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Letter from America: Struggle for Reproductive Justice in the US by Elsa Wiehe

19.03.2011


As we have recently celebrated International Women’s Day, while
Mauritian women continue the struggle to decriminalize abortion and to
fight for equity, as Muvman Liberasyon Fam ratified a new
manifesto, here in the United States, women’s right are under attack
once again. There is much at stake at the beginning of 2011, as the
United States House of Representatives introduced a number of egregious
legislative bills that puts a ban on federal funding for organizations
performing abortions, regardless of whether they use this funding for
abortions. This means that organizations such as Planned Parenthood,
where millions of women seek health care thus would be defunded. Women
would lose access to birth control, Pap smears, breast-cancer
screenings, and many other types of preventive health care. This bill
represents another example of imperial rule. The US strives to cut
social programs to increase the budget allocated to the police, the
prison industrial complex, and intelligence on the domestic front, and
American wars abroad. This bill also constitutes a crude manifestation
of sexism and patriarchy dressed in theological rhetoric.

The
high profile bill, named “HR3” or the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion
Act” was introduced by Congressman Chris Smith, the House’s most
fervent anti-abortion member. (1) He described this proposal as one of
the House’s highest legislative priorities, contrary to the initial
promise of creating jobs. The most outrageous part of the bill is that
it changes the existing exceptions that allow for federal funding for
abortions in case of rape or incest. Sexism and misogyny reach their
paroxysm in the new bill which contains language that redefines the
meaning of rape. The bill proposes to substitute rape with “forcible
rape” and therefore specifies the kinds of rape that are “valid” for
women to get an abortion. As the monthly Socialist Worker (2)
argues, this means that statutory rape would not apply, and that women
would be in the position to prove that they had been raped against
their will. This would in effect force raped women to carry their
unwanted pregnancies to term by redefining rape as “good” or “bad.”
Cecile Richards, the President of Planned Parenthood United States, interviewed on Democracy Now!
on February 16, 2011, says that this bill is the most far reaching bill
ever seen because not only it codifies the existing law that federal
funds cannot be used for abortion but also includes a variety of other
cuts, including cuts to tax benefits for small-business owners who
provide health care coverage if this coverage includes abortion. In
addition, it takes away the right of women to have abortions even in
cases where there is desperate medical need. The acclaimed journalist
Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! called this bill the “most
dangerous legislative assault on women’s health ever” that “could place
severe limitations on women’s access to reproductive services.” (3) In
effect, women in the United States are facing the gravest assault at
their reproductive rights.

The bill has passed in the House of
Representatives. Women’s organizations and health care centers at large
are fighting this legislative push with all their might. Thousands took
to the streets to march on February 26 2011. The bill has fortunately
not yet gone through the Democrat-majority Senate, and it is not
expected to pass. Nevertheless, this is an opportunity to loudly
denounce such measures, reflect on the contemporary political, social
and cultural context that allows such legislative assaults on women to
still be introduced in our political space, and to recraft political
strategies to support women’s rights to reproductive justice.

I
use the term “reproductive justice” here in the context of the debate
on abortion. This term emerged in the 1990s in the United States as a
new way of capturing women’s differentiated struggle for reproductive
rights in light of structures of oppression linked to capitalism,
racism, and patriarchy. Reproductive justice goes beyond the simple
binary of being “for” a woman’s right to abortion or “against” a
woman’s right to abortion. The abortion debate in the United States is
too often reduced to this simple dichotomy: on the one hand, the
“pro-life” group, those who advocate for repelling access to abortion
services on moral or religious, or legislative grounds and vilify women
who “choose” abortion, and on the other, the “pro-choice” group, those
who advocate for access to such services on the same grounds, defending
women’s right to “choose.” I take issue with the liberal notion of
rational choice, because it neglects the broader social contexts for
women’s choices and women’s health.

Reproductive justice
recasts abortion and women’s health and rights in light of the social
structures that women function in and struggle against and in light of
the overall goal to achieve women’s well-being in mental, political,
economic, and spiritual, and social terms in an equitable society.
Reproductive justice recognizes that women’s choices are not solely
their own, but rather they are intricately shaped by the inequalities
linked to social structures of patriarchy, capitalism, and racism.
Reproductive justice recognizes that not all women’s struggle will be
the same. In other words, inequalities in income, differential access
to social and health services, differential access to adequate and
affordable housing, inequalities in distribution of physical and
emotional labor within and outside the household, inequalities in
access to knowledge and information about reproductive rights,
services, and available resources are all factors, among many others,
affecting women’s health and sovereignty over their bodies.
Socioeconomic status is cited as being the greatest factor contributing
to inequity in access to healthcare, above gender and race (4). If
passed, the HR3 bill would differentially impact poor women have had
the greatest struggle in access to health and health care and have had
to struggle for the right to have abortions when necessary,
particularly in light of the conservative backlash against the 1973
court case decision Roe vs. Wade, which made abortions legal
in the United States. It would particularly affect poor
African-American women in the United States, who are 3.5 times more
likely to have abortions (5). On the other hand, other women have had
to struggle for the right to have children against an
oppressive, colonial, and imperial state. Native American women, for
example, have faced a long history of forced abortion and sterilization
up until the early 1980s (6) as part of a larger racist genocide of
Native Peoples in America. Understanding that structural conditions
differently affect women’s choices over their bodies and lives moves
the abortion debate away from a solely a question of individual rights,
individual choice, or individual morality.

It is not that a
woman’s individual rights are not important, but individual rights must
be understood in in a context. To achieve reproductive freedom, we need
to understand how society is structured with interlocking systems of
oppression of class, gender, and race. Women need to make decisions
about their bodies free of constraints, oppression, or coercion. (7)
Women need to have the right to choose safe and affordable abortions if
they decide so. We make these choices as actors not above and beyond
the economic, social, and political means that are available in our
contexts, but rather we make these choices within and through these
contexts. The new MLF manifesto says in Article 8: “We want to be free
to reproduce (physically) in an atmosphere of respect. We want to
decide when we will reproduce. For this we need free and easily
accessible contraception and decriminalized abortion. Give us social
housing, employment and social services, so that we are supported in
the work of nurturing people in our care (children, the aged, the sick,
etc).” (8) In other words, reproductive justice supports reproductive
freedom: the freedom to have children when we want, while being
supported by a socio-political-economic context that provides social
services and access to adequate and free health care and health
knowledge. Let us continue our struggle for abortion rights not in
terms of liberal individual rights, but in terms of women’s health and
rights at large and the struggles needed to transform a society for
equitable distribution of knowledge, access, and resources toward
health care and reproduction.

(1) http://www.examiner.com/democrat-in-national/h-r-3-dem-slams-gop-for-redefining-rape-bill-a-violent-act-against-women
(2) Socialist Worker, March 2011, Number 728, p.18.
(3) http://www.examiner.com/democrat-in-national/h-r-3-dem-slams-gop-for-redefining-rape-bill-a-violent-act-against-women
(4)
Merzel, C. (2000). Gender differences in health care access indicators
in an urban, low-income community. American Journal of Public Health,
90(6), 909-916.
(5) http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2011/tables/11s0099.pdf
(6)
Julie Sullivan, "State will admit sterilization past", Portland
Oregonian (November 15, 2002). Available online at
http://www.people1.org/eugenics/eugenics_article_6.html
(7) Correa, Sonia and Rosalind Petchesky. “Reproductive and Sexual Rights: A Feminist Perspective.” Feminist Theory Reader. Ed. Carole R. McCann and Seung-Kyung Kim. New York: Routledge, 2003. 88-102
(8) http://www.lalitmauritius.org/viewnews.php?id=1165