The Beginner's Guide to Reproductive Justice

Reproductive Justice For AllCreator: Diannie Chavez | Cronkite News

This post highlights what reproductive justice is and what you can do to support the movement.

Before we get started, we wanted to share a quick note on language and inclusivity. We recognize the limits of traditional biologically based definitions of gender. Throughout this post, and our writing in general, we mostly use the term “woman” when discussing legislation in the past that used language targeting women and mothers and we mostly use terms such as “people who can get pregnant and give birth” and “woman” when we write about the present. 

The decision to use this language is informed by the work of Loretta J. Ross and Rickie Solinger (linked below). They remind us that inclusive language shows that not everyone who can get pregnant and have children is a woman, and not all women can or do get pregnant and give birth. Therefore, we do not want to utilize language that renders transgender and gender non-conforming people invisible and vulnerable. 

We choose to use both terms because, as Ross and Solinger point out, “‘woman’ is a self-defined category, especially for those denied the recognition of their full humanity, who embrace the term as a particular marker of gender identity.” We want to be mindful that never using the term ‘woman’ can “constitute a form of erasure that is also incompatible with the principles of reproductive justice.”

We continue to listen, learn, and grow so feel free to write to us at with additional comments and concerns.

Alright, let’s dive in!

What is Reproductive Justice?

In Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, Loretta J. Ross and Rickie Solinger teach us that the definition of reproductive justice goes beyond the pro-choice/pro-life debate and has three primary principles: 

  1. the right not to have a child
  2. the right to have a child
  3. the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments. 

In addition, reproductive justice demands sexual autonomy and gender freedom for every human being.

In their words, 

“Reproductive justice calls for an integrated analysis, a holistic vision, and comprehensive strategies that push against structural conditions that control our communities by regulating our bodies, our sexuality, our labor and, our reproduction… Reproductive justice offers new visions of self-determination, collective unity, and liberatory practices.”


As we begin to dive deeper, let’s go through some additional definitions that will help shape our understanding. These definitions come from A New Vision for Reproductive Justice — an essay written by Forward Together (formerly Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice). 

The following terms: reproductive health, reproductive rights, and reproductive justice are often used interchangeably. However, they are rooted in different analyses, strategies, and constituencies. These definitions (from Forward Together) aim to articulate and clarify the main differences.

The Reproductive Health framework is a service delivery model for addressing the reproductive health needs of individual women. This framework focuses on the lack of health care, services, and information, including research and health data. Within the reproductive health structure, the goals are to improve and expand health-care services, research, and access, and particularly to improve and expand preventative services.

The Reproductive Rights framework is a legal and advocacy-based model that serves to protect an individual woman’s legal right to reproductive health care services with a focus on keeping abortion legal and increasing access to family planning services. Groups fight for a woman’s “right to choose” and “right to privacy” through various legal, advocacy, and political means. Two main components of the strategy are to legally contest damaging legislation and advocate or influence public policies that protect reproductive choice.

The Reproductive Justice framework is rooted in the recognition of the histories of reproductive oppression and abuse in all communities. This framework uses a model grounded in movement-building and organizing to change structural power inequalities. The central theme is a focus on the control and exploitation of women’s bodies, sexuality and reproduction as an effective strategy of controlling women and communities, particularly those of color. Women’s ability to exercise self-determination—including in their reproductive lives— is impacted by power inequities inherent in our social institutions, the environment, economics, and culture. 

These three conceptual structures together provide a complementary and comprehensive response to reproductive oppression. They write, “all three frameworks are imperative; by itself, a single one cannot achieve the goal of ending reproductive oppression. Ultimately, as in any movement, all three components of service, advocacy, and organizing are crucial to advancing the movement.”

 Abortion Justice Creator: Gayatri Malhotra | Credit: Unsplash

Evolution of Reproductive Justice 

Reproductive justice offers the chance to explore a conversation created by women of color that connects the dots between many social justice issues that seem unrelated to traditional views of reproductive politics. This stands in contrast with the history of some forms of white feminism as predominantly concerned with a specific set of single-issue, non-intersectional practices. For example, reproductive justice looks at how immigration, incarceration, gentrification, and other processes and practices shape the sexual and reproductive lives of women and individuals. 

 Intersectionality of Reproductive Justice with Social Justice IssuesIntersectionality of Reproductive Justice with Social Justice Issues | Credit: Forward Together

Lynn Paltrow, of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, says,

“By shifting the reproductive rights paradigm—from one focused on abortion to one that focuses on the shared values at the heart of a range of interrelated reproductive, social, and family justice issues—we can speak to and engage millions of potential new advocates and activists.”

While much of the mainstream conversation about reproductive rights focuses on the right to choose — women of color activists pointed out that the concept of choice masks the different economic, political, and environmental contexts in which women live their reproductive lives. It disguises the ways that laws, policies, and public officials differently punish or reward the childbearing of different groups of women. Consider how the argument of choice falls short in the context of the primary principles of reproductive justice.

Right not to have a child

Choice fails to reconcile the different degrees of access people who can get pregnant and give birth have to health care and other resources necessary to manage sex, fertility, and maternity. Consider the limits of Roe v. Wade — this ruling legalizes abortion, but guarantees nothing to people who without resources cannot exercise choice in the same way. A reproductive justice lens calls for universal access to health care including abortion, contraception, and sexual education; passing laws that protect women’s pursuit of educational and career goals and financial autonomy; and establishing measures to protect victimes of rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment.

Right to have a child

Given the legacy of forced hysterectomies on Black, Indigenous, and Puerto Rican women and assumptions about who are “fit” and “legitimate” parents, reproductive justice activists argue that the right to have a child is as crucial to women’s dignity and safety (and the dignity and safety of her community) as the right to prevent conception. 

Reproductive justice advocates call attention to the punitive treatment of pregnant people (i.e. withholding medical care such as drug treatment from pregnant women). They argue that it turns a public health problem into a matter for the criminal justice system, and under this policy, we fail to imagine the pregnant person’s community and the medical establishment as sources of assistance or support.

Right to parent that child in a safe and healthy environment

Finally, the concept of choice fails to consider what it means to parent a child in a safe and healthy environment. Some people who can give birth may not feel like they have a real choice to raise a child in an environment without quality housing, neighborhood safety, and access to adequate and nutritious food, transportation, education, and health care.

Reproductive justice advocates call attention to how when we blame parents as poor, hypersexual, or unfit, it – in the worlds of Rickie Solinger, “removes any responsibility of injustice and inequality from the shoulders of society and frees those who credit this charge from grappling with the complex ways that wealth and poverty are created in the United States.” When we apply a social-determinants-of-health model to analyzing reproductive politics, we can see how social and economic resources create advantages and disadvantages for parenthood based on income, education, social class, race, gender, and gender identity. 

In summary, reproductive justice advocates call for enabling conditions — the network of opportunities, support, and services that would allow all women to meaningfully exercise reproductive rights in a context that supports reproductive health, economic justice, motherhood, and the well-being and safety of individuals and their communities.

 Reproductive Justice for AllIllustration by @em_mulsify

History of Attacks Against Reproductive Freedoms

No matter what kinds of regulations the government, the church, the family, or other authorities created, women have always done what they could to shape their own reproductive lives.

That said, to understand the context in which reproductive justice was formed, let’s take a look at the ideologies that shaped legislation and practices restricting reproductive freedoms:

  • During slavery, colonists adopted the Roman principle of partus sequitur ventrem — “the offspring follows the belly” — used to determine the ownership of animals. As a litter of pigs belonged to the owner of the sow, the children born to Black women were the property of the mother’s enslaver. As a result, White men could rape enslaved women with total impunity, maintaining their domination while increasing their wealth.
  • The sale of enslaved African American children away from their families and the removal of Indigenous children from their families are horrifying examples of how some women have historically faced official, legal obstacles to the right to be mothers of children they bear.
  • In the nineteenth century as the U.S. was focused on expansion westward, the government expressed the importance of the White mother’s role in making a White nation. Therefore the government was interested in protecting her fertility and instituted laws against contraception and abortion.
  • At the beginning of the twentieth century, we saw the rise of the “science” of eugenics. Eugenics claimed that the human population was perfectible, and eugenicists supported public policies that promoted contraception and sterilization as strategies for promoting the reproduction of the “best examples” of humanity and eradicating the “negative expressions” of human life. The latter category included people with psychological, physical, and cognitive disabilities and non-whites.
  • Politicians and policy makers pursued reproductive goals in a number of ways, including immigration policy, reproductive policy, and policies addressing support for poor mothers and their children. Rickie Solinger writes, 
"Attacks on poor women of all races and ethnicities — and their children — functioned both as commentary on the unfitness of poor women and as a critique of New Deal programs developed to help them. Many politicians and others, including liberals, marked reproductive control as an important remedy for everything that ailed the country."
  • Reproductive oppression is also implemented with policies that criminalize pregnancy by targeting and prosecuting certain women for behaviors that they would not be prosecuted for if they were not pregnant, including:
    • Withholding medical care such as drug treatment from pregnant women
    • Mandating a five-year residency period before immigrants can access Medicaid-covered prenatal and other health care
    • Excluding near-poor female citizens from Medicaid benefits
    • Sustaining immigration restrictions
    • Preventing LGBTQIA+ individuals from parenting (i.e. barring gay couples from adopting children)
    • Coercing pregnant incarerated women to have abortions
  • Reproductive oppression against trans folks—especially people of color—includes:
    • Failing to include trans folks in the conversation
    • Closing family planning clinics where trans folks seek hormone replacement therapy and gender affirming care
    • Denying them access to their children
    • Segregating them from people that they might have children with
    • Demanding that transpeople have surgical sterilizations or sexual reassignment surgery to meet officials definitions of gender

The central theme here is a focus on the control and exploitation of women’s bodies, sexuality, and reproduction as an effective strategy of controlling women and communities, especially those of color. Furthermore, these obstacles that constitute reproductive oppression discriminate not only against women seeking abortion health care or fighting for their right to have a child, but against all women because these laws and regulations imagine women as insufficiently mature and intelligent to make their own decisions about their own bodies.

Loretta J. Ross writes, 

"While the reproductive oppression of white women has differed in detail and scope from oppressions faced by women of color, all women are vulnerable to state control because every government throughout history has depended on the reproductive capacity of those who can give birth for achieving key national goals, such as producing a white country, creating a no-cost (enslaved) or low-cost labor force, and producing sufficient population for military forces. These reproductive controls have also aimed to achieve key cultural goals such as enforcing female subordination and enforcing standards of racial normativity."

 Reproductive Justice ProtestCredit: NBC Chicago | Creator: Robert Alexander

Important SCOTUS Cases + Legislation

For a timeline of important reproductive freedom cases decided by the Supreme Court, check out this article by the ACLU. We’re going to walk through a few of the big ones:

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) — the Court held that the Constitution guarantees a “right to privacy” when individuals make decisions about intimate, personal matters such as childbearing.

Roe v. Wade (1973) — the court ruled that the Constitution recognizes a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy by abortion. Characterizing this right as "fundamental" to a woman's "life and future," the Court held that the state could not interfere with the abortion decision unless it had a compelling reason for regulation.

The Hyde Amendment (1976) — bans the use of federal funds for abortion except when the life of the woman would be endangered by carrying the pregnancy to term or if the pregnancy arises from incest or rape. Note the prohibition of using federal funds includes folks on Medicare and Medicaid, Native American women, U.S. veterans, folks serving in the military and Peace Corps, federal employees, women in immigration detention facilities and prisons.

Harris v. McRae (1980) — the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the Hyde Amendment and found that a woman's freedom of choice did not carry with it "a constitutional entitlement to the financial resources to avail herself of the full range of protected choices.” 

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) — the Court ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 allows a for-profit company to deny its employees health coverage of contraception based on the religious objections of the company's owners.

 Abortion Justice protestCreator: Claudia Schwarz | Credit: Unsplash

Bring us up to speed — what’s going on in the fight for abortion justice today?

Alexis McGill Johnson,  President of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, says “What we have is a court willing to consider overturning 50 years of precedent. And that should alarm all of us.”

Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson (2021) — aka the Texas abortion bill from 2021.

The Texas legislature passed a law, SB 8, that prohibits abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. Additionally, the law criminalizes any person who "aids or abets" any such abortion and permits any private citizen, to file a lawsuit for damages against such persons. Abortion providers challenged the law, and the Court rejected the providers’ initial request to block enforcement of the law. After the law went into effect, the providers filed another legal challenge.

In her dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “This case is a disaster for the rule of law and a grave disservice to women in Texas, who have a right to control their own bodies. I will not stand by silently as a State continues to nullify this constitutional guarantee. I dissent.”

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — aka the Mississippi anti-choice law.

The Supreme Court heard this case on December 1, 2021 and a decision is pending. The question is if Mississippi’s law banning nearly all abortions after 15 weeks’ gestational age is unconstitutional. It’s worth noting that precedents set the line at around twenty-four weeks. Learn more about Mississippi state laws with NARAL.

These Texas and Mississippi laws have received attention because they have been argued in the Supreme Court. However, they are just two examples of hundreds of laws being passed around the country in an attempt to ban abortions and limit our access to reproductive freedom. If Roe falls, 26 states could move to ban abortion. 12 of which have “trigger bans” in place to automatically ban abortion if Roe is overturned

 Abortion Justice Creator: Gayatri Malhotra | Credit: Unsplash

OK, where can we go for more?

Your first stop should be our Reproductive Justice Issue Page! You can find key issues, immediate actions to take, organizations to support + follow, and more resources to educate yourself and keep showing up.

Reproductive Justice Issues Page

Before we go, we want to highlight two Black women and their organizations that have been instrumental in shaping our understanding of reproductive justice: 

Loretta J. Ross with SisterSong Women of Color for Reproductive Justice Collective and the Beyoncé of abortion storytelling — Renee Bracey Sherman with We Testify(left to right) Loretta J. Ross with SisterSong Women of Color for Reproductive Justice Collective and the Beyoncé of abortion storytellingRenee Bracey Sherman with We Testify

Furthermore, for resources + more of living in a world post-Roe, check out Robin Marty’s New Handbook for a Post-Roe America: The Complete Guide to Abortion Legality, Access, and Practical Support and Cheat Sheet for protecting access.