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Reproductive Justice and Women's Rights

Risha Foulkes,
Women's Rights Project
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December 24, 2009

Autonomy. Equality. Racism. Eugenics. Immigration. Environment. Abortion. Gender. A list of provocative and important words shot around the room at a recent Berkeley Law School symposium on reproductive justice. The goal was to define and advance that concept and its application in lives of women in the real world.

So what exactly is reproductive justice? After listening to the discussions at the symposium, I can offer a quick answer. Reproductive justice is a broad understanding of what people from all backgrounds need to enjoy full and informed control over their reproductive lives and to be supported in their decisions to have a child, to not have a child, or to raise the children they have. What unites efforts to promote reproductive justice is the goal of confronting deeply entrenched structural inequalities that impede people’s ability to make these decisions and exercise this control.

Professor Dorothy Roberts provided some context in her keynote lecture about the discovery of genes that some scientists claim are linked to a host of “undesirable” behaviors like crime and early sexual activity. She warned that this research has given the public new reasons to blame low-income communities of color for their own poverty and disempowerment. The danger in concluding that biology is responsible for such problems, she explained, is the excuse this provides for ignoring the barriers that racism and sexism have created to self-determination and opportunity. Bit by bit, these structural barriers strip away people’s control over their reproductive lives and decisions.

As the symposium made clear, advocates have a long way to go in addressing these obstacles. However, much work to support reproductive justice is already underway all around the country—including at the ACLU.

ACLU supporters may know that we played a leading role in opposing the “child exclusion” provisions in state and federal welfare reform proposals that sought to deny public assistance to children born into families living in poverty. We have also fought for years to overturn federal restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortions so that low-income pregnant women can access the full range of health care options available to other women. And in addition to exposing the racist and sexist assumptions behind these policies, the ACLU is dismantling stereotypes and systemic barriers that are less obvious, but—as the Berkeley symposium made clear—also important to reproductive justice.

Take the rights of parents, for example. The right to raise one’s children is a critical prong of reproductive justice, and government control over the lives of low-income women of color can drastically interfere with this right. For example, several city public housing authorities have policies that ban a mother from inviting the father of her child into her home to help care for the child. The ACLU has filed suit against a public housing authority in Annapolis, MD to challenge one such overly-broad public housing policy that bans certain individuals from the premises, including people who were never charged with a crime or were found not guilty. These policies undermine the ability of parents in public housing, who are disproportionately women of color, to decide how to best raise their children.

Protecting the right to raise a child also requires protecting the right of women to earn a living. I spoke on a panel at the Berkeley symposium about the barriers to reproductive justice for low-income immigrant women working in nail salons, who are exposed to chemicals that can cause birth defects, miscarriages, and infertility. The “right” to have a child is of limited value to many low-income women who cannot access adequate financial support and childcare services. Nail salon workers face particular challenges because they usually cannot access the chemical safety information they need to make an informed decision about the risks of working with toxic chemicals during pregnancy—a decision they should not have to make in the first place.

Reproductive self-determination also requires access to adequate health care. Low-income women face particular challenges in accessing both routine health exams and more complex diagnostic care. For example, many low-income women currently are unable to afford a potentially life-saving test to determine whether they are at elevated risk for hereditary breast or ovarian cancer or to obtain a second opinion about this risk. The reason for the high cost? The government has granted patents on two human genes to Myriad Genetics, in effect giving Myriad a monopoly on testing for the genetic mutation associated with this risk and hindering the development of more affordable genetic tests by other companies. The ACLU is challenging these patents to ensure that women, particularly low-income women, can access their own genetic information and make informed decisions about their reproductive health and their ability to bear children.

From public housing policies to nail salon workers’ health to gene patents, advocacy for women’s rights should not be driven simply by a focus on gender, but by a commitment to dismantling barriers to women’s control over their reproductive lives and their decisions about whether and how to bear and raise children. Reproductive justice recognizes that differences in opportunity don’t just happen. They are created by society and influenced by stereotypes and structural inequalities. By bringing those barriers to light, the ACLU’s work around the country is expanding reproductive justice.

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