From Civil Rights to Women’s Rights to Reproductive Justice

By Robin Marty and Jessica Mason Pieklo

In the days before Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in all fifty states, a woman’s ability to control her destiny by controlling when she became a parent was a luxury afforded only to those who had income and connections. Forty years later, that’s largely once more true.

Although Roe was celebrated as a victory for the right to privacy—with the court ruling that prior to fetal viability a woman’s healthcare decisions were for her consideration alone—activists failed to fully explain the human rights aspect of the ruling.  By decriminalizing abortion nationwide, the ruling was supposed to allow all women, not just those who were wealthy or well connected, the right to control the size of their families, their personal health and their physical and economic future. This is a matter of fundamental civil rights.

As the 1970s progressed women’s potential roles in the world expanded. Now abortion rights tended to be rolled into the other equal rights that women were fighting for, such as equal pay and employment opportunities.  Despite the undeniable link between reproductive rights and economic rights—the two of which go hand-in-hand—the shift in political debate around abortion has gone from one of civil rights and social justice to one of women’s rights. As a result, the original network of support for legalized abortion that marked so much of the pre-Roe days splintered.

Those original allies, such as the religious leaders that facilitated the network of underground abortion providers that would offer safe care, or the medical professionals and politicians who worked to provide the original laws that set the framework for legalizing abortion on a state by state basis fell away. Increasingly, the only voice to be heard from the faith community was that of the abortion opponent advocating for rights for the zygote at the moment of conception, those that equate family planning and contraception with abortion, or the legislator who wanted to rescind the access to a safe abortion for all, even if it meant cutting off those who are poor to quality, full spectrum health care.

It’s not just the loss of many in the faith community that has marked the movement for reproductive rights and justice. Now, 40 years later, we are nearly back to where we started with abortion access increasingly a product of geographic and economic privilege. Thanks to the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, legislatures have taken the Court’s ruling that states have a right to put “reasonable” roadblocks in front of a woman seeking an abortion as a green light to regulate that right out of existence. Accessing safe and legal abortion care now often means travel to another city or sometimes even state to access care. For some women this can mean after-hours travel by car or even airplane. The right to access to abortion care now means sitting through counseling sessions, a doctor’s recitation of what your embryo or fetus looks like while the heartbeat is played in the background, a list of complications and long term effects you may experience (many of which have no scientific evidence to back up the claims), followed by days in a hotel for a state mandated wait and another trip back to the clinic to have the procedure or receive medication to induce an abortion. Then, in some cases, a final trip to a clinic two weeks later for follow up.

This is the right to choose in the post-Casey world of incremental abortion restrictions. It is a barrage of requirements, pressure, restrictions and coercions meant not to provide better health care, but to increase the costs and burdens of terminating a pregnancy until it is once again out of reach of anyone but the wealthy and the well connected.

The fight for access plays out not just in roadblocks between the doctor-patient relationship and regulations on the medical procedure of abortion. The fight for access is also very much about social class. Increased targeted regulation have forced clinic closures while at the same time legislators are restricting insurance coverage for abortion. This has been true for low-income women who rely on Medicaid since a few short years after Roe, but increasingly these restrictions target public employees, military members, and even private insurance holders. Abortion is once again at a dividing point where safe care is available for those who can afford it, while carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term or putting your own health at risk are the only options of those who cannot.

Meanwhile, the pool of those who fall into the latter category is rapidly expanding.  According to the Guttmacher Institute nearly 70 percent of women seeking abortions have incomes less than 200% of the federal poverty level—or less than $22,000 per year. Almost two thirds of the women seeking abortions are women of color.  The women seeking abortions are predominately poor, minorities, and often paying for the procedure out of their own pocket due to insurance bans on the procedure or no insurance coverage in the first place.

It is this fight for access, at the state-level that marks the next wave of the choice movement with access broadly defined to encompass the original civil rights underpinnings of the Roe decision—access must facilitate social justice because to do any less means no meaningful access at all. This is the evolution of reproductive rights into reproductive justice.

At a recent conference, Loretta Ross, an activist and one of the founders of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, explained that reproductive justice works from a framework of human rights that cannot be applied to the unborn. “All human beings are born into human rights. You have to be here to accept that right,” said Ross.

With 40 years at our back and a landscape for abortion access nearly as bad as the one that lead to the Roe decision in the first place, it’s time for our movement to go beyond women’s rights to that of reproductive justice, and re-embrace the original civil rights injustice that brought so many to the fight to make abortion legal in the first place. For those of us born after Roe, we need to strive to break down barriers to access—whether they be financial, legislative, or judicial—and win back state-by-state what has been stripped by anti-choice foes.

As Ross explained, reproductive justice is “The right to have a child, the right to not have a child, and the right to raise that child in a safe environment.”   It’s time to move beyond simple rights, and make the new fight a matter of justice.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Roe at 40

One response to “From Civil Rights to Women’s Rights to Reproductive Justice

  1. Pingback: Social justice, world peace and women’s right to access safe abortion…………… | The ASAP Blog

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