Reproductive Justice -- Mainstreaming a Radical Vision

Reproductive justice embraces the interrelationship of reproductive freedom, religious liberty, and equality, among other rights and freedoms, as vital to creating meaningful social change and justice for everyone. It means supporting fundamental human rights -- the right to have full autonomy over our bodies.
01/06/2015 02:52 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2015

It is easy for defenders of women's rights to feel we have been on a long forced march since Roe v. Wade, trying to preserve our gains against increasing attack year by year. Unlike other civil rights advances, the right of women to control their bodies has received very little support from the federal government and more often than not has been the object of outright hostility over the years from the White House or Congress. Since the election of 2010, many states have moved to further restrict access to abortion, as if the existing laws on abortion have not accomplished enough toward making abortion more difficult or nearly impossible to obtain for many women. State governments have passed more abortion restrictions in the last three years (2011-2013) than in the entire previous decade. Opponents of covering contraception through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) succeeded this year in winning a ruling from the Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that employers cannot be forced to provide coverage they object to on religious grounds.

In these circumstances one can lose sight of the need to think more broadly and proactively about reproductive health. But not everyone has stayed in a defensive crouch in the last decades. Since the early 1990s during the Clinton-era debate about national health care, African American women have organized and sought to lift up the concept of reproductive justice as a way of thinking about and acting for reproductive health. They have brought a focus on meeting the needs of marginalized women, beginning with women of color and later including all low-income women, immigrant and young women, among others.

Reproductive justice embraces the interrelationship of reproductive freedom, religious liberty, and equality, among other rights and freedoms, as vital to creating meaningful social change and justice for everyone. It means supporting fundamental human rights -- the right to have full autonomy over our bodies; the right to have or not have children; the right to birth and/or parent our children with dignity; and the right to live and/or raise a family in a safe, healthy environment. It is a perspective beyond a narrow legal framework. For NCJW, whose advocacy is inspired by Jewish values, our work grows from the commandment to pursue justice and the conviction that we all created in the image of God. Thus we strive to view reproductive rights in a holistic and inclusive way and have adopted the framework offered by reproductive justice in our work.

A reproductive justice focus means paying explicit attention to the impact of government policies on health care for all women. This is a two-part charge -- first, to not just ensure our right to access care, but our full ability to access such care, and second, to ensure that no one is left behind. Our laws must ensure access to comprehensive reproductive health care without regard to a person's income, immigration status, geographic location, race, sexual orientation or gender identity, or other factors. And, while NCJW often uses the term women, we are equally committed to ensuring that people of all gender identities can achieve full self-determination and have their human rights protected.

This year, NCJW supported the All Above All Be Bold campaign to end restrictions on access to coverage of abortion services embodied in the Hyde amendment, which withholds such coverage from the millions of women who receive health care through federal programs ranging from Medicaid to federal employee insurance plans. And, in our efforts to help pass the ACA, NCJW organized to win inclusion of a broad array of preventive reproductive health care benefits. These two examples illustrate the difference between protecting rights and ensuring real access.

But, we cannot rest as long as 24 states resist federal Medicaid expansion that would provide access to health coverage to millions of uninsured low-income women and families. We will not rest as long as the law contains Hyde-like bans that permit states to bar abortion coverage in plans sold in their state marketplaces, making abortion beyond the reach of women and families who are struggling to make ends meet. And, we must support legislation in Congress that would reverse the Supreme Court's decision to allow employers to deny coverage of reproductive health care benefits to workers and thus impose their own religious views on employees and their families.

Such work must be framed in in a way that goes beyond the mere assertion of constitutional rights to a guarantee of human rights. The real life consequences of policies cannot be reduced to only legal or theoretical matters -- it's important to be up front about what such policies mean for women and how they interact with racism, poverty and other forms of marginalization or systemic oppression.

As a multi-issue organization with a long history of involvement in civil rights and the well-being of women, children, and families, the shift for NCJW is not a radical one. In today's political environment, however, the assertion of a more all-encompassing vision of reproductive justice against a backdrop of struggle just to maintain the status quo can seem quite radical. But the assertion of radical proposals for justice has always preceded progress on achieving them. Mindful of our own history of exclusion and marginalization, we call on others to join us in this critical effort.