A brief history of the Reproductive Justice movement

I was going to put this post up at the end of the week, as I don’t want to distract from any of our fantastic student bloggers. But given what I now understand about BrownFemiPower’s decision to end her blog, I want to make it clear immediately that SAFER acknowledges the Reproductive Justice movement as one originated by women of color, led by women of color, and designed by women of color in part to respond to the ways the pro-choice movement has historically most closely addressed the needs of white middle-class women.

We are proud to define ourselves as part of the Reproductive Justice movement because we believe that any social justice movement must meet the needs of all members of our society, and that movements to end sexual violence must be multiracial, multicultural, and multiclass (interesting that the other two are recognized by my spell checker, but that one is not) if they are going to succeed. They also must include and address men and women – acknowledging that men are also raped and that gay and trans men have often lacked the freedom to openly express their sexuality. SAFER is led by a multiracial board and employs a multiracial staff, both of which include men. We will maintain our commitment to teaching campus organizing that emphasizes an awareness of how gender, race, class, and ethnicity intersect to shape how sexual assault is prevented and responded to by school administrations and the larger communities of which our students and their schools are a part. For more on SAFER’s work with the Third Wave Foundation’s Reproductive Justice network, see here.

Reproductive Justice is a term coined in 1994 by women of color at the Cairo conference (officially the International Conference on Population and Development), some of whom went on to use that term later that year for an ad campaign by “Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice” that called for the Clinton Administration to honor its promises from Cairo in terms of its new health care plan. Three years later some of these women and many others founded SisterSong as a collective network of women of color organizations, and they have subsequently been the leaders in promoting the idea of Reproductive Justice. You can find their history of the movement here.


I first became familiar with the term at the 2004 March for Women’s Lives, a million woman march organized by SisterSong and a number of other women’s rights organizations. It instantly made sense to me as a succinct way of capturing all of the various different ways women’s (and sometimes men’s) sexuality is controlled, repressed, used as a weapon against them, and turned into a political, and sometimes literal, battleground.

The definition used by SisterSong (courtesy of Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice) sees 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.

They also define reproductive justice as “(1) the right to have a child; (2) the right not to have a child; and (3) the right to parent the children we have, as well as to control our birthing options,” and to live in conditions that allow these rights to be exercised.

Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice wrote a foundational analysis of the idea in 2005, which you can read here. In this analysis, they see reproductive justice as a necessary framework for ending reproductive oppression, a framework that works alongside a reproductive health one (which focuses on service provision) and a reproductive rights one (which focuses on individual legal rights) to create a complete, multifaceted answer to the needs of all women (of color and white) to have complete control over their own sexuality. The focus for reproductive justice is on movement building, community activism, and giving voice to those on the margins. As such it brings a community orientation and a systematic critique to the table that the other, more individually-focused, movements do not. Reproductive justice demands that we think about each person’s control over their sexuality in the broadest possible perspective and as a control infringed upon and limited by a variety of forces and oppressions.

rjsj.jpg

This graphic from the Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice makes clear how many different social justice needs intersect with Reproductive Justice, and how broadly we must think if we want our society to be a truly reproductively just one.

Even though from a certain perspective college is a place of privilege, I feel strongly that a Reproductive Justice movement is needed on most college campuses. As college becomes ever more necessary to get a job that pays more than minimum wage and as, at the same time, college tuitions continue to rise, more and more students are attending college while they and their families are stretched to the financial breaking point. They often arrive with little experience with sex or drinking or living an adult life without someone else’s supervision. Their complaints and cries for help will be met by an administration which has its own agenda (which may or may not have the students’ best interest at heart), decades more experience, and often subtle (or not so) gender, class, and race biases. We are used to silencing young voices, and for far too many people college students remain “too young” to have their voices taken seriously. Whatever their past and future class status might be, college is a vulnerable time for many students (statistically, the time in a woman’s life when she is most at risk for sexual assault is her first few weeks of college), and a time in particular when many students are struggling to define and express their sexuality. Quality sex education, powerful messages about bodily autonomy, real sexual assault prevention programs, and real support for survivors are crucial to having true reproductive justice for college campuses. My hope is that those who join such a movement on their campus will go on to take those skills, that commitment to an intersectional analysis, and that awareness of the interlocked oppressions of race, class, ethnicity, and immigrant status, as well as gender, into their future lives and their future struggles for justice. For more on how SAFER sees freedom from sexual violence as part of reproductive justice, contact us about our online seminar Wednesday April 23 at 6 pm.

    6 thoughts on “A brief history of the Reproductive Justice movement

    1. Thank you for this surprising and deeply informational post. I actually had no idea what the origins of the term “reproductive justice” were and I am thrilled and emboldened and empowered to know all of this!! I’ve always seen sexual violence as part of bodily freedom, and reproductive rights as part of sexual freedom, but this gives me such a stronger and more explicit framework in which to articulate this. I am so proud of SAFER’s participation in the Repro Justice initiative with Third Wave and so grateful that Third Wave has included us.

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    4. Thanks for the background on the term reproductive justice! I read another prior to this one, but this one is more clearly defined to my comprehension.