Why we should all care about reproductive justice

–Kimberly M. Mutcherson, professor of law, Rutgers University-Camden

To avoid confusion, I want to make clear that this blog is not about abortion. Repeat: This is not a blog about abortion.

What I am interested in is a discussion about other issues that are very much a part of the modern day movement for reproductive justice and too often get short shrift in policy debates. Reproductive Justice is a movement founded by women-of-color activists who focus on the rights to have children, to not have children, and to parent children in safe and healthy environments. The roots of this framework are in the human right to make fundamental personal decisions related to having babies, forming families, and parenting. Importantly, the justice framework explicitly recognizes a societal and governmental obligation to support individual decision-making and create the conditions that allow individuals to carry out key life decisions, including choices about how, when, and with whom to become pregnant or raise a child.

On a national and global scale, laws and policies benefit and support some parents by, for example, giving tax breaks for child care and education costs, while they discourage procreation and parenting by others through devices like capping public benefits, failing to provide paid leave from employment, or even encouraging sterilization for some women. Beyond the legal system, societies tend to be less accepting of some people’s choices of whether or how to bear and beget. For instance, an undocumented immigrant who gives birth to a child on American soil may be accused of giving birth to a so-called “anchor baby” – a pejorative term used to refer to children born in the United States to non-citizen mothers in order to create a pathway to citizenship for their parents. Young women who give birth while still in high school or college are subject to various penalties, including being asked to leave their schools or being forced to leave because of a lack of support. There are those who strongly believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people should not have or raise children, and many state laws either fail to protect LGBT people from discrimination in access to the tools of assisted reproduction or fail to help create stability for families created by same-sex couples.

Women – not just pregnant women – are subject to strictures that significantly limit their financial stability and professional success based on concerns about risks to a potential fetus. Breastfeeding mothers who work outside the home must contend with employers who provide too little time and space in which to pump breast milk during the day, making it harder or impossible for women to breastfeed if they so choose.

All of these issues raise red flags about the relationship between the law, public policy, and reproductive decisionmaking. Calls to end birthright citizenship, for example, are about immigration policy writ large – and about whose children a nation embraces as its own. While we should not create public service campaigns urging young women to have babies before graduating from high school, we can be certain that shutting down opportunities for women who become mothers early in life will not benefit them, their children, or their country. Title IX of the federal Education Amendments has protected pregnant or parenting students from discrimination for over 40 years, yet that discrimination persists.

And it’s not just the young women who suffer. When we fail to protect a young woman’s right to parent and simultaneously receive a quality education, that failure hurts all of us. Without education, a young mother is less likely to thrive and provide a stable home and a bright future for herself and her child. Their communities are then deprived of the people they could have become and the benefits they might have conferred on those around them. Similarly, denying legal protections for same-sex couples with children is a way of policing access to parenting that leads to instability and stigma for both children and parents. Restricting access to career opportunities based on the ability to reproduce, regardless of the desire, unfairly reduces women to their reproductive capacity and unjustly limits their access to economic advancement. The likelihood that women will lead fulfilling work lives also suffers when their workplaces fail to accommodate breastfeeding – an equality issue that is addressed by provisions in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.

The Reproductive Justice movement takes in all of the above. It asks what a nation owes to those who want to have or raise children, and those who don’t. More pointedly, the movement posits that the government is obligated to assist those who want to procreate, and equally obligated to support those who don’t. Most important, the RJ movement asks how we can create the social and economic conditions for children to be wanted and for their parents, especially their mothers, to have access to opportunity.

Whether your concern is about dollars, personal responsibility, or human rights, we should all be able to support efforts to improve the conditions in which babies come into the world. That won’t happen unless we take seriously the need for freedom from workplace discrimination, broad access to contraception and prenatal care, and recognition for LGBT families – just as a staring point.


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