DifferenTakes #38: The Politics of Abortion and Reproductive Justice: Stronger Movement Strategies Print E-mail

DifferenTakes is an investigative series of issue papers, published by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, providing alternative information and analysis on a wide range of reproductive rights, population, environment and social justice issues.  We are launching a special series of DifferenTakes focusing on 'Reviving Reproductive Safety' in movements for women's health and reproductive justice. 

We are pleased to send you the eighth issue in the series, "The Politics of Abortion and Reproductive Justice: Strategies for a Stronger Movement" by Marlene Gerber Fried.  This issue addresses the current politics of the abortion debate, a critique of the "choice" framework traditionally used by reproductive rights advocates, and a call for a movement more broadly defined by reproductive and social justice.

- Betsy Hartmann and Amy Oliver
Co-editors, DifferenTakes

Also in pdf format

The Politics of Abortion and Reproductive Justice: Strategies for a Stronger Movement

by Marlene Gerber Fried
A Publication of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College - No. 38 - Fall 2005

The current battle over the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court illustrates the continued centrality of the abortion issue in U.S. politics. On one side is the anti-abortion movement, dedicated to making abortion illegal and relying on George Bush to appoint Supreme Court justices dedicated to this goal. On the other side advocates for reproductive rights continue to fight to preserve legal abortion as a fundamental right necessary for women's equality and health. 

Worldwide, unsafe and illegal abortion remains a major public health problem as well as a fundamental woman?s human rights issue. There are an estimated 46 million abortions each year.[1] Induced abortion is one of the most commonly performed medical interventions.[2]  When legal and performed by trained providers, it is also one of the safest medical procedures. Despite this, the mortality and complication rates from unsafe abortion remain high because of restrictive laws and regulations and inadequate, inaccessible services. 

While making abortion legal is necessary to its safety, liberalizing laws is not in itself sufficient to guarantee that all women have access to safe and legal abortion.  For example, in India where abortion has been legal since 1971, many women still undergo illegal abortions because of inadequate or unaffordable services and a lack of knowledge about legal abortion.[3] Access is a problem in Western countries too. In the United States, abortion was legalized in 1973, but many women lack access because of restrictive legislation which especially burdens poor and young women, an inability to pay, the uneven geographic concentration of services, and the shortage of providers.[4] Throughout the world, the most vulnerable women in a society are the ones who are the most harmed by the lack of access to safe, legal abortion.

In addition to changing laws, ensuring abortion access for all women requires closing the gap between legality and access, a goal that requires widespread societal and institutional change. The way abortion is viewed in society at large must also be addressed. Anti-abortion forces are well aware of this. Their actions are aimed both at preventing women from having abortions and at molding public opinion, stigmatizing abortion and women who have them.

In the U.S., the effort to defend and expand abortion and reproductive rights has been impeded not only by the successes of the opposition, but also by divisions among advocates of abortion rights. In this paper I will explore these issues and suggest that the movement adopt a reproductive justice approach.

Restricting Reproductive and Sexual Rights: The Bush Agenda

Although abortion was rarely mentioned by any of the candidates during the 2004 presidential election in the U.S., it has been in the forefront of Bush?s agenda since he took office in 2000. His appointments to high level cabinet and agency positions and nominations for federal judgeships include people who oppose abortion and contraception. In addition to doing what he can through appointees, budget appropriations, and executive orders, Bush has assured opponents of abortion that he will continue to sign all of the restrictive laws that Congress passes. His track record speaks for itself. He signed legislation banning so-called partial birth abortion,[5] which President Clinton had vetoed and which had already been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The fact that it has now been enjoined by three federal courts does not seem to be a deterrent to Bush. What is most important is that he show himself to be faithful to an anti-abortion agenda and to the Christian fundamentalists that were so crucial to his re-election.o. 38 ?

Opponents of abortion are hopeful that if Bush is able to make enough new appointments to the Supreme Court, the federal constitutional right to abortion secured by the Roe v Wade decision could be rescinded.[6] The resignation of Sandra Day O'Connor, who was part of a narrow majority in favor of abortion rights, has provided Bush with his first opportunity to change the court. If Roe were overturned, abortion would be treated as it was before 1973, with each state making its own laws. The Center for Reproductive Rights estimates that 30 states would criminalize abortion and 20 would legalize, although the restrictions would vary.[7] Access to abortion would be further curtailed and as with all the other erosions in abortion rights, the most vulnerable women would be the most harmed. While there is considerable disagreement about whether this will be a Bush strategy, this frightening possibility is a cause for alarm. Many abortion rights advocates are thinking about how to ensure that women will get their needs met should this come about.

As a result of anti-abortion efforts, abortion and other reproductive rights have been seriously compromised, especially for the most vulnerable women in the U.S. and throughout the world ? those who are poor and young, with women of color everywhere bearing a disproportionate burden.  Internationally, the global gag rule remains in place, undermining services and the health of millions of people worldwide. The gag rule prohibits foreign NGOs that receive funding from US Agency for International Development and/or the Department of State[8] related to family planning from addressing abortion, either through advocacy, referrals or provision of services. NGOs that refuse to comply have lost funds needed to run health clinics and provide other sexual and reproductive health services such as contraception and education about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.

The Bush administration pushes its anti-abortion agenda at every international meeting on women's rights and health. At the recent session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March 2005, a meeting to review the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, the U.S. delegation tried to amend the Beijing Platform to exclude abortion and "clarify" that the document does not create any new international human rights. After the amendment was opposed by more than 150 NGOs, the U.S. withdrew it, claiming that it was not backing down, only that the amendment was unnecessary.

While there is unanimity among feminists about the need to oppose the Bush agenda, there are also deep divisions about the overall political framework within which abortion rights are to be supported. While the ever-present threats from anti-abortion forces make it difficult even to discuss these issues, failure to address them ultimately weakens our movement and undermines the possibility of effective resistance.

Critique of Choice

The movement that fought for the legalization of abortion in the U.S. de-mobilized after it was achieved.  Later in the same decade, the movement that emerged in response to the newly formed anti-abortion movement was a defensive one. The momentum seemed to have shifted to the opposition as the religious Right gained more power. Abortion rights supporters decided to use the language of choice and privacy as their framework. They thought this would have wider appeal and that it would broaden their base of support, encompassing even those who were conservative on issues of social and economic welfare.[9]  This approach was temporarily successful, insofar as it split those on the Right. However, it undercut demands for public funding of abortion and other aspects of access that had characterized the earlier struggle for abortion rights.[10]

Framing abortion rights in terms of a woman's right to choose is problematic on other counts as well. Because "choice" appeals to those who have options, but is relatively meaningless to those who do not, it is politically divisive. In a capitalist context, the idea of choice invokes the marketplace ? things that are for sale can be chosen. This neo-liberal notion locates rights within an individual and obscures the social context and conditions needed in order for someone to have and exercise rights.[11] The fact that race and class inevitably circumscribe one?s choices is ignored.

Together with a failure to oppose population control, making abortion a matter of choice reinforced the disparity between the predominantly white and middle class women who were seen as the champions of abortion rights, and the low income women and women of color worldwide who bear the brunt of restrictions.

Not only is "choice" inadequate to express the full range of needs and conditions which must be met if women are to be able to make their own reproductive decisions, it is also a weak ethical framework, especially when counter-posed to "life". The attempt to cast supporters of reproductive choice as anti-life should be resisted by raising the life issue on the abortion rights side. This means bringing the full reality of women's lives to the discussion.

Choice has also been used to silence concerns about women's health and potential coercion in the area of new reproductive technologies, including contraception. For example, Norplant was the first new contraceptive to be introduced in the U.S. in 25 years. It was met with relatively uncritical approval by mainstream women?s groups who saw it as expanding women?s contraceptive options. Depo- Provera too has been seen as providing women with greater choice. The mainstream feared that criticisms of these contraceptive methods raised by women?s health advocates in other countries and women of color in the U.S. would play into the hands of opponents of abortion and contraception, thus undermining women?s right to choose. As a result, contraceptive safety concerns were too readily dismissed and even discouraged.

Currently, stem cell research is in the same position.  The Right and the anti-abortion movement are ideologically opposed to it. In 2001, President Bush outlawed federal funding for all but a very limited category of such research. However, many Republicans, even some who oppose abortion, do not agree with Bush?s position on stem cell research.  Democrats successfully use this as a ?wedge? of their own to divide the Republicans. Proponents of stem cell research have portrayed the opponents as religious ideologues who would prevent science from finding cures for diseases.

In this highly politicized context, the positions are too narrowly drawn. One can either side with science by supporting stem cell research, or be anti-science by opposing it. There is no room for concerns about the potential risks to women?s health. One women?s health group, the Pro-Choice Alliance, is arguing for another approach. While they support most stem cell research, they are also raising important objections to embryo cloning. Specifically, they are worried about the risk to women?s health from the multiple egg extraction that embryo cloning necessitates. They argue that because of incomplete knowledge about the risks to women?s health, women cannot give informed consent. They advocate a series of measures designed to protect women?s health. These include requirements that researchers adopt the safest and most ethical approaches to collecting eggs; a neutral party whose sole purpose is to protect the safety and rights of women review existing data before undertaking multiple egg extraction; and every woman who provides eggs for research have her own physician, independent of the researchers.[12] The Pro-Choice Alliance wants to create a more balanced public discussion, one in which women?s health does not have to take a back seat for fear that opponents of abortion will win the day. Thus far they have not been successful in securing their policy objectives. They are, however, raising awareness and opening the space to be both supportive of abortion rights and critical of technologies that pose potential health threats.

Organizing for Reproductive Justice

Historically, women of color have organized for reproductive and sexual rights outside of the choice framework. They have created their own organizations and coalitions, and have redefined reproductive rights in ways that emphasize the needs of their communities.  Overarching socio-economic inequalities and racism shape these communities and the lives of women in them. They have disproportionate rates of poverty, lack of access to health care services and information, high incidences of violence, and poorer health outcomes in all areas. Examples include the fact that a majority of new HIV cases in the U.S. are among African American and Latina women; Native women experience very high rates of reproductive tract infections; Latinas have proportionately higher rates of cervical cancer; and Asian American women are the only group to experience a rise in overall cancer mortality. Consequently, their definitions of reproductive justice focus on achieving the broad set of conditions necessary for reproductive and sexual freedom. Human rights and economic justice become part of this analysis, not separable from reproductive rights. Their definitions provide an expansive understanding of reproductive freedom, which integrates the race, class, gender and cultural aspects of their lives. Because of the histories of population control, the right to have children and families is core to their activism.

The reproductive justice approach is in sharp contrast to the narrowness of mainstream pro-choice politics. It is a holistic formulation, which links communities and issues and therefore has a greater potential to draw new constituencies to the reproductive freedom struggle. This is especially important now in the aftermath of the Bush victory. As in the past, when the Right has gained power, the mainstream reaction from the Democrats is to become more conservative. Several leaders of the Democratic Party have called for making the party more hospitable to opponents of abortion. Senator Hilary Clinton?s version of this approach is to describe abortion as ?tragic.?[13] We should know better. Abortion rights are important both symbolically and practically since the availability of safe abortion has a direct impact on women?s lives everywhere. A woman?s bodily autonomy and integrity are at the core of self-determination and liberty.

Removing women?s rights and sexuality from the abortion struggle and pursuing a narrow agenda have not been winning strategies in the long run. They have perpetuated racial and class divisions in the movement, weakening the ability to resist threats from the antiabortion movement and to move forward to secure rights never achieved. I therefore hope that reproductive justice will become the central frame for reproductive rights, not only because this is the right thing to do, but also because it is the only way to win.

Marlene Gerber Fried is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College. She is a long-time reproductive rights activist both nationally and internationally, and serves on the boards of the National Network of Abortion Funds, the Abortion Access Project, and the Women?s Global Network for Reproductive Rights. She is co-author with Jael Silliman, Loretta Ross and Elena Gutié²²ez of is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College. She is a long-time reproductive rights activist both nationally and internationally, and serves on the boards of the National Network of Abortion Funds, the Abortion Access Project, and the Women?s Global Network for Reproductive Rights. She is co-author with Jael Silliman, Loretta Ross and Elena Gutié²²ez of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice, South End Press, November, 2004.


[1] ?Safe Abortion: Technical and Policy Guidance for Health Systems,? World Health Organization, 2003, p.10.

[2] ?Abortion Facts,? www.womenonwaves.org, last visited: June 28, 2004.

[3] ?Abortion in Context: United States and Worldwide,? Issues in Brief, 1999 Series. No.1, p.32, Alan Guttmacher Institute.

[4] For more information see: ?Justice Demands Abortion Funding,? National Network of Abortion Funds, www.nnaf.org, April 2004; ?Revisiting Public Funding of Abortion for Poor Women,? The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy, April 2000.

[5] The term ?partial birth abortion? is purely political. It does not refer to any one procedure or gestational period, and it is not recognized by any medical authority. If found constitutional, the ban would compromise women?s access to the safest abortion

procedures. Our Bodies, Ourselves, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2005, pp 410-411.

[6] Abortion was legalized in the U.S. in 1973 with Roe v. Wade, a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[7] ?What if Roe Fell? The State by State Consequences of Overturning Roe v. Wade,? Center for Reproductive Rights, September 2004.

[8] The State Department was added in 2003.

[9] Silliman et al, Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice, South End Press, Boston, 2004, p30.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Silliman, Jael and Anannya Bhatcharjee, Policing the National Body: Race, Gender and Criminalization, South End Press, Boston, 2002.

[12] ?Unregulated Stem Cell Research May Put Women?s Health At Risk,? Center for Genetics and Society, http://www.genetics-andsociety.org/resources/cgs/20050307_cirm.
[13] Saletan, William, ?Safe, Legal, and Never,? http://slate.msn.com/id/2112712, last visited 1/26/05.