When most people hear the phrase “reproductive justice,” abortion is the first, and probably only, thing that comes to mind. I felt largely the same way when I started at OU; in fact, I hadn’t even ever heard the phrase specifically. Since I’ve been at OU, my understanding of reproductive justice has expanded and become more complex.
Reproductive justice does, in fact, include abortion. Access to safe and legal abortion is one of the cornerstones of the reproductive justice movement, and the current political state in the U.S. makes this issue more pressing than in recent decades. Reproductive justice encompasses a myriad other health and political issues. For many years now, the federal funding to health providers like Planned Parenthood has been cut as a political tactic. While these measures are taken mainly to restrict abortion, they restrict access to other important reproductive health programs for everyone. In recent years, Texas has grown to have the highest maternal mortality rates in the country. According to a studying in the Obstetrics and Gynecology Medical Journal, the maternal mortality rate in Texas doubled within only two years following a 66% cut to family planning funds in the state budget.¹ Shocking in itself, these numbers are even more of a concern for women of color. In the same study, African American women were found to bear the highest rates of maternal mortality; between 2011 and 2012, African American women accounted for 28% of total maternal deaths despite accounting for only 11% of total births.² The cuts in state funding caused the closure of more than 80 family planning clinics in Texas. These are the clinics that provide family planning and prenatal care. These closures mean that some patients would have to travel prohibitive distances to get their healthcare providers, or not get the care that they need. These closures mean that some patients would no longer be able to find affordable healthcare. Not just to single out Texas, these same kinds of budget cuts and restrictions on family planning and reproductive health are occurring all over the country.
Not only does reproductive justice include the ways that our laws affect access to reproductive healthcare, but also how our justice system operates. States all over the country are passing new laws criminalizing abortion, and even miscarriages and stillborn births. In some cases, women have been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole after giving birth to a stillborn child. Those dealing with drug and alcohol addiction during their pregnancy are up for criminal charges. This intersection between the “war on drugs” and reproductive health maintains the same disparity between whites and people of color as our entire criminal justice system. Laws criminalizing drug use in pregnancy discourage drug users from seeking vital prenatal care or any other type of healthcare—the interactions that might help drug users find resources to stay sober during their pregnancy and get the treatment they need—for fear of prosecution. In Utah, miscarriages have been defined as criminal homicides in an attempt to further criminalize abortion. The severity of these laws that is aimed at illegal abortion ends up preventing people from getting the healthcare they need and criminalizes those already experiencing the tragedy of miscarriage or stillbirth.
And reproductive justice is so much more than this. It is people who identify as transgender being able to store their eggs and/or sperm. It is women of color having access to HPV vaccines that protect against the strains that are more likely in their communities. It is access to birth control regardless of the beliefs of certain employers. It is more than simply “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” In the simplest sense, reproductive justice is a way of thinking that links health, gender, and sexuality to human rights.