Women of Color and the Pro Choice Framework #KnowYourHistory

By Amanda Grigg

Verónica Bayetti Flores at Feministing has a great piece on the New York Times’ coverage of mainstream white feminists recently “discovering” a more expansive notion of reproductive justice. Essentially, the NYT piece covers the move by mainstream feminists to embrace a more expansive notion of “reproductive justice” in place of the “pro-choice” frame as if Planned Parenthood has just discovered it via a poll and spread the word to the masses. Not true. At all. This is equivalent to the NYT publishing a story on my mom “discovering” this great new tech company called Facebook. Flores’ takedown is worth reading in full but here’s a taste:

An important and interesting topic, the potentially illuminating piece instead served to obscure the history of the move away from choice language, completely erasing women of color’s crucial role in developing the reproductive justice framework that set the stage for this move by the larger and more well-funded (and, ahem, white-lady-led) reproductive health organizations. Since then, women of color in the reproductive justice movement have been hollering a collective WTF.

The brainchild of women of color in the reproductive health and rights movements more than two decades ago, the reproductive justice framework came about due to their frustration with the “choice” framework. These activists were frustrated that most reproductive rights activism focused narrowly on abortion and the desire not to have kids when they knew that Mexican-American and indigenous women, as well as other low-income women of color on Medicaid, were getting coercively sterilized. They felt that the idea of free choices – which felt very American and patriotic to white women – never reflected the realities of women in their communities, didn’t ever feel familiar to women of color whose bodies were the historical sites of so much pain and coercion on this land of colonization and slavery. Decades ago, women of color knew that the realities of post-industrial economic decay, lowering wages, and increasing cost of living all guided and coerced low-income women’s reproductive decisions. In short, women of color have long known that the idea of “choice” is a privileged position, that it has never felt familiar to many of us, and that our liberation required a lot more than lofty Supreme Court decisions that gave us the theoretical choice to terminate our pregnancies.

Since this coverage is as WTF-worthy as Flores suggests, and since I’m up to my ears in quotes from reproductive justice and women’s health reading, I thought I’d provide some primary sources to back her up:

Here’s Angela Davis writing in 1981

From a 1979 issue of the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA) News

Over the last decade the struggle against sterilization abuse has been waged primarily by Puerto Rican, black, Chicana, and Native American women. Their cause has not yet been embraced by the women’s movement as a whole.

Historian Jennifer Nelson has an entire book documenting the often forgotten (or obscured) history of women of color in the reproductive rights movement. As Nelson explains,

Black women seldom receive proper credit for the work they have done for reproductive rights. Nor have white feminists often acknowledged the extent to which black women shaped the feminist reproductive rights movement.

In listening to black women, one discovers that they offered a more complicated view of reproductive control than did either Black Nationalists or white women’s liberationists” (emphasis added).

Expanding on research done in her book, Nelson describes the experiences of black women working as community health workers in rural Mississippi in the 1970s. They quickly realized that the traditional view of women’s reproductive health did not address the needs of their community:

a narrow view of women’s health issues did not serve black women or their families as long as basic economic and community development issues were neglected. Problems like sanitation, housing, clothing, transportation, and food were all basic economic necessities that had to be provide to make women’s reproductive health a real possibility.

Here’s yet another statement on the need to expand the reproductive rights movement from the SisterSong Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights National Conference in 2003:

The second motivating forces of SisterSong is our belief that the mainstream reproductive rights movement marginalizes the voices of women of color. The neglect of women of color has weakened the pro-choice movement and, in fact, contributes to the incessant attacks on reproductive rights that largely target the most vulnerable women.

in the United States reproductive rights work among women of color parallels, yet at the same time is distinct from, that done by predominantly white mainstream pro-choice organizations. The primary difference is that many women of color in the movement are moving away from or have never adopted the liberalist “choice” language as a defining framework and instead are embracing a global human rights framework.

url-1April 2004 marked perhaps the first reproductive justice march on Washington that included women of color among its lead organizers (the Black Women’s Health Imperative, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Rights) as well as predominantly white organizations (NARAL, Planned Parenthood and NOW). Not coincidentally the march’s name was changed from, “March for Choice” to “The March for Women’s Lives.”

As Dorothy Roberts explains, “the involvement of women of color in the March for Women’s Lives marked the culmination of decades of struggle to forge a more inclusive reproductive rights movement in the United States that would challenge constraints on childbearing as well as barriers to abortion.” Her own work, Killing the Black Body demonstrates how black women’s reproductive decision making has been devalued by the dominant understanding of reproductive freedom.

Andrea Smith has argued that the pro-choice framework for reproductive justice further marginalizes already marginalized women (notably women of color, poor women, and women with disabilities) because it doesn’t question the context in which reproductive decisions are made. Which means that the pro-choice frame ignores “the economic, political, and social conditions that put women in this position [seeking an abortion] in the first place” (from a work published in 2005).

Unfortunately none of this is history in the sense we’d like it to be – women of color, poor women, immigrant women, and disabled women continue to face these same challenges to reproductive freedom. For example, California was illegally sterilizing its prisoners as recently as 2010. Oh, and the Hyde Amendment is still a thing, and a thing we don’t talk about nearly as much as we should. As if that weren’t enough, these same groups are also facing new challenges to their reproductive freedom as new personhood laws and laws created in the 1980s to address a now debunked “crack baby” epidemic are used to imprison both women who refuse certain forms of medical care during pregnancy and those who want it. And you’ll never guess which women they’re targeting.

For further reading check out Jennifer Nelson’s Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement and Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber-Fried, Loretta Ross and Elena Guiérrez’s Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice

3 thoughts on “Women of Color and the Pro Choice Framework #KnowYourHistory”

  1. Awesome. Which one of those books has the most details about the history of forced sterilization? I’m (sadly) building a card file of historical state abuses of minorities that I feel have still yet been underreported. I had heard rumors of hormone experiments in Puerto Rico, but was not aware our government had targeted women of color for its eugenic projects closer to home.


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