The Origin Story of Reproductive Justice

Reem Abdalla
July 19, 2021
(5 mins read)
Health & Wellness

Loretta J. Ross at the DC Rape Crisis Center in 1979.
"We did what black women do when we're in spaces where there are just a handful of us. We pulled the sistas together and talked about what was missing."
Toni Bond, executive director of the Chicago Abortion Fund 

In June of 1994, a group of Black women in Chicago (later called the Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice) gathered to prepare for the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. By coming together and sharing personal experiences, they planted the foundation of a multicultural and gender expressive movement. The seeds of their work made it clear: racism, sexism, classism and all the isms play an equally important role in the obstruction of justice and body autonomy for Black women and women of color. 

Coining the term reproductive justice paved the way for many grassroots organizations and coalitions I learn from today. They taught me that reproductive justice is a call to action for mainstream women’s rights movements that overlook issues related to class, race, gender & sexuality, disability and spirituality in their organizing. 

Reproductive Health VS Reproductive Justice

So what's the difference? 

When we think of reproductive health, our focus might be the physical aspects of the body; our reproductive organs, monthly cycles, menstruation and sex. Reproductive health can also refer to physical space, such as hospitals or telemedicine platforms, and the practitioners and caregivers  you meet there. Reproductive rights is an entirely separate term. It largely centers on the question of choice, like making informed decisions on which birth control to use and whether or not abortion is legal in your state. 

“There is no choice where there is no access.” 
SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective 

Reproductive justice was a direct response to the blatant disregard of what happens before and after you make a decision regarding your health. While pro-choice movements fight for the right to not have children as well as the right to have children, we need to be thinking about the right to parent those children in an environment we’re respected in. We should also be fighting to control our birthing options, like access to midwifery, different kinds of birth control and comprehensive sex & period education. 

Who coined the term?

The Women of African Descent for RJ coined the term reproductive justice to pave the way for conversations that could hold the resilience and agency of Black women in the face of reproductive and sexual oppression. For example the fight to legalize abortions completely eclipsed the realities of Black & Brown women forecefully sterilized because of the eugenics movement in the US. They realized the women’s rights movement was mostly led by middle class white cis-women who could not represent the reality of their communities. 

So in 1997, sixteen groups that represented African American, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, Latina and indigenous women (to name a few) came together to form SisterSong. Based out of Atlanta where civil rights student protests where born, the leaders of SisterSong and newer reproductive organizations held roundtable discussions, met up at a feminist book store downtown and organized dinners and happy hours. In 2004, SisterSong, Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women and other groups put together the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. 

Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice.

“We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired!” 
Fannie Lou Hamer

This was the rallying call that brought together 1,500 African American women for the first National Conference on Black Women’s Health Issues in 1983. They came from all walks of life and all ages to resist reproductive oppression - sterilization, population control, welfare reform, the war on drugs, and intrusive family planning policies. 

The activism of Black women led to an empowering platform that could recognize and analyze what women of color “have done for themselves, rather than what was done to them.” The book Undivided Rights tells the stories of the African American, Asian and Pacific Islander, Latina and indigenous women on their terms. We get to know their names and see through their work what it took to orient their community towards reproductive futurism

Your call to action.

The beginnings of reproductive justice was a movement seeded by Black women for all women, femmes and non-binary folks to come. Our series will explore topics from women of all backgrounds in their continued grace towards justice. 

Join our College Health Ambassador’s program if you’re interested in furthering the cause at your school!