This is an edited excerpt of a roundtable discucssion hosted in July: Mobilizing for Reproductive Freedom in the Battle Over Bodily Sovereignty. The video of the discussion, and the full transcript can be found here.
This May, Texas passed a law deputizing citizens to sue anyone who aids another in obtaining an abortion after six weeks, and rewarding those whose court challenges are successful with $10,000 in attorney fees. This clever and destructive law is the newest development in the ongoing war against legal abortion. At the same time, President Biden’s administration signed into law the American Rescue Plan, including an expanded child tax credit that provides families a modest monthly payment, which, while insufficient to reduce the financial burden of parenthood altogether, at least acknowledges that raising the next generation should be a shared social responsibility. These two laws can tell us something about the state of reproductive justice today: limited, hard-fought progress for any family support, on one hand, versus unprecedentedly broad attacks on bodily and family autonomy on the other.
In July, PRA communications director Koki Mendis was joined by National Network of Abortion Funds organizing director Adaku Utah, PRA research analyst Cloee Cooper, SisterSong cofounder and Smith College professor Loretta Ross, and NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina executive director Tara Romano, for a wide-ranging talk about the Right’s strategies to eliminate reproductive justice. This is an edited excerpt of their talk.
PRA: I’d like to start our conversation with a clear understanding of what reproductive justice encompasses.
Loretta Ross: In 1994, the Clinton administration thought if they omitted reproductive healthcare from healthcare reform, they could slide it by their Republican opponents. I was one of 12 Black feminists paying attention to these discussions, and this strategy made no sense to us, because reproductive healthcare is the main driver of women to the doctor. So we met in a hotel room in Chicago that June to discuss what was wrong with the plan. Another thing we problematized was how abortion is always isolated from other social justice issues. Because when a woman needs an abortion, she’s going to be worried about whether she has healthcare, housing for a potential child, whether she can stay in school, or keep her job. And when you isolate abortion from those other social justice issues, you’re treating her as if the pregnancy is the only thing she’s worried about in her life. So we spliced together the concept of reproductive rights with social justice and created the term “Reproductive Justice.” We used it to place a full-page ad in The Washington Post calling ourselves Black Women for Healthcare Reform. Then SisterSong was founded three years later with reproductive justice as our organizing platform, and that’s where history was made.
Reproductive justice is a human rights-based framework. It starts with our overlap with the prochoice movement and fighting for the right to not have children. But because this was a theory being created by Black women, we had to fight equally hard for the right to have the children that we wanted to have, because we are always resisting eugenics and population control, which are foundational stances of the White supremacist movement, and part of our public discourse about blaming the fertility of women of color in general, and Black women in particular, for the ills of society. The third tenet is once you have the child, you have the human right to raise that child in safe and healthy environments. And that brings us into conversation with housing policy, tax policy, gun violence, the environment, disability rights, trans rights, all those other issues that aren’t necessarily considered part of the prochoice agenda. And then about a decade or so after the original framing happened, a fourth tenet was added, around bodily autonomy and the right to sexual pleasure.
That’s reproductive justice: the right to have children, the right not to have children, the right to raise your children, and the right to self-determination of gender identity and bodily autonomy.
Cloee, you’ve done some incredible recent work, with Tina Vasquez, documenting the rise of the far-right “abortion abolitionist” movement, working to pass local and state policies that ban abortion, criminalize providers and people seeking abortion care, and block pro-choice groups from operating within the jurisdiction. Can you tell us about the impact this movement is having?
Cloee Cooper: In some ways, the contemporary abortion abolitionist movement is drawing heavily on the 1990s radical anti-abortion movement, which worked closely with neonazi organizations and the militia movement.
I came across this movement while looking at Patriot movement organizations’ work at the local level to nullify gun rights laws. I noticed these anti-abortion groups were also working at the local level, and cities, and counties, to nullify reproductive rights laws. Abortion abolitionists not only believe that anybody who is a part of an abortion should be tried for murder, but they also are essentially trying to use abortion to push for theocratic governance at the local level.
We started seeing groups with some sway, like Free the States and End Abortion Now, coalescing in 2020 with their first-ever national conference. That conference had a particular agenda of trying to get city and county legislation passed that would ban abortion altogether, and also shifting their strategy from just agitating outside of abortion clinics to working with state legislators to try to get state legislation introduced. At the time we were reporting, six states had introduced “abortion abolition” legislation. And during the 2020 elections, the
abolition networks in Oklahoma actually ran a candidate, Warren Hamilton, for state legislature. Soon after he won, Hamilton introduced a state abortion abolitionist bill. It didn’t pass, but it helped essentially open the Overton Window in the state, and another bill that pushed a bunch of restrictions did pass. Hamilton also introduced a statewide “Second Amendment sanctuary” bill, which did pass, which to me demonstrates that he has legitimacy within the Republican Party and that he is in some ways holding these relationships between both the radical end of the anti-abortion movement and Patriot militia-type groups.
Tara, you’ve written a lot about the narrative and institutional strategies deployed by the Right to weaken reproductive freedom. How do they create an atmosphere of stigmatization and disinformation around abortion?
Tara Romano: Mis- and disinformation is absolutely how the anti-abortion movement works. When I came to North Carolina in 1999, it certainly wasn’t a haven for abortion access, but it was considered more progressive for the South. And then there was backlash to the election of President Barack Obama. North Carolina’s general assembly in 2010 had a conservative make-up it hadn’t had in over 100 years. And we started seeing more restrictions passed in North Carolina in the 10 years since 2010 than in the first 35 of abortion being legal.
All these restrictions are about creating a narrative. They want to say that abortion is dangerous; that it’s not healthcare; that it’s uncommon. They really want to paint this picture of what abortion access is about and to separate it from all the healthcare, safety, and economic issues that go into decisions we make about family planning. Creating this narrative is how they get these bills passed.
And when they pass these restrictions bit by bit, they’re really attacking people who have less power to resist what’s going on. When they have parental consent for minors, that’s young people; when they say Medicaid can’t cover abortion, it’s people of low income; when they close down clinics, that’s rural communities.
Prior to Roe v. Wade, if you were wealthy and White, you were able to find and access relatively safe abortion. It’s becoming that way again. And that really painted a picture of who accesses abortion, who provides abortion, who supports abortion. Like, the only people who access it are people who don’t want to “suffer consequences for their actions.” The people who provide abortions are “not actual medical doctors,” they’re incompetent, they’re greedy. And then the people who support abortion access hate families or they’re immoral, not religious. I mean, we see the data, and the majority of people who support abortion access also are people of faith. It’s a lazy narrative, but we have a media that repeats those things. If people understood abortion better, it would be harder to pass these restrictions. But it really depends on them having this mis- and disinformation out there.
How does the struggle for reproductive freedom intersect with anti-racism and how does the challenge to bodily autonomy relate to the steady creep of authoritarianism?
Ross: In the early 1990s, PRA joined me at the Center for Democratic Renewal and pointed out the porousness between the hate movements we were monitoring and the anti-abortion movement that was becoming much more dangerous. In 1992, I wrote a report showing there was a lot of crossover between the anti-abortion movement and the White supremacist movement. And six months after that report was written, the first doctor who provided abortions was murdered. We can see the direct adoption of hate movement strategies into the anti-abortion movement. But it’s been a long haul trying to get other groups to be intersectional and to understand that we’re dealing with a broad-based, neo-fascist movement, that has delegated different things to focus on. They have people that focus on the LGBT movement; on opposition to women’s rights; opposition to the separation of church and state; and of course, the whole White supremacist movement and the attack on critical race theory. They’re practicing the politics of divide and conquer and they want us to deal with things individually, in a very siloed way, as opposed to seeing them as having a strategy for overthrowing democracy in America.
So it wasn’t a surprise to me, 30 years later, to see that a large number of people at the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol were also well known in the anti-abortion movement. This was a coming-together for them, like Charlottesville in 2017. Let’s be clear, we’re dealing with the same kind of resurrectionists that Ulysses S. Grant dealt with after the Civil War. People who want a slaveocracy, even though they may not use that term now, where only White people—and even only a certain kind of White people—matter. It’s long overdue for us to recognize that White supremacist opposition to abortion actually is very racially specific. What they’re trying to do is prevent White women from accessing abortions, and they could care less if women of color have them.
What I’m mostly concerned about, though, is those of us on our side who don’t use an intersectional analysis and understand how these things are all connected, because that is going to be a fault-line where we’re very vulnerable as illustrated by a lot of horizontal hostility instead of uniting under the banner of human rights and fighting these people as the neo-fascists that they are.
Adaku Utah: I currently work with the National Network of Abortion Funds. We’ve been around for 26 years and for 24 years we specifically focused on direct service. We had to ask ourselves: is this the path to freedom that we want to keep going on? If we keep only centering direct service, will this shift the conditions that are making reproductive oppression a reality? Most of the folks who call our abortion funds are Black folks, queer folks, trans folks, folks who are undocumented, and they say to us that direct service is not enough.
Our four core values now are compassion, bodily autonomy, intersectionality and collective power. We have been looking at what are the systems, practices, policies of how we are structured as a network that fall into White supremacist rhetoric. Whether it’s not believing Black women when we say that we’ve been harmed by clinics where we’ve accessed abortion care, or not supporting trans folks because of not believing in an expansive universe of gender, or not funding some people because they’ve been incarcerated. And simultaneously asking ourselves how we hold ourselves accountable, because we know that in this work, harm has also occurred in how we have chosen to serve and work with our communities.
How has the U.S. immigrant community suffered as a result of anti-reproductive justice organizing?
Cooper: Loretta brought up this important tension earlier: that on the one hand, you have White Christian groups doing everything they can to limit and criminalize abortion, but on the other hand, you have the professional White nationalist movement, like the anti-immigrant movement and the Tanton network, that have this long history of being deeply concerned with the reproduction of women of color.
There is also this long history of White nationalists working closely with Planned Parenthood, and of ongoing ties, unfortunately, between the Tanton network and FAIR and Planned Parenthood. But also there’s deep overlap of them trying to work within the environmental movement and pushing people to blame environmental catastrophe on overpopulation, which inevitably falls on women of color. I think what we’ve seen most recently in terms of ongoing issues of forced sterilization in ICE detention facilities, with amazing reporting by Tina Vasquez, is a symbol of how this is multitiered and how this tension is flanking both sides of the question of bodily autonomy right now.
Ross: One of the things that the reproductive justice framework does—and I’m writing a book with Marlene Fried and Namrata Jacobs on this—is that it actually decolonizes the prochoice movement. To insist that it deal with White supremacy, neoliberal capitalism, settler colonialism, and all of these issues that are embodied in people, but at the same time speak to a larger framework of world domination politics. So reproductive justice is not just expanding to talk about the right to have a child, but it’s demanding accountability within our own movement to use a decolonizing and abundance framework.
A through-line of dismantling the White supremacist state is thinking through viable community alternatives that provide necessary services in lieu of state support. Adaku, can you talk us through the role that community plays in reproductive care?
Utah: A lot of our movement building and organizing is really focused in our community, whether it’s building the leadership of Black, Indigenous, folks of color across movements, or cultivating regional spaces. Two-and-a-half years ago, we developed a Network Movement Building Lab—a container of folks within our network who have been experimenting with what it looks like to hold building power at the core of the work. One of the barriers in doing work outside of the state is not being able to match our vision with the skills, competence, and relationships necessary to make those visions real. And so having collective spaces where people come together to build up their skill set, build up strategy that’s connected to what’s happening geographically, connected to what’s happening with the base of callers who are calling into abortion funds, with clinics, with folks who are doing practical support, really helps us in outlining a much more serious strategy that our community can buy into, because they see themselves reflected inside of it.
If we understand that gestation, child rearing, familial care, and socialization function largely as an undervalued, uncompensated process of producing socialized workers for capitalist production, is there an argument for reproductive justice as a form of due compensation for labor?
Ross: For me, the whole concept of reproductive labor has a particular poignancy and irony, because as a descendent of Africans kidnapped for our reproductive and labor capacity, there’s no way of even constructing a version of American racialized capitalism without understanding the power and the exploitation of reproductive labor. Obviously reproducing workers for exploitation and extraction is foundational to capitalism, whether it was in the 1800s when Marx was first writing about it, to where people are talking about it now.
What’s interesting, though, is that too many people who take that radical analysis underperform the role of race, citizenship, gender identity, and all those other things. I would like people who are radical, and into imagining a post-democratic future, to imagine what that would look like. Because the whole concept of liberal democracy is under attack from outside and within. And yet those of us who are concerned about that, with the world order of neoliberalism collapsing, need to be clear on what’s next. I’m not sure that the theories of dead White men that haven’t worked for the last 200 years is the pathway forward. I think we need to search for something new, which may in fact be something quite ancient: which is pre-European philosophy about human interdependence.
Returning to the immediate course of action, where should we focus our attention, organizing efforts, and coalition building in the months and years to come?
Utah: I’m going to keep coming back to the people: how we are centering our base, folks who are most impacted by reproductive oppression, and not just listening, but really cultivating the leadership and co-creating strategy alongside with our folks? We need to create more spaciousness for political study that can fortify our strategic thinking.
Over the last year-and-a-half, with the increase in abortion bans, we saw an increase in folks wanting to join our fight. Yet their values and analysis were lacking and we had to cultivate a political education series. We’ve now had over 30 sessions, studying things like the intersections of abolition and reproductive justice, gender justice and reproductive justice, the intersections between abortion access and White nationalism. And creating some level-setting around our network that can support us as we build the world we desire.
Cooper: On the one hand, I think this could be a really tough year. Roe v. Wade might actually be overturned. And all the preparation that has been happening at the state and local level from abortion abolitionists could go from, “Oh, they’ve introduced bills in six states,” to them actually moving, which is terrifying—just imagining that people could be tried for murder for undergoing abortion, or being the partner of somebody who undergoes an abortion. I think continuing to track groups like Free the States, End Abortion Now, and some of the coalitions they’re creating in their legislative strategy will be important.
I also see the possibility of greater opportunity for the intersectional analysis that people on this call have been trying to build. The kind of Christian theocrats pushing these abortion abolitionist bills really also want to put anybody involved in the LGBTQ community on trial. But their goal is such a narrow vision of what our society should be that I think there are a lot of opportunities for greater intersection in terms of not just pushing back against them, but pushing for a society where we would actually want to live, love, and work free from fear.
Ross: I want to start with the particular and go large. I think that women will always take care of themselves, no matter what the law, church, or state says. That’s what we always do. I am deeply concerned about the increasing criminality of everything that is pro-democratic in this country, whether it’s protesting, seeking an abortion, or teaching critical race theory. But people still are going to do what they need to do to save their lives. I mean, I represent a people who could be put to death for learning to read. So fighting against the law is what we do when the law is unjust. We understand that in all of our hearts and souls. It’s getting the newly woke to understand that as well: that if you put all your hope in the law, the law will only be as strong as we make it. It doesn’t lead. It follows. And that’s something we have a shift of perspective on.
Because that’s what I think is going to happen. We’re going to have to close the gap between direct services and political mobilization. As women try to take care of themselves and seek the services they need, and provide them for themselves through self-managed abortions, where’s the building up of our legal muscle to defend them? Where’s our building up our underground muscle, our transportation? Where is the underground railroad we’re going to obviously need? Those are the kinds of things we need to put into place to close the gap between fighting at the legislative or legal level, and making sure people don’t die.
My last comment is around how we use the concept of intersectionality, because I’ve said this from the minute we created reproductive justice. Intersectionality is our process. Human rights is our goal. You use intersectionality to expose vulnerability: what are the oppressive forces based on someone’s identity that will keep them from enjoying their full human rights? But we’re not working just to get everybody’s intersectional identity acknowledged. We’re working so everybody has full and undivided human rights. That’s the goal. And I don’t want us to substitute process for outcome.