Loretta Ross: Winnovating Reproductive Justice
This past summer, a number of high profile state sanctioned murders of (mostly) young black persons have occurred across the country. This July was also when I was hired to work at Women With A Vision, Inc (WWAV), a social services organization in New Orleans, LA whose main focus areas include Sex Worker Rights, Drug Policy Reform, HIV Positive Women’s Advocacy and Reproductive Justice outreach for women of color. On July 28th, the New York Times published an article featuring Planned Parenthood entitled “Advocates Shun ‘Pro-Choice’ to Expand Message’ which claimed that Reproductive Rights advocates were just now starting to move away from the prochoice-prolife dichotomy that it has operated under for decades into a more inclusive framework. My co-workers and I sat in the WWAV office and discussed how problematic the article was in its erasure of the history of Women of Color organizing within the Reproductive Rights movement, particularly the organizing of black women who had in fact come up with an inclusive framework two decades ago known as Reproductive Justice. Our organization signed onto a piece “Reproductive Justice and ‘Choice’: An Open Letter to Planned Parenthood” written by Monica Daniels, Executive Director of SisterSong, a Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, that lambasted Planned Parenthood’s exclusion of Women of Color from the piece (in response to the article, Planned Parenthood’s Executive Director Cecile Richards wrote a response owning up to the erasure of women of color from the article and asking to meet with representatives…but not apologizing for the erasure). Then, on August 12th, I was
encouraged by WWAV to pen an article called “Violence, the Black Body, and Reproductive Justice” that linked Reproductive Justice to the number of recent high profile murders of black youth. Reflecting on the NYT article, writing this piece and articulating the connections between Reproductive Rights and the experiences of Women of Color helped me to understand Reproductive Justice better than I ever had. At the same time, I was starting to recognize that not many people, even those who considered themselves part of or leaders in the Reproductive Rights movement knew the origins or intricacies of the Reproductive Justice framework. After reading the initial NYT article, hearing people’s reactions to my own piece and attending a screening of Trust Black Women: We Always Resist that was derailed by Planned Parenthood’s Louisiana Regional Director, it really began to sink in for me how peripheral mainstream organizers in the Reproductive Rights movement have viewed Women of Color and their organizing. It also made me want write more about the rich history of Women of Color organizing, specifically black women’s organizing under the Reproductive Justice framework because this is a special year for Reproductive Justice advocates.
2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Reproductive Justice framework. This framework was invented in Chicago in 1994 by a group of 12 black women who wanted to integrate Social Justice into the Reproductive Rights movement. I had the chance to speak with Loretta Ross, one of 12 black women who came up with the framework for this interview for Winnovating.
Tell us about Reproductive Justice, what does it mean? What context did the framework come from?
Ross: Thank you for asking that question. We came together in 1994 and we invented the concept of Reproductive Justice because we were responding to Hilary Clinton’s attempt to do healthcare reform without mentioning Reproductive Health coverage like birth control or abortion. We were concerned that it would be impossible to actually do healthcare reform and have it meet the needs of African American women if it didn’t include Reproductive Healthcare. We decided to do a signature add in the Washington Post calling on the Clinton administration to include Reproductive Health in healthcare reform in 1994 and we called ourselves Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice. We got the term Reproductive Justice from splicing together the concept of Social Justice and Reproductive Rights because we felt that Reproductive Health issues in general and abortion rights in particular was always severed from the context in which women actually live their lives. Each time a woman is pregnant, before she event decides whether or not she even keep the pregnancy, she’s worried about whether or not she has a job, whether or not she has healthcare, whether or not her partner is going to abuse her or be violent, I mean, she’s thinking about a whole lot of other social justice and human rights issue that actually determine whether she’s going to maintain the pregnancy or not. The severing of Reproductive Health issues from how women actually live their lives never made sense to us, so we coined the term Reproductive Justice in 1994 to draw attention to this lived experience. Now the simplest definition for Reproductive Justice is we fight for the right for women not to have children, joining the prochoice movement fighting for the right to birth control and abortion, but because we are Women of Color coming from communities beset by population control, we also have to fight for the right to have a child, and then once we have our children, we fight for the right to parent them in safe and healthy environments, and that means fighting things like police brutality, gun violence, environmental degradation, a whole lot of things we now call human rights issues.
What’s the difference between Reproductive Justice, Reproductive Health and Reproductive Rights? What’s unique about the Reproductive Justice framework?
After the creation of the Reproductive Justice framework [we created the] SisterSong Reproductive Health Collective for Women Of Color, and through SisterSong we popularized the whole concept of Reproductive Justice starting with our first national conference in 2003. A couple years later, Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice actually did an analysis that showed there was difference between Reproductive Health providers who provide healthcare for individuals and Reproductive Rights activists who are advocates fighting to keep abortion safe and legal (and we would argue as black women affordable and accessible as necessary as well). We also felt though that the Reproductive Justice framework created a separate movement that works with the Reproductive Health and Reproductive Rights movement, but also presents an organizing strategy where we can bring in different voices and players into fighting for Reproductive Justice as part of the Human Rights framework. I think of Reproductive Justice as a source code that some techie has developed because so many people have taken it and Wiki-ed it. They have used it in whatever way they have needed to form and further their agendas, which is a wonderful development because it means that it’s a radically transforming theory. We had no idea of this power 20 years ago, and it’s wonderful that you are doing this interview because it is the 20th anniversary of the Reproductive Justice framework and we’re celebrating. We’re going to bring those 12 women together at the end of this year to talk about the amazing things that have happened for activists using the Reproductive Justice framework.
What has been challenging about integrating the Reproductive Justice framework into the mainstream Reproductive Rights movement? What were the obstacles you faced back in 1994 and are still facing today?
Well there are several challenges to using the Reproductive Justice framework. When we first started talking about it, people didn’t understand what we meant, so we had to create that elevator speech ‘the right to have a child, the right to not have a child and the right to parent your children’ as a way for people to understand the totality of what we were talking about in less than 60 seconds. Later, we found
that people were adopting the phrase Reproductive Justice but not adopting the substance of the phrase. We find that many adopters and adapters of the Reproductive Justice framework de-radicalize it, stripping it of it legal regime, the Human Rights framework, because you have to have human rights guaranteed to move forward with Reproductive Justice and that is no easy task. Another challenge is that people tend to use a reductionist view to Reproductive Justice. They reduce it only to intersectionality, and we do talk about intersectionality and all your identities being necessary to achieve a state of justice, but people think that intersectionality is all there is. Intersectionality though, is just a process; it’s not an end game. There is no legal regime called intersectionality but there is a legal regime called Human Rights. Human Rights is the goal, intersectionality is the process. We get a lot of pushback from what is called the prochoice movement because they imagine Reproductive Justice is a challenge to the use of the term ‘prochoice’. Well frankly it was not developed as a challenge to the use of the term prochoice because that would be accusing black women of putting white women in the center of their lens and that was not the case at all! We were putting ourselves at the center of our lens, of what our communities needed, not in terms of what white women were failing to do, so that racist interpretation of Reproductive Justice is not at all true, and those thinking of it like that are being rather shallow and not even looking at it in terms of its birthplace in black feminism. But I find that a lot of white women see it in that way, that we created it in order to challenge them which is again a Eurocentric way of looking at it. What we try to say is, if you’re working for abortion rights and that’s the center of what you are working on, then prochoice is a perfectly good way to describe that. Don’t imagine that we as Women Of Color are demanding that you
stop using the word prochoice. Now we do have critiques of the phrase prochoice, but they existed long before Reproductive Justice came about and Reproductive Justice was not created in response to that. And then like I said, people are also using the phrase when they’re only talking about abortion rights and that’s not right either, because while we do support the right to not have a child, like I said it’s also about the right to have a child and to parent our children safely which we find that the prochoice movement doesn’t put enough emphasis on. I mean, wouldn’t Michael Brown’s mother recognize that she faced Reproductive Injustice with the murder of her child? So we talk about what happens post birth to our children and to reduce it to abortion rights is a big mistake. If you are fighting for abortion rights, talk about prochoice, that’s great, but that’s not Reproductive Justice. I like for people to tell the story right and not to reduce the agency of black women.
So there’s been a lot of talk recently about Reproductive Justice and its origins after the New York Times article that came out claiming that the move away from the prochoice-prolife dichotomy was this new thing that mainstream Reproductive Rights advocates were doing…
Ross: …Well the rebranding of Planned Parenthood and the mainstream movement, I think that’s separate from us in Reproductive Justice even though they did make a big mistake not talking about the impact of Women of Color in the last 20 years [in the article]. At the same time though, I wonder if that’s just an effort at rebranding because Planned Parenthood wasn’t recently introduced to the Reproductive Justice framework, the were introduced to it in 2004. As a mater of fact, they sponsored a conference called Reproductive Justice for All in 2005 so there’s a willful ignorance here as opposed to an ‘oops we didn’t know’, and I don’t know what that means. I’ve been working on this stuff for 40 years through 3 or 4 different Planned Parenthood presidents, so I know when they’re telling the truth about their history and when they are not.
I was looking more in depth into some other things that you’ve been involved in, and I hadn’t realized before that the March for Women’s Lives was the largest protest in US history.
Ross: Yes, the March for Women’s Lives in April of 2004 had more than 1.5 million participants making it the biggest march in US history, and it was amazing how orchestrated the media blackout of
that event was. The longer we watched the news that day, the more our number dwindled which I thought that was a great media scandal. The original march was called the March for Freedom and Choice and it was Women Of Color who put pressure on it to be renamed as the March for Women’s Lives so we could talk about larger things like the war in Iraq, the debt crisis, Reproductive Rights, abortion rights, Reproductive Justice and many other issues women care about rather than the singular focus on abortion.
What were your goals with the March for Women’s lives and did you achieve them? What did you attribute the media blackout to?
Loretta Ross: Well 2004 was really when we began to coin the phrase ‘The War on Women’ at the hands of the Republicans because so much of their anti-abortion legislation was taking place. On February 15th , I was in Madrid, Spain and that was the day the U.S. launched the invasion of Iraq, and there was this sublime moment of international solidarity against the War in Iraq that I felt in Spain, and I came
home determined to infuse my activism with opposition to imperialist adventures oversees. Were we invading to free the Iraqi’s or were we explaining how our oil got into their sand? With all of these issues, the entire march brought together so many people who wanted to get the attention of the Bush administration and say ‘This is wrong, this is not democracy, this is not America. This war on women coupled with the war for oil that you are pretending is about saving Iraqi and Afghani women is a perversion of our democracy’. I thought it was particularly telling that President Bush arranged to be out of town the same day as the march, but, we made a statement, we built a lot of solidarity amongst our movements and we brought together a lot of different movements to march under a unified banner. At the same time though, it was like mainstream America didn’t want to know what happened and then when they did report upon it, they only reported it as an abortion rights march, which was the opposite of the message we were sending. They didn’t want to talk about the War in Iraq or the debt crisis or environmental issues or all the other issues the march was about.
What are you currently working on now?
Ross: I’m currently at Mt. Holyoke College for a writing fellowship that is allowing me to write my book its called “Black Abortion” which is the history of the activism of black women fighting for our reproductive freedom and autonomy. I’ve been working on it for 22 years and this is the first time I’ve ever gotten a writing fellowship where I’ve gotten months to concentrate and work on my book. I’ve been writing aimlessly for the last two weeks and its been great! I don’t expect to finish the book in the first three months, but it’s the first time I’ve had a chance to put a concentrated push into it.
How do you respond to the words can’t or no?
Ross: That is a trigger for the activism in my life, both of those words. What you don’t know about me is that I became pregnant through incest when I was 14 years old in high school. I was in the 10th grade and the first thing everybody said to me was “You can’t graduate from High School if you have a baby, you can’t do this or that if you have a baby”, but first they said I couldn’t have an abortion because abortions were not legal in 1968, so I was forced to have a baby out of incest and because I chose to keep my son, I was forced to co-parent with my rapist for the last 45 years. So ‘can’t’ and ‘no’ are strong words in my life because they always seem to tell me that I am limited in some way to circumstances beyond my control and that just fires me up to prove them wrong…not always, because I’ve got other things to do than be reactionary, but it can be a tremendous push to prove people wrong who say ‘you cant do this, you cant challenge this’ and actually my High School told me I couldn’t even return to High School after having my baby because it was their policy. My parents and I had to sue the high school for my right to return to school, so don’t tell me ‘can’t’ and ‘no’ because you might get more than you anticipated.
What song is your theme song? What song comes on and your like …
I Am Woman [by Helen Reddy]. I always loved I am woman.
If someone would have asked you around age 10-12 what you would be when you grew up, would this have been it?
No, because at age 10-12 I thought I was going to be a chemist. I majored in chemistry and physics my first time I went to college and I thought I’d be stuck in a lab doing some kind of scientific experiment. I did not know I was going to end up as a professional feminist.
So what changed?
Biology. Being sexually assaulted as teen. Having that incest experience. Having an abortion at 16. Finally it got my attention, your plumping keeps getting in the way!
How do you want to be remembered?
I think my legacy is pretty much assured if I’m not sounding immodest. In the early 1990s, I decided my mission was to bring human rights home to the U.S. so I started a center for Human Rights education and spent a decade education people about why we needed to use the Human Rights framework in the U.S. At the same time, I had the luxury of being one of the creators of Reproductive Justice, which was a transformative movement. Back even in the 70s, I was the director of the first rape crisis center in this country, so I think I’ve had a pretty large footprint on the women’s movement and the Human Rights movement, and I’m proud of that and then on top of that, I’ve got a great son and a great grandson so its everything a human being could want to be happy.
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