonconforming individuals. For example, trans and intersex people are fre-
quently coerced to undergo gender reassignment surgery that results in involuntary
sterilizations in order to obtain vital identity documentation such as driver’s licenses
that match their preferred identities.
Such policies limit their reproductive options
as a form of covert reproductive control by the state. Reproductive justice addresses
the essentialism of gender-specific accounts that neglect how differences shape
people’s material realities, leaving undiscovered reproductive vulnerabilities shaped
by white supremacy and neoliberalism. White supremacy as used in this article is
a lethal body of ideas comprised of racism, Christian nationalism, homophobia,
nativism, settler colonialism, transphobia, misogyny, and authoritarianism.
Intersectionality through a reproductive justice lens offers a theoretical and
practical approach that accounts for this interlocking matrix of oppression that is
frequently parsed into different disciplines such as Native American Studies, Queer
Studies, Economics, African American Studies, Women’s Studies, Social Studies,
American History, International Relations, and so on. Reproductive justice is inher-
ently interdisciplinary because it is a lacuna-filling “narrative shorthand riddled, in
practice, with contradictions, accidents, and surprises,” in the words of Hortense
By making visible the web of apparently disparate policies that form a tota-
lizing containment system, reproductive justice expands the meaning of population
control (eugenics) to intersect practices that—regardless of intent—limit reproductive
options for women of color, Indigenous people, and other marginalized communities
globally. We scrutinize all public policies to comprehensively analyze systemic
Combahee at 40 291
reproductive restraints to consider unexpected connections that affect childbearing
and parenting. These include freedom of movement, immigration restrictions, the
prison-industrial complex, racial and gender binaries, racial profiling and police
brutality, racist and sexist media portrayals, resource allocations through tax policies,
welfare and public assistance, health care systems, insurance affordability, housing
availability, eviction policies, food insecurity, educational opportunities, zoning
regulations, public utilities, internal displacement through natural disasters or
eminent domain, voting rights, religious bigotry, credit, finance regulations, civil
liberties restrictions, and environmental racism. Nearly every field of human
endeavor affects and is affected by reproductive politics because empires need
Reproductive justice provokes and interrupts the status quo and imagines better
futures through radical forms of resistance and critique. Dictating who can and
should have children, and under what conditions, is one way the U.S. government
exerts power over all communities, but particularly singles out communities of color
for reproductive punishment, linking racial differences with sexual differences to
maintain white control. These decisions always benefit the economic and racial inter-
ests of financial and social elites.
These interests are imperfectly disguised by the
manipulative cynics who believe that white people are superior to people of color,
despite the ontological uncertainty of racial categories as analyzed by Michael Omi
and Howard Winant.
Systems express this ideological viewpoint that concretizes
many false binaries such as male/female, Christian/non-Christian, immigrant/citizen
in deciding who is targeted for reproductive management.
Reproductive justice as a conceptual frame interrogates the ongoing biological and
non-biological power relationships between people of color and variations of “white
people,” centering in its foundational analysis a critique of the ideology of white
supremacy as it temporally affects reproduction. A pro-choice myopia only analyzing
misogyny inadequately responds to multifaceted attacks. For example, failing to
differentiate between the beliefs of formal and informal white supremacists regarding
democracy, capitalism, people of color, Jews, Muslims, and non-Aryan “white people”
offers a thin analysis of the rationale for restricting abortion rights, limiting sex edu-
cation, and prohibiting health care coverage for contraceptives while deregulating
corporations, ruining the environment, and attacking democratic institutions.
Pro- and anti-natalist policies change over time depending on the perceptions of
elites who dictate public policies. For example, the state of Vermont targeted white
French Canadians for sterilization to reduce their population during the eugenics
campaign in the early 20th century.
Conversely, beginning in the early 21st century,
teen pregnancy birthrates are rising in only one American population, white teens.
Seemingly contradictory policies can best be explained through a reproductive justice
lens based on the inherent intersectionality of the human rights framework.
External control over other peoples’ reproduction is a tool of domination and
oppression, as described by the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention
and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide because it can be characterized as
“imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly
292 Souls July–September 2017
transferring children of the group to another group.”
Reproductive oppression is
genocide, or “reprocide,” as I prefer to name it. The universality of reproductive
justice compels examinations of all social practices and individual and group
experiences to examine contradictory power differentials contoured by race, gender,
citizenship, ethnicity, ability, and class. It offers easily understood concepts for acti-
vists as well as tantalizing complexities for academics that interrogate relationships
and the tangled problems associated with such relations examining subtleties,
elaborations, and omissions.
One of the features of oppression is not only the loss of voice, but the tools to find
it, as disability rights activist Irving Kenneth Zola described.
Reproductive justice
activists sought an interconnected and universal thesis that incorporates difference
and intersectionality far beyond the U.S. Constitution. At the September 1994 Cairo
International Conference on Population and Development, we fortified our initial
analysis developed three months earlier by heeding women of the Global South
who used the human rights framework to make stronger claims for sexual and repro-
ductive autonomy, emphasizing the dialectic between individual and group rights.
The foundation of reproductive justice rests on the eight primary categories of
human rights: (1) Civil; (2) Political; (3) Economic; (4) Social; (5) Cultural; (6)
Environmental; (7) Developmental; and (8) Sexual.
The human rights framework
exposes the “immorality and barbarism of the modern face of power” in the words
of Upendra Baxi, because it accounts for globalization, neo-liberalism, and neo-
fascism while explaining how categories of difference relate to power differentials.
The universality of the reproductive justice framework means that everyone has
the same human rights. Applying the theory of intersectionality accounts for what
every person needs—based on individual and group identities—to have their human
rights protected and respected. In other words, intersectionality is the process;
human rights are the goal.
The Politics of Knowledge Production
Reproductive justice became an intellectual and spiritual home for me since I was
present at its birth, and co-mothered its evolution through my organizing and writing.
In the early 1970s, I knew very little about reproductive politics, although I was ster-
ilized in 1976 at age 23. Like many Black women I was a personal, not a professional,
feminist. I read The Black Woman by Toni Cade (Bambara) and The Autobiography of
Malcolm X by Alex Haley in 1970 as a first-year college student at Howard University,
and through it first learned about Black feminist praxis while satisfying my left-brain
orientation as a chemistry and physics major.
As a teenager, I engaged with the
Black nationalist movement in Washington, DC working in anti-gentrification and
anti-apartheid movements using a Marxist-Leninist analysis. I belonged to a D.C.
Study Group through which we learned about class struggle, international solidarity,
and dialectical materialism to study economics, history, and social sciences.
Yet I was not drawn to predominantly white radical organizations, mostly because
they did not prioritize fighting white supremacy and were too sectarian.
Combahee at 40 293
Instead, I developed my radical feminism within Black, nationalist spaces because
of my work on ending sexual violence in the African American community at the
D.C. Rape Crisis Center in the 1970s. I was also a member of the National Black
United Front Women’s Committee, working with experienced sisters like Safiya
Bandele, Nkenge Toure, Andrée Nicola McLaughlin, Jamala Rogers, and Barbara
Omolade. Nkenge, a former member of the Black Panther Party, recruited me to
the Rape Crisis Center, demonstrating her intersectional experiences combining
the struggles against white supremacy and sexual violence.
Black nationalist spaces presented little support for addressing intra-racial sexual
violence. Often, we were shouted down by men and women for confronting the
masculinist ideologies and behaviors of Black nationalists. Other times we were
patronizingly ignored, at least until we revealed patterns of misogyny and sexual
abuse within Black nationalist formations. Many of the male activists and scholars
within these formations scoffed at the idea that there was anything problematic about
a Black patriarchy. As Black women developing our feminist consciousness, we
argued that one of the keys to defeating white supremacy was dismantling patriarchy,
not Black masculinity, to no avail. The “brothas” could not explain how a Black
revolution could be successful when one half of the revolutionary forces was
unaccountably brutalizing the other half through rape, battering, and childhood
sexual abuse.
Michele Wallace emphasized this contradiction in her controversial 1978 book,
Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, that critiqued the misogyny of Black
nationalist movements.
Even Black women critics of feminism challenged
misogyny within Black nationalist movements. Linda LaRue, while bitterly caustic
about the white liberalist wing of the women’s liberation movement, nevertheless
accurately analyzed that Black male expressions of territoriality over Black
women’s bodies was scarcely separable from the same patriarchal claims by white
conservatives of the day.
The Black feminists I knew of in the 1970s were working in isolated pockets around
the country in New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington DC, St. Louis, San Francisco,
Gainesville (FL), and Atlanta. I first heard about Black women fighting sterilization
abuse and for abortion rights, such as the 1971 Mt. Vernon, NY group.
Fran Beal’s
“Double Jeopardy” writings in the Third World Women’s Alliance newsletter alerted
me to previous work she had written in the 1970s about abortion rights activism by
Black women.
We celebrated when New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm
became honorary chairperson of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion
Laws (now NARAL Pro-Choice America).
Florynce Kennedy, a lawyer and early
National Organization for Women (NOW) member, also fought for abortion
rights in the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1973, the National Council of Negro Women
issued a cautionary statement warning of premature celebrations of Roe v. Wade,
the decision legalizing abortion:
The key words are “if she chooses.” Bitter experience has taught the black woman
that the administration of justice in this country is not colorblind. Black women on
294 Souls July–September 2017
welfare have been forced to accept sterilization in exchange for a continuation of
relief benefits and others have been sterilized without their knowledge or consent.
A young pregnant woman recently arrested in North Carolina was convicted and
told that her punishment would be to have a forced abortion. We must be ever
vigilant that what appears on the surface to be a step forward, does not in fact
become yet another fetter or method of enslavement.”
As I later learned, it was not that Black women were not doing the work. They influ-
enced the reproductive rights movement, but did not determine its trajectory. We
lacked the national capacity to share news about our organizing. It was not until Black
women writers mostly—but not exclusively—in the academy began covering and reco-
vering Black women’s activist histories in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the
threads of these reproductive rights activists began weaving into a visible movement.
While working at NOW, I was tasked with mobilizing women of color for the first
national march for abortion rights in 1986. I encountered a deafening silence from
many of the leading Black women’s organizations, particularly the sororities,
religious organizations, and professional associations. The lack of response was
probably due to many factors, not the least of which was distaste for working with
white feminists.
The only Black women’s organizations who understood their
history of reproductive rights activism and openly supported abortion rights were
the National Council of Negro Women, the Coalition of 100 Black Women,
the National Black Women’s Health Project (NBWHP), and the National Political
Congress of Black Women.
After leaving NOW, I moved to Atlanta to work at NBWHP. My next job was
monitoring hate groups, organizing anti-fascist events, and investigating the links
between racist and anti-abortion violence in the 1990s. I founded the National
Center for Human Rights Education in 1996. My professional journey circulated from
women’s rights, to civil rights, to human rights, and arrived home as a co-founder of
the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective in 1997.
As an organizer, I needed to know our history of reproductive resistance. As Hazel
Carby has analyzed, “The Black women’s critique of history has not only involved us
in coming to terms with ‘absences’; we have also been outraged by the ways it has
made us visible, when it has chosen to see us.”
Up until the 1970s, Black women’s
reproductive health and rights issues beyond sterilization abuse were largely
neglected. When race was studied, the subject was men; when gender was studied,
the subject was white women. When Black women historians, literary critics, and
sociologists began to fill these gaps, the subject of reproductive agency was also
under-studied. I needed information on the links between historical practices and
patterns of resistance to organize against contemporary reproductive abuses.
Providentially, in the late 1980s, a Ph.D. candidate named Jessie Rodrique sent me
a draft of her essay on Black women and the 1920s early birth control movement for
I was excited to learn how she read between the lines in women’s and
African American historical reclamations to find evidence of Black women’s birth
control activism. I only wished her research further extended to abortion—an even
more disguised history—to form a more comprehensive picture of the range of
Combahee at 40 295
measures Black women used, including infanticide. I began feverishly interrogating
every source I could locate, searching for abortion evidence by re-interpreting
previous histories and literature, and delving into archives. Without any formal
training as a historian, I began my own untutored expedition of archival recovery
to develop a narrative of Black women and abortion, wanting to trace practices from
our pre-enslavement history to the modern context.
Some limited information was available. A 1991 study by the National Council of
Negro Women revealed that 58 percent of Black women beyond the age of 18 never
used birth control, but only 1 percent of those studied said they wanted to get
pregnant, and only 2 percent said they did not know how to use birth control.
disconnect produces the disproportionately high unintended pregnancy and abortion
rates in the African American community. Black women obtain one third of the
abortions in the United States and this proportion has remained consistent over
The same study revealed that 80 percent of African American women believe
that a woman should make her own decision about abortion, and 76 percent rejected
the false belief that abortion is a white-engineered genocidal plot.
I learned that the reproductive labor of Black women was extensively covered in
other books that described the forced genetic and legal reproduction of enslaved
people, but these accounts most often portrayed Black women as victims, not agents.
Black women’s post-slavery reproductive experiences were generally omitted, but
Black women cut their birthrate in half after slavery. Few historians attributed this
sociological and demographic evidence to Black women’s agency.
I sought to
explain changes in Black birth rates sociologists documented by making correlations
between their organizing strategies, such as through the Colored Women’s Club
movement, and produced my first essay, “African Women and Abortion” in
Since then, I have been criticized by Black anti-abortion zealots for defending
our reproductive autonomy from those who perceive us as mere breeders for the
race, such as the sponsors of the national anti-abortion billboard campaign claiming
that “the most dangerous place for a black child is in the womb” launched in 2010.
Challenging Black Masculinist Projections onto the Bodies of Black Women
One of the reasons I felt compelled to combine work against sterilization abuse and for
abortion rights simultaneously was the response to Black feminism from Black men in
the nationalist movement that introduced me to liberatory struggle, and the resistance
of the feminist movement to challenging white supremacy. I felt poised between two
competing movements, and needed to organize intersectionally from the standpoint
of a radical African American feminist, addressing racism, sexism, and capitalism.
As said previously by many writers, such as bell hooks, Black masculinity is not
the problem; Black patriarchy is.
Black feminists frequently contest declarations
of ownership of our bodies by men who assume that heterosexuality is the innate
norm, and seek to enforce strict gender boundaries between men and women. Black
misogynists reinforce the patriarchal concept that cultures, institutions, religions,
and economic systems were crafted only by men to serve the interests of only
296 Souls July–September 2017
men. Like their white counterparts, they perceive reproduction as the province of
men, and understand that controlling reproduction shapes African American com-
munities. Yet Black men do so from standpoints as failed patriarchs, disempowered
by white supremacy. By focusing primarily on the power differentials between men,
masculinist anti-racist discourses invisibilize the experiences of Black women except
as objects of sexual and reproductive subordination. As Paula Giddings observed
during the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation controversy,
“More than ever before it is essential that we advance a discourse on sexuality that
is liberating for those who engage in it and truncating to the souls of those who
don’t” to challenge manipulation of Black women’s sexuality.
Many iterations of these masculinist territorial claims over Black women’s bodies
exist through history promoted by those who believe one of the ways to defeat white
supremacy is to promote a form of “cradle competition,” to use Margaret Sanger’s
In other words, Black women must outbreed white women to defeat white
supremacy. Black nationalists have expressed such “power through population” sen-
timents since the days of the Marcus Garvey movement that associated security
against racist oppression with growing population numbers.
The 1934 seventh
annual convention of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association unani-
mously passed a resolution condemning birth control.
Black male opposition
against family planning may also be expressed violently: a clinic was burned down
in Cleveland in the 1970s by suspects convinced that birth control was genocide.
The previously mentioned anti-abortion billboards recycled the abortion-as-genocide
arguments of the misogynist wing of the Black Power movement.
Patriarchs on the
right and left seek to control women’s fertility.
Paradoxically, racialized genocide arguments against birth control and abortion go
both ways, predicting either the end of the Black race or the end of the white one.
White nationalists circulate a film, Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human
Family, created to look like a documentary in 2008, that combines right-wing
Christian morality and ultra-conservative ideology to argue that the sexual
revolution, gay marriage, and declining white fertility rates constitute a set of sins
that will collapse Western civilization.
Another white anti-abortion group, Life
Dynamics, produced a film in 2009 called Maafa 21 that distorted Black history
and claimed that abortion is a Planned Parenthood–inspired genocidal plot.
counter these claims, SisterSong produced We Always Resist: Trust Black Women
in 2011 to affirm Black women’s reproductive justice activism.
Instead of shying away from motherhood, there is, instead, a perception of a cult
of motherhood in the Black community. When journalist Leon Dash wrote in 1988
that nearly a fourth of all unmarried teenage mothers intentionally became pregnant,
he invited a Black feminist interrogation of why.
Is early motherhood a self-
emancipatory project for young Black women? Does the ability to exercise maternal
authority in lieu of other avenues of empowerment and self-esteem hold particular
meanings for young Black women? Has other data on teen pregnancy, sexually trans-
mitted infections, incarceration rates, and school dropout patterns been intersected
with the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse among Black girls? What are the
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results of cultural pressures by religious leaders and family members not to use birth
control or seek abortions? How are we positively expressing our sexual human
rights? How does gender fluidity affect reproductive options? These are the questions
reproductive justice theory and activism seek to answer.
Some Black men have challenged these masculinist presumptions. Reproductive
justice proponents like Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion provider in Alabama and
Mississippi, follow in the footsteps of others like Dr. Kenneth Edelin who was con-
victed in 1975 for providing abortions even after Roe decriminalized the practice in
In rejecting arguments that claim abortion is Black genocide, Parker analyzes
that “They [the anti-abortionists] understand that by curtailing abortion for black
women they curtail it for white women, too. …The attack on abortion rights is
nothing less than an effort to put all women in their place.”
Dr. T.R.M. Howard
provided abortion services in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s as a civil rights
Dr. Edgar Keemer, an African American physician based in Detroit, was
another well-known and medically respected provider who was convicted and jailed
for a brief period in the 1950s for performing illegal abortions. Many Black women
were also helped by a white minister, Rev. Howard Moody, who established the Cen-
ter for Reproductive and Sexual Help in New York City and the Clergy Consultation
Service in 1967, a network of 1,400 members of the clergy who provided abortion
referral services. They helped more than 450,000 women in the years before Roe.
Keemer resumed his abortion work after his release and ultimately became a major
referral point for the Clergy Consultation Service.
Faith Evans became the first
African American male president of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights in
the mid-1980s, organizing people of faith to support reproductive freedom.
Organizing a Reproductive Justice Movement
The first national organization to specifically address Black women’s reproductive
health issues was the NBWHP (now the Black Women’s Health Imperative) founded
by Byllye Avery in 1984 after the widely successful conference on Black Women’s
Health Issues at Spelman College in 1983 that attracted nearly 2,000 attendees.
Avery, after co-founding both an abortion clinic and a birthing center, launched a
movement that answered the demand by Angela Davis: “What is urgently required
is a broad campaign to defend the reproductive rights of all women—and especially
those women whose economic circumstances often compel them to relinquish the
right to reproduction itself.”
A decade later, the concept of reproductive justice
was born and the leaders of NBWHP were among its founding mothers.
Reproductive justice resists white ethnocentric feminist histories, theories, and prac-
tices that claim to represent “all” women.
As Black feminist experts on reproductive
politics, we built on the emerging fields of Critical Race Theory and Critical Feminist
Theory that challenged essentialist analyses that posit that one authentic female or
black “voice” exists that can be generalized to speak for all women or Black people.
We examined all histories and policies designed to control Black women’s
reproductive and parenting practices to develop our unique theory. From medical
298 Souls July–September 2017
experimentation to draconian policies of incarceration and punishment, coercive
reproductive policies signal the government’s transition from overt sterilization
before the 1980s into covert and coercive policies to “actively coerce Black women
into voluntarily sterilizing themselves, either through permanent surgery or through
long-acting barrier and chemical sterilization procedures, such as the copper IUD,
Norplant, and Depo-Provera.”
After the initial conceptualization by Black feminists in 1994, the first organiza-
tion actively promoting reproductive justice was the SisterSong Women of Color
Reproductive Justice Collective, founded in 1997 by Luz Rodriguez, then director
of the Latina Roundtable on Health and Reproductive Rights.
At its first national
conference in 2003 at Spelman College, SisterSong invited women of color to con-
sider whether reproductive justice could be used as an organizing strategy to build
a new movement of women of color to exert power in the reproductive health
and rights movements. Other pre-existing organizations, such as Asian and Pacific
Islanders for Reproductive Health (now Forward Together), the National Latina
Institute for Reproductive Health, the Native American Women’s Health Education
Resource Center, and SisterLove (an HIV/AIDs organization), quickly incorporated
the framework. Over the next decade, women of color developed or reformulated
new formations like California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, SPARK Repro-
ductive Justice NOW!, Black Women for Reproductive Justice, the National Asian
Pacific American Women’s Forum, New Voices Pittsburgh for Reproductive Justice,
and the Milwaukee Reproductive Justice Collective, among others.
Through building collectives, organizations, and alliances, women of color acti-
vists successfully, if inadvertently, overwhelmed the pro-choice framework through
political synergy by radical women of color and white women in activist and
academic arenas who insisted on anti-imperialist and anti-racist analyses of repro-
ductive politics. By including but not relying solely on social media strategies, cam-
paigns by women of color changed policies, defeated legislation, and re-centered
critical battles, such as eliminating the Hyde Amendment.
The year 1994 was a significant conceptual moment for launching generic leader-
ship in reproductive politics, described by Barbara Ransby as a “‘A process of social
influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the
accomplishment of a common task’—and a confidence in the wisdom of ordinary
people to define their problems and imagine solution[s].”
In analyzing SNCC
organizer Ella Baker’s leadership style, Ransby quotes Antonio Gramsci who said,
“The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in elegance, which
is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active partici-
pation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader’ not just a
simple orator.”
The collective birthing and propagating of the reproductive justice
framework demonstrated that a powerful social justice movement could organize
around an idea, not only a charismatic individual.
We understood that we could not build a movement only within the pro-choice/
pro-life binary frame, and only based on stories of individual women’s experiences.
We needed an intersectional episteme for valuing our bodies based on a sustained
Combahee at 40 299
analysis of white supremacy that often describes Black women as sexually
irresponsible, promiscuous Jezebels, or as combative, perpetually angry Sapphires,
as Patricia Hill Collins explains.
Under the masculinist gaze of white supremacy,
our bodies are imagined as reproductively unmanageable, unrapeable, and
unrestrained in our passions. We instead reimagined our bodies as sites of pleasure,
struggle, resistance, oppression, and fugitivity to reconfigure ourselves as subjects not
objects of reproductive control.
Instead of inscribing our blackness as a negative location and our bodies as human
and financial capital for others to exploit, reproductive justice emerged from Black
women’s experiences based on subjugated knowledges, the kinds of knowledge
excluded by the dominant pro-choice movement because of our subordinated status.
Our social location became a site of power rather than simply a statement of identity,
as we composed our new framework from the margins. As Collins said, “Black
women intellectuals who articulate an autonomous, self-defined standpoint are in
a position to examine the usefulness of coalitions with other groups, both scholarly
and activist, in order to develop new models for social change.”
Because reproductive justice praxis and theory accounts for diversity and
differences among people and avoids essentialism, it examines multiple experiences
of injustice and subordination. Its ambiguity, flexibility, and open-endedness
provides a heuristic and evolving approach revealing insights about multiple and
intersecting individual and group experiences by examining the webs of social
structures that affect reproductive decision making. As a conceptual framework, it
appeals to many audiences by employing multiple lenses through which many
scholars and activists can adapt the framework for particularizing and generalizing
Feminist Activism and Theory and Reproductive Justice
Like intersectionality, reproductive justice has become somewhat of a buzzword by
those in the feminist movement who undervalue and overvalue its promise. In
offering a seemingly infinite number of categories of reproductive oppression, it is
concerned with which transversal categories make the most material differences in
peoples’ lives. Which are most salient within the construct of white supremacy? This
is a question of performance of identities rather than the rigidity of classifications.
For example, for transgender people, how a person sees their own gender identity
is often different than how society perceives them. Yet that dissonance has deadly
consequences, proven by the numbingly frequent murders of trans people, parti-
cularly those of color.
Reproductive justice theory, strategy, and practices emerge out of the distinct his-
torical realities of diverse communities. Because of the increasing popularity of the
reproductive justice analysis, leading many to adopt and/or co-opt the framework,
in 2006 a group of women of color defined our own standards and a methodology
to establish parameters for how it is applied, while also offering tremendous scope
for invention and intervention. There is no “correct” way to apply reproductive
300 Souls July–September 2017
justice; the criteria delineate the most common incorrect ways to under-realize its
dynamic potential:
Intersectionality—issues must be inter-connected
Connects the local to the global
Based on the human rights framework
Makes the link between the individual and community
Addresses government and corporate responsibility
Fights all forms of population control (eugenics)
Commits to individual/community leadership development that results in power
Puts marginalized communities at the center of the analysis
Understands that political power, participation of those impacted, and policy
changes are necessary to achieve reproductive justice
Has its own intersectionality of involving theory, strategy, and practice, and,
Applies to everyone.
By using these criteria, any organization may reformulate its mission and work
to embrace the reproductive justice framework. However, it would be hubristic to
co-opt the work of the reproductive justice movement if the organization is not in
integrity with the above-named criteria. This distinction has created some confusion
in the pro-choice movement because some reproductive justice advocates assert that
organizations not led by women of color should not use the term. This is a limited,
essentialist analysis. Just because Black women created the framework, it does not
only apply to the African American community. That overly simplistic critique
contains at least two faulty presumptions. First, that Black women cannot create
universal praxis and theory applicable beyond our social location. This has been
disproven by previous broadly popular and salient theories of identity politics and
intersectionality. Second, this faulty assumption claims we only focused on proble-
matizing the pro-choice framework and our relations with the predominantly white
movement. Factually, we placed ourselves as Black women in the center of our lens,
not the problems of and with white women.
Within the realm of reproductive politics, abortion is the focus of a large portion of
the feminist movement, dominated by liberal feminists foregrounded in the media and
large organizations. This singular approach is both appropriate and insufficient. It is
appropriate because 47,000 women die each year from unsafe abortions worldwide,
about eight per hour.
Beyond the significance of claims for women’s bodily auto-
nomy, a preventable health crisis with that many casualties is a cause for worldwide
alarm. The role of abortion in mobilizing those opposed to women’s human rights
worldwide is clear with the thousands of restrictions promulgated to build the political
power of conservatives and religious fundamentalists.
Regulatory and punitive laws,
packaged as consumer protection for women, are coupled with direct action, arson, and
homicide to decrease access to abortion when strategies to legally outlaw it stumble.
Feminist arguments for abortion rights became less radical over the years.
The first wave of activism was, interestingly, not expressed as support for abortion
Combahee at 40 301
legalization, but for voluntary motherhood to prevent the high mortality rates of
illegal and unsafe abortions. Anarchist feminist Emma Goldman, who declared that
women had a right to avoid sex to avoid pregnancy, started her birth control
campaign in the 1890s. She was arrested twice for distributing birth control
information, and actually recruited Margaret Sanger into the movement. The
two parted ways when Sanger became singularly focused on birth control for
women’s empowerment, while Goldman confronted broader economic, social
and political injustices.
This activism resonated with African American women who endorsed the cam-
paign for birth control. They talked about voluntary motherhood through abstinence
and the right of women to say no to sex, which challenged Victorian anxieties
and changed American norms. Feminist-thinking Black women promoted self-
determination, respectability, and racial uplift to contest white supremacist stereo-
types of sexual licentiousness and depravity. In 1894, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin
wrote in The Women’s Era, “Not all women are intended for mothers. Some of us
have not the temperament for family life,” echoing Goldman’s stance.
The abortion rights activism of the second wave of feminism followed more in
Sanger’s footsteps than Goldman’s. Most activists demanded repeal of anti-abortion
laws. Privacy became the central platform after Roe in 1973 and formed the basis of
the pro-choice framework. A few more radical voices, like those in the Combahee
River Collective, demanded that abortion rights be contextualized within the struggle
against white supremacy, homophobia, and capitalism.
The insufficiency of the pro-choice framework became clearer with the 1976 Hyde
prohibition denying government funding for abortion. A restriction that started out
targeting poor women on Medicaid now affects people of all classes, including people
incarcerated in federal prisons, people in the military, and on Indian Reservations.
This broadening of Hyde’s impact through the Affordable Care Act finally alerted
the mainstream pro-choice moment to the existential dangers of ignoring repro-
ductive injustices experienced by vulnerable people. This type of failure allows abor-
tion opponents to equate abortion with forced sterilization, and allows abortion
proponents to be accused of racism, population control, and neglect. These weak-
nesses in the feminist movement became successful anti-abortion strategies.
In the 21st century, most anti-abortionists seek to criminalize women and physi-
cians, as they did under the 1873 Comstock Law prohibiting the distribution of infor-
mation on abortion and contraception. Now they have added racialized pseudo–civil
rights rhetoric to their arsenal. Prosecutions of those attempting self-abortion
proliferate, and miscarriages are deemed suspect and investigated. The increasing
prosecution of pregnant people and physicians occurs in the context of a bloated
and racist prison industrial complex eagerly gorging on people ensnared in its traps,
producing more wealth for economic elites. Fetuses are privileged over women’s
rights, and they try to use human rights language to claim that abortions are “crimes
against humanity” with no sense of irony. Apparently, women lose their human
rights when pregnant. A singular focus on abortion is patently inadequate to respond
to these innumerable intersections of race, class, gender, and the state.
302 Souls July–September 2017
Connecting these developments in the activist community strengthened our
reproductive justice analysis, shifted the terms of the debate, and increased the power
of women of color. Intersectional theories interrogated social construction theories
that understated the importance and consequences of specific embodiments. The
question remains what impact will reproductive justice theory and praxis have in
academic spaces with their fine-shaved and overlapped discourses on post-
modernism and post-structuralism? Knowledge is never innocent of the context
and the subjectivities with which it was produced. Privileged academic, institutiona-
lized feminist discourses require deciphering and offer little access for non-academic
political analyses to be valued socially and politically. One wonders if some propo-
nents of such disembodied theories are giddily trying to divorce themselves from
the toxic legacies of white embodiment, or perhaps deconstruct all forms of identity
politics to relativize privileges and disadvantages in their resistance to essentialism by
deconstructing the categories altogether.
Yet tribalistic white identity politics produced the chaos of the Trump presidency.
We need to analyze the reality of white identity politics, not simply discourse them
away. The problem is not the white identity, per se. The problem is the uses to which
it has been put. White supremacy and its handmaiden white privilege are the
concrete from which the social construction of identities is built. Is it possible (or
even desirable or necessary) to deconstruct our intersectional individual and group
identities to neutralize the deadly vulnerabilities we experience through them?
Instead of disavowing identities, identities are how we can determine the differing
and varying human rights needs of groups and individuals. Reproductive justice is
a sustainable framework in which the reproductive concerns of all people can be
mediated to re-allocate social benefits.
Using the concept of multiple lenses to express polyvocal standpoints,
reproductive justice allows reframing of values and demands that multiple audiences
perceive as vital and fundamental to their human rights. Supporters devote time and
energy to understand their experiences through their own lens. Instead of focusing
on who is excluded by traditional feminist theories, reproductive justice is a
sophisticated methodology ample enough to be universally adaptable, offering little
purchase for claims of exclusion.
Post-modernism challenges the binary oppositions of Western philosophical
thought while also conceptualizing multiple and shifting identities, for which thinking
about intersectionality provided a methodology for analyzing the relationships between
gender, race, and class. As Kathy Davis observed, the development of the concept of
intersectionality “coincided with Foucauldian perspectives on power that focused on
dynamic processes and the deconstruction of normalizing and homogenizing cate-
gories. Intersectionality seemed to embody a commitment to the situatedness of all
By providing a flexible framework that allows theorists to incorporate
their own social location, intersectionality enhanced the possibilities for examining
how categories of race, class, and gender are interdependent and mutually constitutive.
Reproductive justice theory incorporating intersectionality may be extended
to address post-modernist and post-structuralist theories, essentialism, and the
Combahee at 40 303
materiality of identities. Reproductive justice assesses post-structuralists who appear
to neglect how categories of difference affect the reproductive conditions of indivi-
duals and groups. This creates discourses on political relativism; however, political
relativism becomes moral relativism when white supremacy is ignored and its
material impacts on bodies of disadvantaged people are under-theorized or dismissed
altogether. For example, Crenshaw analyses how Black women experience much of
the sexual aggression and violence that the feminist movement challenges, but Black
women’s experiences also include their racially subordinated status within a white
supremacist construct.
Failing to intersect the social construction of race and
gender provides an impoverished analysis that denies the material reality of Black
women’s experiences of gender oppression.
As Judith Butler analyzes in dissecting the famous phrase, “the personal is polit-
ical,” women have assumed labels we did not create; we are performing gender. I
assume since race is also a social construct, she could include it in her analysis of
performativity. She says that “gender identity is a performative accomplishment
compelled by social sanction and taboo,” and yet goes on to also say that, “the
body…is a materiality that bears meaning.”
While biological and gender labels
may not be accurate or static, the categories have consequences through their cultural
meanings. In fact, we take on and embody the constructs; we endure them because
society requires it, and is dangerous not to. As Butler confirms, “as a strategy for
survival, gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences…and those
who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished.”
Flesh, ungendered and unraced, cannot offer a radical practice and theory, and
cannot be discoursed away by contemporary critical analyses. Through our Black
bodies, our communities are laboratories for social as well as medical experiments,
such as testing with long-term contraceptives like Depo-Provera, destruction of
the social welfare contract through welfare reform, or the over-institutionalization
of Black people through the prison industrial complex, all perceived as solutions
to the vexing problem of a Black underclass maintained and re-created by a white
supremacist society.
According to historian Naomi Murakawa, “The U.S. did not
face a crime problem that was racialized. It faced a race problem that was crimina-
Black female flesh offers a praxis for demonstrating, as Spillers says, that
“the captive flesh demarcate[s] a total objectification, as the entire captive com-
munity becomes a living laboratory.”
Linda Alcoff attempts to reconcile the tensions between post-modernism and
post-structuralism and lived experiences. In her work on The Future of Whiteness,
Alcoff analyzes whiteness not only as a social construct, but how it changes over
time. She points out that even as the biological categories of humans become more
amorphous, the concept of race will survive as probably will gender.
She points out
that many white theorists long for the days which differences can be ignored, as a
dismissal of the importance of identity politics.
Alcoff’s reconciliation bolsters
the intersectionality of reproductive justice theory and praxis.
Reproductive justice activists assert that policies that affect peoples’ lived
experiences cannot be dismissed by deconstructing the very categories that mark
304 Souls July–September 2017
victims for discrimination and inhumane treatment. Categories and differences are
not the problem, but the use to which such distinctions are put. For example, countries
such as Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden, and Russia have promoted campaigns to
enlarge their white breeding stock, as well as sterilizing disabled people, particularly
those from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds. The disabilities are not the prob-
lem; it’s the disabling environment in which people are targeted for reproductive
Now that these constructs exist, what about the voices of those disadvantaged by
the philosophized traditions in speaking to how these constructs affect our lives? If
constructed realities are the fundamental problem, what are the solutions for the
material world? We cannot ignore the implications of social constructs and impacts
on our reproductive choices. What is the voice of the subordinated? What are we
saying through our voices, our social, political, and cultural actions?
In her article “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes about
the epistemological violence of imperialism and white supremacy against those she
terms “subalterns,” people denied political and economic power and social mobility
who “can speak and know their conditions.”
She identifies the historical and
ideological factors that obstruct the possibility of being heard from the periphery,
and what it means to have political subjectivity. Particularly, reproductive justice acti-
vists challenge obstructions that devalue the knowledges emanating from our silenced,
de-privileged arenas.
To answer Spivak’s question about can the subaltern speak, as a reproductive
justice activist I suggest beginning at another place: why remain in the subaltern
position in the first place? It is by definition a disempowered place from which to
claim voice and knowledge. While not denying the objective forces of subordination,
we can choose whether to accept the epistemological limits of a subaltern space. We
have options about how to amass and use our power to challenge devaluation and
objectification. Instead of holding our hands out like Dickens’ Oliver Twist begging
for more, we recognize that academics and mainstream organizations need us
more than we need them to substantiate their theories and obtain funding for their
operations. That is a powerful position reversal from which to insist on elevating the
reproductive justice framework and offering a critique of the ideology of population
control from the right and the left while challenging hegemonic practices in the
academy and mainstream activism.
It is unlikely that those who have an incomplete and late-developing analysis of white
supremacy will be best prepared to respond to this historical moment of triumphalism
by this authoritarian regime I call Americanized fascism. We must guard against the
surreptitious replacement of radical Black feminists with other voices that have failed
to mount protracted and intersectional resistance to racialized reproductive injustices
and white supremacy, while at the same time avoiding racial essentialism. Spivak also
writes about using the human rights framework for creating space for new knowledge
Combahee at 40 305
production that subverts western hegemony by avoiding subaltern essentialism by
reminding us of Paulo Freire’s astute observation that “during the initial stages of
the struggle, the oppressed…tend themselves to become oppressors.”
Yet significantly, the 94% of Black women who rejected Trump in 2016 wrote a
memo others ignored. This proto-fascist resurgence is a “distinct political movement
with comprehensible characteristics and definable strengths and weaknesses,” to
paraphrase Frederick Clarkson who analyzes the Christian Right.
justice offers one strategy for building a coherent human rights movement based
on an anti-fascist analysis that incorporates race, gender, and class because it is obvi-
ous that previous liberal frameworks are inadequate. Without a sturdy intersectional
framework for analyzing reproductive politics, we risk underestimating the threat to
our existence, and this is not just an academic intellectual exercise. As Ellen Messer-
Davidow says, “Social change is not merely work performed in the present; it is the
process of crystallizing a future.”
She also adds, “In times such as these, there are
no innocent bystanders. If you’re a bystander, you’re not innocent.”
Reproductive justice thrives in the borderlands of ambiguity, and its incomplete-
ness offers amazing flexibility and adaptability to allow multiple interpretations that
invite elaboration and clarification. Reproductive justice is a process of synthesis with
which to explore new territory and make new human rights claims. For example,
ethicist Grace Kao offers an analysis that links human rights to the concept of ethical
realism to express human interdependence and a commitment to the equal moral
worth of all human beings.
Multiple interpretations of reproductive justice theory
defy a hierarchical assumption that privileges one interpretation over another. By
opening possibilities for further analyses and discourses, reproductive justice praxis
offers a fertile site for imagining creative intersections of power and difference to
gain new insights and possibilities. We explore new questions about reproductive
politics and activist and scholarly engagement as a fitting tribute to the legacy of
the Combahee River Collective.
1. Zakiya Luna, “From Rights to Justice: Women of Color Changing the Face of US
Reproductive Rights Organizing,” Societies Without Borders 4 (2009): 343–65.
2. “A Black Feminist Statement: The Combahee River Collective,” in All the Women
Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, edited by Gloria T. Hull,
Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith (Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1982), 15.
3. The co-creators of the reproductive justice framework (naming ourselves Women of
African Descent for Reproductive Justice) published a statement called Black Women
on Universal Health Care Reform on August 16, 1994 in the Washington Post by 836 Black
women critiquing President Clinton’s health care strategies,
category/wadrj-on-health-care-reform/ (accessed April 16, 2017):
Dear Members of Congress:
Black women have unique problems that must be addressed while you are debating health
care reform legislation. Lack of access to treatment for diseases that primarily affect Black
women and the inaccessibility of comprehensive preventive health care services are
306 Souls July–September 2017
important issues that must be addressed under reform. We are particularly concerned about
coverage for the full range of reproductive services under health care reform legislation.
Reproductive freedom is a life and death issue for many Black women and deserves
as much recognition as any other freedom. The right to have an abortion is a personal
decision that must be made by a woman in consultation with her physician. Accordingly,
unimpeded access to abortion as a part of the full range of reproductive health services
offered under health care reform, is essential. Moreover, abortion coverage must be
provided for all women under health care reform regardless of ability to pay, with no
interference from the government. WE WILL NOT ENDORSE A HEALTH CARE
In addition to reproductive health services, health care reform must include:
Universal coverage and equal access to health services. Everyone must be covered under
health care reform. To be truly universal, benefits must be provided regardless of income,
health or employment status, age or location. It must be affordable for individuals and
families, without deductibles and copayments. All people must be covered equally.
Comprehensiveness. The package must cover all needed health care services,
including diagnostic, treatment, preventative, long-term care, mental health services,
prescription drugs and pre-existing conditions. All reproductive health services must
be covered and treated the same as other health services. This includes pap tests,
mammograms, contraceptives methods, prenatal care, delivery, abortion, sterilization,
infertility services, STD’s and HIV/AIDS screening and treatment. Everyone must also
be permitted to choose their own health care providers.
Protection from discrimination. The plan must include strong anti-discriminatory
provisions to ensure the protection of all women of color, the elderly, the poor and
those with disabilities. In addition, the plan must not discriminate since sexual orien-
tation. In order to accomplish this goal, Black women must be represented on
national, state and local planning, review, and decision-making bodies.
We, the undersigned, are dedicated to ensuring that these items are covered under
health care reform legislation. As your constituents, we believe that you have a responsi-
bility to work for the best interests of those you represent, and we request that you work
for passage of a bill that provides coverage for these services.
Sincerely, (836 Black Women).
4. The 12 women and their affiliations at the time who became the founding mothers of the
concept of reproductive justice were:
Toni M. Bond Chicago Abortion Fund
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
Evelyn S. Field National Council of Negro Women
Terri James American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois
Bisola Maringay National Black Women’s Health Project, Chicago Chapter
Cassandra McConnell Planned Parenthood of Greater Cleveland
Cynthia Newbille National Black Women’s Health Project (now Black Women’s
Health Imperative)
Loretta J. Ross Center for Democratic Renewal
Elizabeth Terry National Abortion Rights Action League of Pennsylvania
“Able” Mabel Thomas Pro-Choice Resource Center, Inc.
Winnette P. Willis Chicago Abortion Fund
Kim Youngblood National Black Women’s Health Project
Combahee at 40 307
5. Hull, All the Women, 16.
6. See Monica Simpson, “Reproductive Justice and ‘Choice’: An Open Letter to
Planned Parenthood,” Rewire, August 5, 2014,
reproductive-justice-choice-open-letter-planned-parenthood/ (accessed March 22,
7. Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory,” in New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985–2000
Barbara Christian, edited by Gloria Bowles, M. Biulia Fabi, and Arlene R. Keizer (Chicago,
IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 41.
8. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and Politics of
Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 2000), vii.
9. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Whose Story Is It, Anyway? Feminist and Antiracist Appropriations
of Anita Hill,” in Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence
Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Toni Morrison (New York,
NY: Pantheon Books, 1992), 404.
10. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and Politics of
Empowerment (New York: Routledge Press, 2000), 18.
11. Crenshaw, “Whose Story Is It, Anyway?,” 404.
12. See Audre Lorde, “An Open Letter to Mary Daly,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by
Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (Watertown, MA:
Persephone Press, 1981), 94. Also, Doris Davenport, “The Pathology of Racism: A Conversation
with Third World Wimmin,” ibid., p. 85. Also, Gloria I. Joseph and Jill Lewis, Common Differ-
ences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives (New York: Anchor Books, 1981).
13. Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 202.
14. Nicole Rousseau, Black Women’s Burden: Commodifying Black Reproduction (New York:
Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), 13.
15. Evelynn M. Hammonds, “Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality: The
Problematic of Silence,” in Feminist Theory and the Body, edited by Janet Price and
Margrit Shildrick (New York: Routledge, 1999), 94.
16. Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty
(New York, NY: Pantheon Press, 1997), 3–4.
17. Harriet A. Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation
on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (New York, NY: Broadway Books,
18. Nicole Ivy, “Bodies of Work: A Meditation on Medical Imaginaries and Enslaved
Women,” Souls Journal 18 (2016): 1, 11.
19. Margaret Charles Smith and Linda Janet Holmes, Listen to Me Good: The Story of an
Alabama Midwife (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1996).
20. Groundswell Fund, “which Exclusively Funds Reproductive Justice Organizations, for
Example, Was a Subsidiary of the Tides Foundation, and Became Independent in
2010.” See (accessed March 22, 2017). Other foundations
include the Overbrook Foundation, and General Services Foundation. Larger foundations
include the Educational Foundation of America and the Ford Foundation.
21. Kenrya Rankin, “Black Lives Matter Partners with Reproductive Justice Groups to Fight
for Black Women,” ColorLines, February 9, 2016,
black-lives-matter-partners-reproductive-justice-groups-fight-black-women (accessed
March 22, 2017).
22. See Jackie Calmes, “Advocates Shun ‘Pro-Choice’ to Expand Message,” New York Times,
July 28, 2014,
pro-choice-to-expand-message.html?_r=0 (accessed March 22, 2017). See also Marlene
Gerber Fried, “Reproductive Rights Activism in the Post-Roe Era,” American Journal
of Public Health 103 no. 1 (2013): 10-14. See also Miriam Pérez, “A Tale of Two
308 Souls July–September 2017
Movements,” Colorlines, January 22, 2015,
movements (accessed March 22, 2017).
23. For more on the origin of reproductive justice see Toni M. Bond Leonard, “Laying
the Foundations for a Reproductive Justice Movement,” Radical Reproductive Justice:
Foundations, Theory, Practice, Critique, edited by Loretta J. Ross, Lynn Roberts, Erika
Derkas, Whitney Peoples, and Pamela Bridgewater Toure (New York: Feminist Press,
2017), 39.
24. Loretta J. Ross and Rickie Solinger, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2017).
25. Steve Williams, “The DMV Wants an Accurate Driver’s License, Unless You’re Trans,”
trans.html (accessed August 25, 2017); Silvie Vale, “Forced and Coerced Sterilization: The
Nightmare of Transgender and Intersex Individuals,”
individuals/ (accessed August 25, 2017).
26. For more on the white supremacist/white nationalist movement, now called the Alt-Right
by mainstream media, see Leonard Zeskind, Blood and Politics: The History of the White
Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream (New York: Farrar Straus
Giroux, 2009).
27. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics
17, no. 2 (1987): 78.
28. For examples, see Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the
Meaning of Liberty (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997); Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire:
Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 2003); Barbara Gurr, Reproductive Justice: The Politics of Health Care for Native
American Women (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015); Asian Communi-
ties for Reproductive Justice, “What is Reproductive Justice?” http://strongfamiliesmove- (accessed March 22, 2017); and Elena Gutiérrez,
Fertile Matters: The Politics of Mexican-Origin Women’s Reproduction (Austin: University
of Texas Press, 2008).
29. It’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss the ambiguity and non-scientific bases
for racial classifications. See Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in
the United States, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge Press, 2015).
30. See Lutz Kaelber, “Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 States,”
lkaelber/eugenics/VT/VT.html (accessed March 22, 2017). Also see Alexandra Minna
Stern, Eugenic Nation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); and Nancy
Ordover, American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
31. Despite the racialized stereotype of teen pregnancy as a Black phenomenon, white teenage
pregnancy rates are rising in states that mandate the toughest restrictions on sex edu-
cation, birth control, and abortion access. While the national teen pregnancy rate in
2010 was 34 per 1,000 teens, the most conservative states—with the most stringent restric-
tions—had much higher rates, 48 per 1,000, and higher, up to 76 per 1000 in Mississippi,
surely because these states resist providing the kinds of resources that would reduce teen
pregnancy, concentrating instead on “abstinence only” programs. See Kathryn Kost and
Stanley Henshaw, U.S. Teenage Pregnancies, Births and Abortions, 2010: National and
State Trends by Age, Race, and Ethnicity (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2014), (accessed March 22, 2017). See also,
Amanda Peterson Beadle, “Teen Pregnancies Highest in States with Abstinence-Only
Policies,” ThinkProgress, April 20, 2012,
461402/teen-pregnancy-sex-education (accessed March 22, 2017).
Combahee at 40 309
32. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, “United Nations, adopted by
the General Assembly,” December 9, 1948,
volume%2078/volume-78-i-1021-english.pdf (accessed March 22, 2017).
33. Kenneth Irving Zola, “Developing New Self-Images and Interdependence,” in Independent
Living for Physically Disabled People, edited by Nancy Crewe, Irving Kenneth Zola and
Associates (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1983), 49–59.
34. It should be noted that women’s health activists, particularly from the Global South, led
the way in applying the human rights framework to reproductive health and rights issues,
articulating a transnational framework at the International Conference on Population and
Development in Cairo in 1994. See C. Alison McIntosh and Jason L. Finkle, “The Cairo
Conference on Population and Development: A New Paradigm?,” Population and Devel-
opment Review 21, no. 2 (1995): 223–60.
35. See William Felice, Taking Suffering Seriously: The Importance of Collective Human Rights
(Albany: State University of New York, 1996).
36. Upendra Baxi, “Inhuman Wrongs and Human Rights,” quoted in Shulamith Koenig,
“Equal Access to Full Human Rights for Women,” Huffington Post, March 18, 2010,
html (accessed March 24, 2017).
37. Toni Cade Bambara, The Black Woman (New York: New American Library,
1970); Malcolm X, Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press,
38. Michele Wallace, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (New York: Dial Press,
39. Linda LaRue, “The Black Movement and Women’s Liberation,” in Words of Fire: An
Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New
York: NY: The New Press, 1995), 165.
40. Benita Roth, “The Making of the Vanguard Center: Black Feminist Emergence in the
1960s and 1970s,” in Still Lifting, Still Climbing: African American Women’s Contemporary
Activism, edited by Kimberly Springer (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 74.
41. Ibid., 73.
42. “Shirley Chisolm, “Facing the Abortion Question,” in Words of Fire: An Anthology of
African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New York: The
New Press, 1995), 390–95.
43. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, “Florynce “Flo” Kennedy,” in Words of Fire: An Anthology of
African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New York: The
New Press, 1995), 101.
44. Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried, Loretta Ross, and Elena R. Gutiérrez, Undivided
Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice (Boston, MA: South End Press,
2004), 5.
45. See Sandra Morgen, “On Their Own: Women of Color and the Health Movement,” in her
Into Our Own Hands: The Women’s Health Movement in the United States, 1969–1990
(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 41–69. Also see Gloria I. Joseph
and Jill Lewis, Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives
(New York: Anchor Books, 1981).
46. Silliman et al., Undivided Rights, 74–75.
47. Hazel V. Carby, “White Women Listen: Black Feminism and the Boundaries of
Sisterhood,” in The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, Center for
Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, 1982, 212.
48. Jessie Rodrique, “The Black Community and the Birth-Control Movement,” in Unequal
Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History, edited by Ellen Carol DuBois
and Vickie L. Ruiz (New York: Routledge Press, 1990), 333–44.
310 Souls July–September 2017
49. Paula Giddings, “The Last Taboo,” in Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays
on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Toni
Morrison (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), 461.
50. Guttmacher Institute, “Higher Abortion Rates Among Women of Color Reflect Higher
Rates of Unintended Pregnancy,” August 13, 2008,
pregnancy (accessed March 28, 2017).
51. Linda Villarosa, ed., Body & Soul: The Black Women’s Guide to Physical Health and
Emotional Well-Being (New York: HarperPerennial Books, 1994), 186.
52. See Deborah Gray White, Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves
(New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999), 88–89. Also see Paula Giddings, When and
Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York:
HarperCollins, 1984), 137.
53. Loretta J. Ross, “African American Women and Abortion: 1800–1970,” in Theorizing
Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women, edited by Stanlie M. James
and Abena P.A. Busia (New York: Routledge Press, 1993).
54. Loretta J. Ross, “Trust Black Women: Reproductive Justice and Eugenics,” in Radical
Reproductive Justice: Foundations, Theory, Practice, Critique, edited by Loretta J. Ross,
Lynn Roberts, Erika Derkas, Whitney Peoples, and Pamela Bridgewater Toure (New York:
Feminist Press, 2017), 58.
55. bell hooks, “Loving Black Masculinity,” in her Salvation: Black People and Love
(New York, NY: Perennial Press, 2001), 128–53.
56. Giddings, “The Last Taboo,” 460.
57. Margaret Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization (New York: Humanity Books, 2003), 173.
Original published 1922.
58. See White, Too Heavy a Load, 120–124.
59. Robert G. Weisbord, Genocide? Birth Control and the Black American (Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, 1975), 43.
60. Roberts, Killing the Black Body, 100.
61. SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective policy report, “Race,
Gender, and Abortion: How Reproductive Justice Activists Won in Georgia,” https:// (accessed March 21, 2017).
62. Aviva Galpert, “Demographic Winter: Right-Wing Prophecies of White Supremacy’s
Decline,” Political Research Associates,
demographic-winter-right-wing-prophecies-of-white-supremacys-decline/# (accessed
March 24, 2017).
63. See (accessed March 24, 2017).
64. See
black-women-and-reproductive-freedom/ (accessed March 24, 2017).
65. Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 182.
66. Kenneth C. Edelin, Broken Justice: A True Story of Race, Sex and Revenge in a Boston
Courtroom (New York: Arbor Press, 2008).
67. Willie Parker, Life’s Work: From the Trenches, A Moral Argument for Choice (New York:
Simon & Shuster, 2017), 165.
68. Cynthia R. Greenlee, “T.R.M. Howard: Civil Rights Rabble-Rouser, Abortion Provider,”
Dissent Magazine, May 16, 2013,
civil-rights-rabble-rouser-abortion-provider (accessed April 12, 2017).
69. Douglas Martin, “Howard Moody who led Historic Church Dies at 91,” The New York
Times, September 13, 2012,
moody-minister-of-judson-memorial-church-dead-at-91.html (accessed April 12, 2017).
See also Parker, Life’s Work, 210.
Combahee at 40 311
70. Edgar Keemer, Confessions of a Pro-Life Abortionist (Detroit: Vinco Press, 1980), 163–64,
71. Silliman et al., Undivided Rights, 36.
72. Byllye Avery, “Breathing Life into Ourselves: The Evolution of the National Black
Women’s Health Project,” in The Black Women’s Health Book: Speaking for Ourselves,
edited by Evelyn C. White (Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1994). The National Black Women’s
Health Project is now the Black Women’s Health Imperative.
73. Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class (New York: Random House, 1983), 206.
74. Caroline McFadden, “Critical White Feminism Interrogating Privilege, Whiteness, and
Antiracism in Feminist Theory,” 2011, HIM 1990–2015. 1159, http://stars.library.ucf.
edu/honorstheses1990–2015/1159 (accessed March 27, 2017).
75. See Adrien Katherine Wing, Critical Race Feminism: A Reader (New York: New York
University Press, 1997), 7.
76. Rousseau, Black Women’s Burden, 141.
77. For more on SisterSong’s history, see Jennifer Nelson, More Than Medicine: A History of
the Feminist Women’s Health Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2015),
210–20. See also Loretta Ross, Sarah Brownlee, Dazon Dixon, and Luz Rodriguez, “The
‘SisterSong Collective’: Women of Color, Reproductive Health, and Human Rights,”
American Journal of Health Studies 17.2 (2001): 79.
78. Sadly, some of these organizations no longer exist because of the difficult funding climate
that privileges providing most financial resources to large, mainstream organizations over
grassroots organizations led by women of color, particularly African American women. It’s
beyond the scope of this brief article to analyze this climate, but Incite! Women of Color
Against Violence has analyzed this trend in its anthology, The Revolution Will Not Be
Funded: Beyond the Non-profit Industrial Complex (Boston, MA: South End Press, 2007).
As Ella Baker cautioned in 1963, “I’m very much afraid of this ‘Foundation Complex.’
We’re getting praise from places that worry me,” quoted by Incite!, http://www.incite- (accessed March 15, 2017).
79. For examples of policy work by women of color organizations, see SisterSong Women of
Color Reproductive Justice Collective’s policy report, “Race, Gender, and Abortion: How
Reproductive Justice Activists Won in Georgia,”
SisterSong_Policy_Report.pdf (accessed March 21, 2017); All* Above All, “130 Organiza-
tions Sign Letter for a Budget Without Abortion Coverage Restrictions,” http://allabo-
age-restrictions/ (accessed March 21, 2017); National Asian Pacific American Women’s
Forum, “Replacing Myths with Fact: Sex-Selective Abortion Laws in the United States,”
(accessed March 21, 2017).
80. Barbara Ransby, “Ella Taught Me: Shattering the Myth of the Leaderless Movement,”
Black Educator, July 9, 2015,
black-leadership-today.html (accessed March 21, 2017).
81. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 361.
82. Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 81–86.
83. Ibid., 37.
84. Miriam Pérez, “The Meaning of Reproductive Justice: Simplifying a Complex Concept,” in
Rewire, February 8, 2013,
complexity-reproductive-justice/ (accessed March 21, 2017).
85. Dan Avery, “Seven Transgender Women Have Been Murdered in the First Two Months
of 2017,” Logo, February 28, 2017,
2017/02/2017/ (accessed April 2, 2017).
312 Souls July–September 2017
86. World Health Organization, “Unsafe Abortion: The Preventable Pandemic,” Journal
Paper, Sexual and Reproductive Health 4,
publications/general/lancet_4.pdf (accessed April 4, 2017).
87. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the 2017 state legislative sessions are well
underway, with nearly every state legislature already in session. In just the first three
months of the year, legislators introduced 1,053 provisions related to reproductive health.
Of these measures, 431 would restrict access to abortion services and 405 are proactive
measures seeking to expand access to other sexual and reproductive health services.
rights-state-policy-trends-first-quarter-2017 (accessed April 12, 2017).
88. Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 108.
89. Kathy Davis, “Intersectionality as Buzzword: A Sociology of Science Perspective on What Makes
a Feminist Theory Successful,” Feminist Theory 9 (2008):67–71. doi:10.1177/1464700108086364.
90. Crenshaw, “Whose Story Is It, Anyway?,” 414.
91. Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology
and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal, 40, no. 4 (1988): 521–22.
92. Ibid., 522.
93. It is little known that the 12- and 14-year-old African American Relf sisters in Alabama,
who were sterilized in a famous lawsuit won in 1973, were previously administered trial
versions of Depo-Provera as unconsenting child test subjects before their infamous
operations that led to the movement to end sterilization abuse in the 1970s. See Jennifer
Nelson, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement (New York: New York
University Press, 2003), 65–67.
94. Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2014), 3.
95. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 68.
96. Linda Martin Alcoff, The Future of Whiteness (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2015).
97. Linda Martin Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2006), 5.
98. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Colonial Discourse and Post-
Colonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (Hertford-
shire: Harvester Wheatseaf, 1994), 93.
99. See Loretta J. Ross, “The Color of Choice: White Supremacy and Reproductive Justice,” in
Incite! Women of Color Against Violence (Boston, MA: South End Press, 2006), 53–65.
100. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Righting Wrongs,” South Atlantic Quarterly 103, no. 2/3
(2004): 542.
101. Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy
(Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1997), 20.
102. Ellen Messer-Davidow, Disciplining Feminism: From Social Activism to Academic
Discourse (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 219.
103. Ibid., 288.
104. Grace Y. Kao, Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Washington, DC:
Georgetown University Press, 2011).
About the Author
Loretta J. Ross started her career in the women’s movement in the 1970s, working at
the DC Rape Crisis Center, NOW, the National Black Women’s Health Project, and
SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, among other social
justice organizations. She is one of the co-creators of the reproductive justice
Combahee at 40 313
framework and has lectured extensively on human rights, racism, appropriate
whiteness, Calling In the Calling Out Culture, and violence against women. She
has co-written three books on reproductive justice, including a primer, Reproductive
Justice: An Introduction, co-written with Rickie Solinger and published in 2017. Her
latest book is the SisterSong 20th anniversary anthology, Radical Reproductive Justice,
co-edited by Lynn Roberts, Erika Derkas, Whitney Peoples, and Pamela Bridgewater-
Toure, also published in 2017. She was a Visiting Professor in Women’s Studies at
Hampshire College 2017–2018.
314 Souls July–September 2017
... O conceito de justiça reprodutiva, que teve origem entre as feministas negras estadunidenses, surgiu com o objetivo de enquadrar o direito ao aborto nessa perspectiva mais ampla (Dorothy ROBERTS, 2015;Loretta ROSS, 2017). O que essas teóricas pretendem demonstrar é que a legalização do aborto não se restringe a uma pauta relacionada à liberdade individual baseada na retórica da escolha, refletida no slogan "meu corpo, minhas regras". ...
Full-text available
Resumo: Como os movimentos feministas influenciam a aprovação de proposições legislativas? Para responder a esta pergunta, apresento os estudos de caso sobre a legalização do aborto no Brasil e na Argentina, a partir de levantamento bibliográfico, análise de documentos e de matérias de jornais e revistas. A comparação entre os dois países permitiu levantar quatro principais explicações sobre por que, a despeito das semelhanças no que diz respeito aos desenhos institucionais e às trajetórias de ativismo, esta demanda histórica dos movimentos feministas foi institucionalizada somente na Argentina.
... Coverture's Logics in and Through Race, Class, and Gender. Reproductive health and welfare policies must be analyzed in terms of the narratives around race, gender, and class they invoke to fully account for the ways they harm people, especially people of color, women, and poor women (Barn & Mantovani, 2007;Gordon, 1994;Masters et al., 2014;Ross, 2017b). For example, most women who access abortion are parents and many access TANF, WIC, or both (Kortsmit et al., 2021). ...
In the aftermath of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which overturned the federal constitutional right to abortion , states have begun to recriminalize the procedure. These abortion bans raise important questions about the political and social status of women and pregnant people in the United States. Moreover, restrictions in social welfare programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which serve low-income pregnant people and parents, raise similar questions. The regulation and administration of all three are framed by race, class, and gender. To understand how these restrictions (a) claim to protect women but ultimately function to control, police, and surveil and (b) rely on imagined, stereotype-laden psychological states such as vulnerability , irresponsibility, or irrationality, we turn to the British Common Law doctrine of coverture, which subsumed a married woman's legal, financial, and political identities under her husband's. The American colonies, and later, states of the United States, drew from British Common Law to craft laws that regulated relationships between men and women. Taken together, this analysis can provide a more comprehensive accounting of the cumulative harms experienced by women, poor people, people of color, and pregnant people in today's health and social welfare landscape. We conclude with recommendations for psychologists and other mental health providers to address, in practice and advocacy, the ethical dilemmas and obligations raised by the reach of coverture's logics in people's lives.
... O termo 'justiça reprodutiva' foi apresentado pela primeira vez na Conferência Internacional para População e Desenvolvimento, realizada em Cairo (1994). A acadêmica e ativista afro-estadunidense Loretta Ross (2017), uma das primeiras intérpretes desse conceito, explica que o termo surgiu com o objetivo de reunir as experiências vividas por um grupo de mulheres negras operárias que lutavam pela escuta dos seus direitos reiteradamente ignorados, inclusive dentro do movimento feminista, o qual priorizava as demandas das mulheres brancas. Para a autora, "justiça reprodutiva é o completo bem-estar, físico, mental, espiritual, político, social e econômico das mulheres e meninas, como base na plena conquista e proteção dos direitos humanos das mulheres" (ROSS, 2006, p. 14). ...
Full-text available
O exercício da reescrita da decisão judicial exigiu desconstruir e ressignificar a decisão original, com o objetivo de elaborar e produzir uma outra resposta para o caso concreto eleito, qual seja, o aborto por malformação fetal. Assim, estudantes, professoras e pesquisadoras foram desafiadas a ocupar o lugar de juízes e juízas e redigir decisões alternativas, de acordo com o Protocolo para Julgamento com Perspectiva de Gênero, do Conselho Nacional de Justiça (BRASIL, 2021).
Purpose: An overview of reviews was conducted to summarize the evidence and synthesize the results from systematic reviews. Methods: The Cochrane and Preferred Reporting Items for Overviews of Reviews reporting guidelines were followed and the protocol was registered. Electronic and manual searches were conducted to identify systematic reviews, published between January 1990 and July 2022. Studies with outcomes relating to all areas of adolescent sexual and reproductive health (SRH) (changes in knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, skills, and practices) were considered. The ROBIS (Risk of Bias in Systematic Reviews) tool was used to assess quality. Results: A total 1849 articles were retrieved, and eight reviews met the inclusion criteria. Three of the eight reviews included meta-analyses. All three of these reviews demonstrated a significant improvement in HIV knowledge. One reported improved attitudes toward people living with HIV but none found any statistically significant effect on condom use or other SRH behaviors. The remaining five reviews included reports of positive individual study outcomes related to knowledge and attitudes and provided narrative syntheses with regard to recruitment, training, support, and participation of peers. Five of the eight reviews were judged to have a low risk of bias. Discussion: Our overview demonstrates that peer-based interventions can improve SRH knowledge and attitudes. Evidence of their effectiveness in promoting healthier SRH behaviors is less certain. Any future studies need to investigate which adolescent health outcomes peer-based programs could reasonably be expected to improve using robust methodologies. Additionally, peers need to be meaningfully engaged and acknowledged as experience-based experts.
Objective: There are approximately 231,000 women detained daily within the nation's jail and prison systems with women of color making up nearly half of those experiencing incarceration. The purpose of this scoping review was to synthesize the literature on the reproductive autonomy of Black women influenced by incarceration, using the three tenets of reproductive justice. Methods: We searched PubMed, CINAHL, SocINDEX, and PsycINFO for research related to reproductive justice written in English and published in the United States from 1980 to 2022. A review of 440 article titles and abstracts yielded 32 articles for full-text review; nine articles met inclusion. Results: Eight addressed Tenet 1; five mentioned Tenet 2; none addressed Tenet 3. Recognition of the influence of incarceration on the reproductive autonomy of Black women is limited. Conclusion: The findings from this review suggest a need to address (a) reproductive choice, (b) support goals, and (c) support of justice-involved Black women.
One of the most important African American leaders of the 20th century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement, Ella Baker (1903-1986) was an activist whose remarkable career spanned 50 years and touched thousands of lives. A gifted grassroots organizer, Baker shunned the spotlight in favour of vital behind-the-scenes work that helped power the black freedom stuggle. She was a national officer and key figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a prime mover in the creation of the Studetn Noviolent Co-ordinating Committee. Baker made a place for herself in the predominantly male political circles that included W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr, all the while maintaining relationships with a vibrant group of women, students and activists both black and white. In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker's long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby shows Baker to be a complex figure whose radical, democratic worldview, commitment to empowering the black poor, and emphasis on group-centred, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries. Beyond documenting an extraordinary life, the book paints a vivid picture of the African American fight for justice and its intersections with other progressive struggles worldwide across the 20th century.
The 19th-century surgical theaters in which American gynecological science was perfected were sites animated by multiple forms—and myriad conceptions—of labor. While newly professionalized white medical men celebrated the work of their own hands in speeches and in published articles, the lives and work of enslaved women in these early clinical spaces were alternately effaced and re-imagined in support of dominant narratives of medical progress. Black women’s injuries, their suffering, their instances of endurance, and, indeed, their very bodies were made to testify to the prowess of their examining physicians. The black female test subjects who comprised the first cohorts subjected to the emergent gynecological technologies of the mid-19th-century labored under the condition of enslavement. Their value in the discursive and syntagmatic spaces of the case reports written about them during the latter decades of the century was, therefore, wrought through with the political economy of chattel slavery. This essay argues that the early clinical spaces created by the American medical men heralded as the founding fathers of American gynecology—including James Marion Sims and his colleague Nathan Bozeman—mark critical locations mapping slavery’s circuits of value production. Further, it troubles prevailing historiography of slavery and medicine by considering the repetitive representations of black women’s bodies as part of the reproductive work that they were called to do.
In Reproductive Justice, sociologist Barbara Gurr provides the first analysis of Native American women's reproductive healthcare and offers a sustained consideration of the movement for reproductive justice in the United States.The book examines the reproductive healthcare experiences on Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota-where Gurr herself lived for more than a year. Gurr paints an insightful portrait of the Indian Health Service (IHS)-the federal agency tasked with providing culturally appropriate, adequate healthcare to Native Americans-shedding much-needed light on Native American women's efforts to obtain prenatal care, access to contraception, abortion services, and access to care after sexual assault. Reproductive Justice goes beyond this local story to look more broadly at how race, gender, sex, sexuality, class, and nation inform the ways in which the government understands reproductive healthcare and organizes the delivery of this care. It reveals why the basic experience of reproductive healthcare for most Americans is so different-and better-than for Native American women in general, and women in reservation communities particularly. Finally, Gurr outlines the strengths that these communities can bring to the creation of their own reproductive justice, and considers the role of IHS in fostering these strengths as it moves forward in partnership with Native nations. Reproductive Justice offers a respectful and informed analysis of the stories Native American women have to tell about their bodies, their lives, and their communities.