Reproductive Justice: A New Home for Birthing Rights?

19 Apr

Every time it comes up I always get the same reaction. Why?

The curious point is that there is a strong division, perhaps even animosity, between birthing rights and reproductive rights. Many people in the birthing rights movement are anti-choice, some quite sternly so. This is continually surprising to folks inside and outside of reproductive justice, and as I ponder why this divide came to be I think a great deal of it stems from the beginnings of the women’s movement. Going back as far as Susan B. Anthony, who is cited again and again for her anti-choice stance, we see that even at Seneca Falls, over a hundred years before Roe v. Wade, there was division over abortion.

Fast-forward to the more immediate basis of the division, second wave of feminism—the Equal Rights Amendment, Roe, and Bra Burning Women’s Lib. At its core it was a white women’s movement grounded in privilege, the right to Choice. To choose your destiny, your profession, your goals, and make decisions about your body, mind, and soul.

What if Choice was beyond your reach? What if you didn’t have the foundation of privilege (in one of what of its many forms) to be able to choose any of those things? Where did those women fit in?

There is a pretty clear consensus that sees the women left behind by Choice, particularly low-income women of color, as the momentum that created reproductive justice. Often we forget about all the other groups excluded at this pivotal moment, and the many other iterations of this so-called women’s movement that were created then. Dare I say it, like the birthing rights folks. Where was the space for birth in a dialogue centered on abortion?

Which brings us to today. Many of these strains of the “women’s movement” still are very much separated from one another, and yet much has changed. Reproductive justice is finally truly taking flight, and I would go so far to say is creating one of the first real opportunities to undo some of this historical movement damage and reunite these clearly inextricably tied movements.

Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice defines reproductive justice as, “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic, and social well-being of women and girls, and will be achieved when women and girls have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality and reproduction for ourselves, our families and our communities in all areas of our lives.”

We see here that it is so much more than reproductive and sexual health. There are echoes of everything from human rights to economic justice. A gender exclusion remains BUT it is about the whole woman, all aspects of her being. We are now empowering women through their lifetime. Pushing for the tools to create the space for women to make their own decisions about all parts of her life. And it is here that I see the room for reunion, as many others in reproductive justice do.

In 2007, National Advocates for Pregnant Women brought these movements together for a National Summit to Ensure the Health and Humanity of Pregnant and Birthing Women. It is one of the first very public instances where we saw pregnant women in their full spectrum. Recognizing pregnancy as a part of both abortion and birth is so obvious, yet it remains revolutionary. We so rarely think of the pregnancy of the women aborting or the choice every woman who carries to term must make whether it is subconscious or not.

Beyond this we are now seeing new organizations like Choices in Childbirth coming from a birthing rights frame embracing reproductive justice. Among the advocacy sources they reference on their website are SisterSong, National Latina Institute, and National Advocates for Pregnant Women. This was unthinkable previously.

So I propose to push this model further, to not only reach across the aisle and recognize our common ground, but to advocate as one. For women who give birth, for those who don’t, for those who want to but can’t, for those who adopt, for those who abstain, for those who abort, and for those in need. Because really isn’t that what reproductive justice is all about?


10 Responses to “Reproductive Justice: A New Home for Birthing Rights?”

  1. NYCprochoiceMD April 19, 2010 at 4:24 pm #

    So true! Birthing rights & abortion rights are two sides of the same coin; it’s about autonomy and choice. I think many of the natural birth advocates/midwives/doulas are on our side already.

  2. Karen April 19, 2010 at 8:23 pm #

    I think it’s critical to value reproductive rights and realize their value throughout any pregnancy. I wrote a post recently about the connection between abortion, birth, poverty, and the value of mothering. Your comments are welcome.

  3. Courtroom Mama April 19, 2010 at 8:37 pm #

    Thanks for posting this! I think that NYCProChoiceMD is right, and there are a lot of “birthy” people who already identify with the reproductive justice movement (including, of course, the ICTC, who is a part of the SisterSong collective), and RJ advocates who care about birth. I think that maybe it’s a matter of recognizing and valuing one another… if I had a nickel for every “Why don’t feminists care about birth?” post I’ve read! It’s something I address in my most recent blog post. I think everyone feels like they’re reinventing the wheel, and that’s a shame.

    I was struck by something in your theory — you trace the divide back, in part, to the beginning of the women’s movement, but I tend to feel pointing to Susan B. Anthony as being anti-choice is really a new phenomenon, along with people who are anti-choice claiming feminist pedigree… see also, Sarah Palin. (Although I guess I’m not willing to say that being pro-choice is a prerequisite to being feminist. hm.) But I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

    I can really only speak to legal aspects because that’s my area of expertise, but I think that there really is some legitimacy to the idea that the feminist paradigm that gained supremacy in the 70s was more concerned with formal, legal equality than functional equality, so an allocation of of energy left some issues, even ones that affected primarily women of privilege, on the curbside. So, along with the left-behind women of color, we still have these persistent problems that affect mothers primarily (e.g. why is it only now that there is legal protection for breastfeeding?) There are some “personal is political” issues that made the cut, domestic violence and sexual harassment for example, but I think that ultimately there there was a discomfort with essentialism–which was useless for a legal movement centered on equality–that made feminists of the second wave cut a wide berth around anything that had to do with babymaking. Which is really too bad because a lot of very interesting stuff was happening around birth at that time, including the proliferation of Lamaze and the natural birth movement, the founding of the Farm, the list goes on and on.

    Not that that justifies the current animosity toward RJ advocates from some… there can be a little bit of suspicion of those of us who are pro-choice in birthing circles, like on some level we don’t care about babies or something. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  4. k. emvee April 19, 2010 at 9:59 pm #

    Courtroom Mama, you are right on. I think taking a reproductive justice approach is the only way that we can truly move forward here. I also think reproductive justice is the perfect framework for the pro-choice movement and birth workers to come together. For both sides of the coin, I think reproductive justice pushes the analysis and activism much deeper which is an essential step going forward.

  5. Nicole April 19, 2010 at 10:12 pm #

    Thank you all for your comments!

    NYCprochoiceMD and Courtroom Mama, I totally agree with both of you. There are many folks who care about birthing and reproductive rights and are doing incredible work around those issues simultaneously. I apologize the post didn’t give enough credit to them.

    Courtroom Mama, I unfortunately am not in the place to be convincing anyone about the intentions of first wave feminists, but I think even if it is simply modern antis claiming historical intentions it is useful to note. Maybe that’s silly though.

  6. Courtroom Mama April 19, 2010 at 10:59 pm #

    Not silly at all! and certainly useful to note. I assumed that you know more about it than I do and could comment on it, since it’s something I’m trying to sort out myself. As a feminist who identifies with both movements, I’m coming to grips with a variety of people I just “don’t get”: those who identify as anti-choice feminists, birth advocates who are explicitly anti-feminist, and even feminists who don’t value birthing issues. Anyway, great post!

  7. TheFeministBreeder April 19, 2010 at 11:37 pm #

    This is the battle I feel myself fighting most often. It seems to me that the feminists of the GenY sites will fight tooth and nail for the right to terminate a pregnancy, but once a mother decides to keep it, anything that happens to her henceforth is considered her own fault. Read the comments on the Joy Szabo story (the mother who fought against a forced cesarean) on the Jezebel site. The young feminists say that woman was crazy to want a choice, and the doctors knew what they were doing so she should just shut up about it. It embarrasses me as a pro-choice feminist that so many women of my generation have completely dropped the ball on birth choice. Women are being sliced and diced, many not knowing they even had the right to say no.

    I wrote an article on the subject during the week that the Super Bowl aired and “choice” advocates seemed to only care about Tebow’s mom, while ignoring major media coverage of birth choices stripped away from women.

    We, as reprojustice advocates, have got to start caring about both. The right to full bodily autonomy should apply to all women, pregnant or not.

  8. MomTFH April 25, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    Great post!

    I see more interest in birthing autonomy among feminists than I do pro-choice (abortion and even contraception wise) beliefs among natural birth and midwives, but that’s just a generalization based on the midwives I worked and trained with in real life (many strong anti-choicers there, even telling people not to use OCPs because they killed babies) and on the my mostly internet interactions with feminists, who seem to be very pluralistic about birth choices, and not a big fan of turning over bodies to the patriarchy at any point. But, I don’t hang out at Jezebel. Both camps are large, heterogenous groups. There is a lot of integrated support from both, and I have never had a problem writing about Tim Tebow’s ad one day and VBACs the next.

    One of my favorite examples of this support is the inclusive pro choice, abortion supporting position of the ACNM, the American Academy of Nurse Midwives. And, when I was at my first Med Students for Choice annual meeting, the keynote address hit all sorts of varied points, to supporting access to fertility treatments for people regardless of income, access to midwives and homebirth, etc.

  9. Nicole April 26, 2010 at 10:40 am #

    “I have never had a problem writing about Tim Tebow’s ad one day and VBACs the next.” I think that says it all- thanks MomTFH!

  10. MomTFH April 28, 2010 at 3:35 pm #

    @Nicole Thanks to you too!

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