Reproductive Justice: A positive approach to Sexuality, Health and Human Rights

By Emma Fox and Juliana Madzia

Reproductive Justice is not a term that many people are familiar with. At least, this is how we felt when we enrolled in this Sociology 2099 class. We had some vague idea of what it might mean; we both had interests and experience in feminism and health, and thought maybe it would be a good combination of the two.  Upon first hearing the term, many may assume Reproductive Justice has something to do with abortion or birth control, but not much else. In actuality, abortion rights and access to birth control really just scratch the surface of the purview of Reproductive Justice. As this class set out to do, our definitions of Reproductive Justice have broadened to ones that are more inclusive, more intersectional, and more informed.

The SisterSong Reproductive Justice Collective

The SisterSong Reproductive Justice Collective coined the term Reproductive Justice in 2003, defining it as “a positive approach that links sexuality, health, and human rights to social justice movements by placing abortion and reproductive health issues in the larger context of the wellbeing and health of women, families and communities.” Drawing on many of SisterSong and other Reproductive Justice organizations’ activism, this course has been most important in increasing our awareness of the breadth of Reproductive Justice, the histories of injustice that precipitated the development of such a topic, and the array of Cincinnati-based organizations working under the umbrella of Reproductive Justice. It is perhaps most important to also recognize and honor the role that Women of Color have played in the development of Reproductive Justice; This work was born from and for these women, and the field has expanded today, by nature of their activism and dedication, to women from all walks of life.

Deconstructing Our Limited Understandings

Throughout the semester, we read first-person accounts of women’s experiences with reproduction: a woman experiencing lifelong shame for having two abortions in the Deep South, a woman who was infertile and was denied access to fertility treatment because she was a lesbian, and even a trans woman attempting to rebuild relationships with her children after transitioning. We read about abortion access, mothering rights, violence against women, and the criminal justice system through a legal lens, and about maternal mortality, the ethics of long-acting reversible contraceptives, hospital versus home births, and environmental influences on reproduction through a combination of peer-reviewed journal articles and personal essays. Much of what we read and discussed could be directly applied to current events happening in our own communities and around the world. While we may, in the past, have also been guilty of having white-washed, abortion-centric conceptions of Reproductive Justice, this class has pushed us to deconstruct those limited understandings. We have learned to think of Reproductive Justice through new paradigms that reflect the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation and its pervasiveness in all aspects of reproduction; as we have come to understand it, Reproductive Justice is simultaneously a framework for activism, a social and political movement, and the desire to advocate for the physical, emotional, mental, financial, and spiritual health and wellbeing of women and girls.

Preparing to enter the workforce as better healthcare employees

This paradigmatic shift in our thinking about Reproductive Justice, in addition to our heightened knowledge of reproductive injustices that have primarily affected Women of Color, prepares us to enter the workforce as better doctors, lawyers, public health officials, etc.

JULIANA: As a future physician, I have been pushed to recognize the complicity of physicians in the forced sterilization of millions of women of color, resulting in a lack of trust between many African American women and the medical field as a whole. I have come to understand that a successful career in medicine means working at the grassroots level to rebuild the broken trust between physicians and marginalized communities, as well as at the policy level to dismantle the structural barriers that perpetuate health disparities through racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.

EMMA: As a future Public Health professional, I see the knowledge and Reproductive Justice skill set that I have gained from this class as being transformative in the way I see myself operating within the field. Armed with a heightened understanding of the ways that the health of populations is controlled through women’s bodies and their conventional roles as custodians of family health and wellbeing, I see myself as an advocate-in-training for women who, by way of intersecting identities, are neglected by our current political and social systems. I have come to the understanding that considering health within a larger societal context and addressing health disparities through community processes (in a way similar to the one we used in our service learning project), is key to treating and preventing current and pressing health issues.

Service learning with Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission

The service learning portion of this course provided us with both the opportunity to translate the skills learned in the classroom to real-world problems, and the look into what activism looks like outside of our academic bubble. At first, we struggled with how our community partner, Northern Kentucky Community Action Commision (NKCAC), and their mission fit into Reproductive Justice– at the time, we had only been in the course for a few short weeks and hadn’t yet developed an all-encompassing awareness of what Reproductive Justice was.

As we came to discover, NKCAC’s mission of providing supportive services that restore families to self-reliance is well within the scope of Reproductive Justice; This mission, while not directly tied to women and their reproductive capacities, promotes the wellbeing of women and girls through its recognition that other social factors like insecure housing, hunger, and the inability to access job or educational training can have marked effects on the health of an individual. In working with NKCAC to complete our designated task, many of us gained an appreciation for sustainable partnerships, confidence in the utility of our skillsets cultivated in our respective academic programs, and a greater understanding of how activism can be done.

Our designated task in working with NKCAC was to improve an existing survey–both the physical survey itself and the way in which it was advertised and administered– that the organization uses to report the use of its services and secure federal funding. Our first lesson came with the selection of this task: We had wanted to work with NKCAC on their development of sustainable housing for disadvantaged parents, thinking that this fit best with our definition of Reproductive Justice. However, NKCAC requested that we work on the survey instead, saying that they needed the most help in this area. Throughout this process, we learned the value of addressing the needs that a community voices, not addressing the needs we think we need to. This process requires patience, understanding, collaboration, and communication, all skills that we cultivated and sharpened while working with NKCAC to achieve our common goal of improving their survey.

Finding our Niche

Additionally, many of us found validation in the skills we had already cultivated in our respective majors. Our class was interdisciplinary by nature, including students from multiple colleges and academic programs. Many of us entered this course with very different skillsets, and at the beginning of this process had difficulty seeing ourselves in the NKCAC service learning project. Throughout the course of the semester, however, we each found our niche and discovered ways that we could use our respective skillsets to add to the project. Both of us found that our backgrounds in data management and analysis as science majors and student researchers were best applied in redesigning the survey itself, ensuring the validity and reproducibility of the survey’s results. Being able to translate our classroom knowledge outside of the traditional setting was a challenging yet validating experience for all involved.  

Experiencing the real-world applications of activism

Seeing real-world applications of activism may have been one of the most salient takeaways of the service learning portion of the course. From our readings in class, many of us felt that activism could only be carried out by highly trained professionals on large-scale projects, like founding national organizations dedicated to advancing women’s reproductive health. In working with NKCAC, however, we saw that small acts like redesigning a survey that helps clients continue to receive crucial supportive services or alleviating the work burden from staff members so that they can focus on providing for their clients count as activism as well. We believe that many of us felt humbled by this realization and rejuvenated in our desires to carry out activism in the areas we care about, be it Reproductive Justice or something else.

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