More than Roe: Are Researchers Ready for Reproductive Justice?

By Zakiya Luna

The long-term consequences of reproductive movements post-Roe are varied, but one of the most important has been the coalescing of the movement for reproductive justice. When I first wrote about reproductive justice on this blog, the US was in the midst of a major political debate over who would be elected president. While the economy was a major focus, reproduction, once again, was a key issue raised. Republican candidates in races throughout the country took public stances including disagreeing with mandated health care coverage of birth control  and made inaccurate and shocking remarks about social problems such as rape. Responses to these ideas sparked various resistances by individuals and organizations that mobilized celebrity support to “draw the line” on the War on Women as it became dubbed.  Although these comments were not the only reasons for his re-election, President Obama remained in office. I wondered which candidate would talk about reproductive justice. The question I raised remains in some ways but now I pose it to fellow researchers of reproductive movements: who will talk about reproductive justice?

While there is still much to learn about how movement ideas and tactics spread, we know diffusion across networks is critical (McAdam and Rucht 1993, Strange and Soule 1998). Media certainly plays a role in how people understand ideas. In this year, the 40th anniversary of Roe, we even have major media outlets discussing reproductive justice and its origins in Black feminist organizing. Researchers of reproductive movements, however, also have a role in the understanding of consequences of movements. I have been interested in the ways language shifts and the implications of discussions of reproductive rights and choice in contrast to reproductive justice.

The shift to reproductive justice has not been the result of the abortion rights movement deciding to change after years of assault by its pro-life opponents. Rather, “reproductive justice” was a conceptual breakthrough coined by women of color and their allies to articulate their reproductive experiences of the desire for the right to have a child and the right to parent not only the right to abortion (Luna and Luker forthcoming 2013). This conceptualization emerged in part through their resistance to the terms of the abortion rights movement.

The racial demographics of the country have shifted with a younger cohort being majority minority and further changes coming sooner than previous predictions suggested. Movements on all sides of any social issue have to be able to engage convincingly with different populations to stay relevant as the pro-“choice” movement has struggled with over the decades. The binary of pro-choice and pro-life predominates many activists and scholars thinking despite its decreasing utility. Whose choices? In what context? Whose life? Answers vary based on many factors. Yet in everyday conversation we are so constrained by these labels that for many it is difficult to conceptualize what it would mean in both movements and research to use other language that more accurately reflect people’s realities.

As researchers we often want to simplify complex data to make clearly understandable claims. The reproductive justice movement poses a challenge to this impulse. In my research (Luna 2010, 2011), and that by various organizations, it becomes clear these phrases are loaded and inaccurate to many. There are women who are active in the reproductive justice movement who have children, support the rights of others to have children or have an abortion—and do not understand their efforts as part of the fight for “abortion rights.” There are men active in the movement who have a deep religious conviction and support women when they obtain an abortion but do not identify as “pro-choice” (and may even identify as something closer to “pro-life”).

Some abortion rights supporters do embrace a broader vision of reproductive justice and are working to integrate the underlying principles into their organizations (e.g. community-based identification of problems and solutions, intersectional analyses that look at the issue at hand and consider the race and gender implications at a minimum, etc). Yet, there are many others—even those who may publicly support reproductive justice—who do not change their intra-organizational practices to move toward this vision. In these cases, reproductive justice becomes a “phrase of the day” taken on as short-term tactical shift rather than long-term strategy for organizing movements differently to better reflect the complexity of people’s lives.

As “reproductive justice” has grown in popularity, both activists and researchers have used it when they actually describe movements that focus on “abortion rights,” “pro-choice,” or “reproductive rights.” Attention to these nuances matters to activists so researchers’ smoothing over difference also has implications for our current and future research. If we aim to conduct rigorous research, we will need to challenge ourselves to pay attention to the language we use in crafting our own research questions, talking to participants, and explaining long-term consequences of reproductive movements, plural.


Luna, Zakiya. 2011.“‘The Phrase of the Day’: Examining Contexts and Co-optation of Reproductive Justice Activism in the Women’s Movement.” Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change 32: 219-246.

Luna, Zakiya and Kristin Luker. 2013.   “Reproductive Justice.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science (forthcoming).

McAdam, Doug, and Dieter Rucht. 1993. “The Cross-National Diffusion of Movement Ideas.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 528: 56-74.

Strang, David Sarah A. Soule. 1998. “Diffusion in Organizations and Social Movements: From Hybrid Corn to Poison Pills.” Annual Review of Sociology, 24.1: 265-290.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Roe at 40

2 responses to “More than Roe: Are Researchers Ready for Reproductive Justice?

  1. And when will researchers be ready for “gender justice?”


  2. Pingback: Reproductive Justice | The Prochoice Highway

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