#KnowYourHistory: Women of color have been moving beyond “pro-choice” for decades

A group of black women holding signs at the Free Marissa march in Jacksonville, FL last weekend

Marching for Marissa Alexander’s freedom. Photo credit: First Coast News

On Tuesday, the New York Times published a feature on reproductive health advocates moving away from the language of “choice.” An important and interesting topic, the potentially illuminating piece instead served to obscure the history of the move away from choice language, completely erasing women of color’s crucial role in developing the reproductive justice framework that set the stage for this move by the larger and more well-funded (and, ahem, white-lady-led) reproductive health organizations. Since then, women of color in the reproductive justice movement have been hollering a collective WTF. 

How bad is the Times piece? Let’s take a look for ourselves:

But by 2010 some abortion-rights activists began to sense in their outreach to young women, whose support was needed not only for the midterm elections but for the movement’s future as well, that the term pro-choice was virtually meaningless. That was confirmed by postelection polls and focus groups that women’s organizations and Democrats commissioned to understand what went wrong.

Among the findings, according to several people familiar with them: Many young women, when asked whether they were pro-choice or pro-life, said pro-life. Yet they supported the Roe ruling. Explaining the contradiction, Ms. Laguens said these self-described pro-life voters were “talking about their personal decision-making, for themselves, and not about what they want to push on others.”

But such results also showed the weakness of the pro-choice label, advocates and pollsters said. Planned Parenthood took the lead, conducting research on public attitudes throughout 2011 and then presenting the findings to allies in various meetings.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but perhaps we can get started with a little bit of history of reproductive justice. The brainchild of women of color in the reproductive health and rights movements more than two decades ago, the reproductive justice framework came about due to their frustration with the “choice” framework. These activists were frustrated that most reproductive rights activism focused narrowly on abortion and the desire not to have kids when they knew that Mexican-American and indigenous women, as well as other low-income women of color on Medicaid, were getting coercively sterilized. They felt that the idea of free choices – which felt very American and patriotic to white women – never reflected the realities of women in their communities, didn’t ever feel familiar to women of color whose bodies were the historical sites of so much pain and coercion on this land of colonization and slavery. Decades ago, women of color knew that the realities of post-industrial economic decay, lowering wages, and increasing cost of living all guided and coerced low-income women’s reproductive decisions. In short, women of color have long known that the idea of “choice” is a privileged position, that it has never felt familiar to many of us, and that our liberation required a lot more than lofty Supreme Court decisions that gave us the theoretical choice to terminate our pregnancies.

A friend of mine, a longtime clinic escort and abortion funding activist, told me once that she’s heard from countless women deciding to terminate their pregnancies that, though they were confident in their decisions, they didn’t quite feel like free choice. And if you think about it for maybe over ten seconds, it’s pretty clear why: you can’t tell women who are surviving on an extremely inadequate minimum wage, with little access to health care, women who are barely making rent and making monthly decisions about which bills to pay and which ones to put off, that their decisions to not start a family are even remotely by free choice. Sure, some of the people in this position might not want children. But many others would, if their economic position were different or seemed likely to change. That is not exactly a choice — it is economic coercion. So while women of color — a disproportionate amount of whom are low-income — have long supported access to abortion and other reproductive health care, few of us have fallen for the illusion that these decisions have always been dictated by true choice, and the messaging around it has always fallen flat on our community’s ears.

To suggest that abortion rights activists “began to sense” in 2010 that a “choice” framework was not the most resonant among young women is an egregious and unforgivable re-write of history. But to suggest that Planned Parenthood took the lead in moving away from this language, without so much as a mention of the women of color that have been pushing large, national, white-led, and well-funded organizations for literally decades, is such flagrantly irresponsible reporting, such a deep erasure of the work of women of color, that I can’t help but call racism.

I’m not just mad at the Times, though really a quick google of “reproductive health and women of color” could have solved many problems (the catch: you have to think about women of color as possibly being actors in their own bodies and lives!). I’m mad at Planned Parenthood for not drilling into the reporter they spoke to that this was never their idea, that their polling research just confirmed what women of color have been saying for years, and for not emphasizing that entire organizations led by women of color pushing for decades for a different frame, and that the reporter should maybe talk to some of them.

I don’t mean to undermine the importance of Planned Parenthood at all. They provide crucial services, very often affordable ones, very often in communities that have little or no other options. They are a key point of access to reproductive health care services for many low-income women across the nation, and this cannot be underestimated. But neither should they undersell the work and advocacy of reproductive justice advocates, while co-opting it now that they realize women of color are a key voting block and they need us. I’m well aware that it can be hard to get a hold on the way that a reporter is framing a story, and a Planned Parenthood rep has written a piece at HuffPo acknowledging the way the story minimized the history of reproductive justice, but I do think they could have done much more to ensure that women of color got the credit they deserve. That is not what solidarity, or reproductive justice, looks like.

Reproductive justice today looks like marching to free Marissa Alexander, a mother who was criminalized for protecting herself and her daughter. It looks like immigrant women on the border resisting the continuing attacks on reproductive health care and demanding care for documented and undocumented alike. Reproductive justice today looks like hundreds of people in mostly volunteer-led projects to raise funds for folks who can’t afford the full cost of their abortion. It looks like the fight to end the coercive sterilization of women in prison, it looks like fighting for the rights of queer and trans sex workers, and it looks like celebrating mothers and families who are queer, trans, disabled, and criminalized. It looks like young women of color working hard and stepping up to their leadership and making their voices heard, and it looks like the elders of this movement on whose shoulders we stand.

If you’re interested in learning more about this, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, SisterSong, and Young Women United — all women of color-led reproductive justice organizations — are hosting a tweet chat today at 12pm PT/3pm ET using the hashtag #KnowYourHistory. Don’t miss it.

1bfea3e7449eff65a94e2e55a8b7acda-bpfullVerónica is not tryna take any shit from triflin white ladies.

New York, NY

Verónica Bayetti Flores has spent the last years of her life living and breathing reproductive justice. She has led national policy and movement building work on the intersections of immigrants' rights, health care access, young parenthood, and LGBTQ liberation, and has worked to increase access to contraception and abortion, fought for paid sick leave, and demanded access to safe public space for queer youth of color. In 2008 Verónica obtained her Master’s degree in the Sexuality and Health program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She loves cooking, making art, listening to music, and thinking about the ways art forms traditionally seen as feminine are valued and devalued. In addition to writing for Feministing, she is currently spending most of her time doing policy work to reduce the harms of LGBTQ youth of color's interactions with the police and making sure abortion care is accessible to all regardless of their income.

Verónica is a queer immigrant writer, activist, and rabble-rouser.

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