Defining Reproductive Justice: An Encounter
by Julia Smucker
Among the overwhelming plethora of workshop options at this summer’s Wild Goose Festival, one in particular piqued my curiosity – not in the sense of appearing purely edifying, but as something that might be worth an effort to engage from a Consistent Life perspective. Titled, “Reproductive Justice Is _______: Moving Beyond the Pro-Choice/Pro-Life Binary,” the description read:
This interactive conversation will offer a variety of diverse perspectives and practices around the issues surrounding reproductive justice. Looking beyond the pro-choice and pro-life binary, the conversation partners will include abortion doulas, members of a collective that agitates for childcare in movement spaces, and labor activists advocating for a higher minimum wage. Rather than focus solely on abortion, the goal of this conversation is to engage the full spectrum of issues related to Reproductive Justice, which means engaging the many social injustices that people face when making decisions about their reproductive health.
Aside from the shocking term “abortion doulas,” and the off-the-mark framing of the abortion debate as a “binary” to be reconciled rather than as principles of justice and nonviolence to be expanded, the talk sounded potentially oriented toward a search for common ground by addressing, and hopefully broadening, interconnected issues. There was, in the end, some common ground to be found, although it took more digging than the above description might suggest.
Tragedy or Celebration?
Initially, the broad definition of “reproductive justice” as including things like just working conditions, fair and equal pay, and medical and parental leave struck a hopeful note. But the vibe among the three co-presenters quickly went beyond being even pro-choice to an explicitly celebratory view of abortion. To me, the most tragic element was one of them mentioning having moved away from talking about abortion as tragedy, and even about the consistent life ethic, even while she admitted that this made it harder to reconcile her own positions on life issues.
There was a similar dissonance in the way their abortion-positive view was presented in the context of working with women in difficult situations. Even if one were to set aside, for the sake of argument, the obvious tragedy in any premature loss of life, would it not be a tragedy when other tragedies or injustices make abortion seem necessary?
They tried to resolve this tension by acknowledging yet minimizing the unpleasantness of abortion as simply “an ordinary bad time.” One woman also affiliated with the presenting group later acknowledged the trauma of her own past abortion, having “felt the baby pull away,” and the years of counseling that followed. An audience member sporting a Planned Parenthood t-shirt followed this by declaring she had been “overjoyed” at having an abortion as a student, because she was able to finish school.
Of course, having to choose between one’s child and one’s education or career is itself an injustice that people on both sides of the abortion debate can acknowledge. Here, however, the idea of ending the demand for abortion through factors such as economic and gender-based injustice was dismissed as unattainably utopian.
When they took questions, I asked them, given their implied acceptance of the inevitability of those injustices, how they would respond to similar arguments dismissive of attempts to prevent other social problems such gun violence, poverty, racism, or gender discrimination.
One presenter responded that she did not believe such arguments followed the same logic, without providing much explanation for this belief, while another added that a pregnancy situation is the only time people are required to care for others.
One could certainly think of any number of situations where someone might feel a need or an obligation, at least in a moral sense, to care for another. Yet, to the extent that the presenter’s statement is true, it is a poor reflection on a culture of individualism, in which the need – and sometimes, consequently, the right – to care for or depend on others is sadly undervalued.
They arrived at a somewhat more satisfactory answer when another attendee, voicing respectful disagreement, asked about reconciling advocacy for abortion with advocacy for the disabled, people of color, and others who frequently experience discrimination before and after birth.
One of the self-described abortion doulas admitted that a long-time sticking point for her was, in her own phrasing, “people aborting girls.” Referring to requests for abortion “because it’s a girl, and my husband won’t approve,” and acknowledging at least such sex-selective abortion as tragic, she walked back some of the earlier defeatism about addressing root causes by calling on all present to work at bringing about “a world where men don’t do that” – a line that drew universal applause, including from me.
The most hopeful part of the workshop came after it officially ended. I had noticed several signs displayed by the presenting group proclaiming things like paid family leave (another case of the need to care for another) and freedom from violence (ironically) to be reproductive justice. As justice issues connecting basic human needs to the care of children, both before birth and long after, these were definitions of reproductive justice I could get behind
My enthusiasm for this messaging sparked a bit of spillover conversation, and we agreed on the need for such conditions that one shouldn’t have to choose, for example, between one’s child and one’s livelihood, or between the (at least) two lives of equal worth in any pregnancy: the child and his or her mother.
They expressed some surprise at hearing someone who is pro-life talk about respecting the lives of both mother and child, let alone about Consistent Life Network member groups such as Feminists for Life or the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians (I offered a flyer we had from the latter group to a presenter who had taken a specifically LGBT angle, which she happily received).
Despite earlier declarations of the futility of trying to eliminate certain injustices that drive abortion, in the end they agreed that this is something we can, and should, all be working toward. And that in itself was worth the encounter.