Beyond abortion: what is reproductive justice

Lynn Morgan

Interview by Sasha Nyary

For Lynn Morgan, the Mary E. Woolley Professor of Anthropology at Mount Holyoke College, reproductive politics are central to every issue in our lives. “Poverty and welfare policies, health care, education, the high cost of child care, minimum wage and other labor issues—all these affect the health and well-being of children and families,” Morgan said.

Worldwide, the controversy about reproductive rights centers around abortion and contraception, with activists and scholars working to broaden the debate to include women’s autonomy and the rights of families in general.

As a medical anthropologist, Morgan focuses on reproductive health policy and governance in Latin America as a way to gain perspective on and bring attention to the issues in the United States. She has recently examined in vitro fertilization policy in Costa Rica and the language around reproductive rights and reproductive justice in Argentina.

In 1968, at the United Nation’s International Conference on Human Rights, it was decided that, “Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children.” How has the definition of reproductive rights evolved since then?

These conversations have been going on since the late 19th century, when doctors started to legislate around what we would today call reproductive rights issues. In the 1960s, a lot of people were interested in reproductive rights for reasons that had nothing to do with gender equality or women’s autonomy. They were concerned with population explosion, and especially controlling the population of certain kinds of people—poor people, indigenous women, African American women. Anthropologists have called this stratified reproduction, the idea that certain people’s fertility is encouraged while other’s people fertility is discouraged.

In the 1990s there was a big switch because of the UN conferences on population and development in Cairo and Beijing. At those conferences they talked about shifting the framework away from population control and family planning to focus on reproductive rights and women’s autonomy and gender autonomy.

The newer definitions say that not only should parents have the basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children but also the timing of their children, and that they should have the means to do so. The focus was no longer on demographic issues but on questions of reproductive rights and autonomy. That was a watershed moment.

What is the state of reproductive rights today and what are the central questions in the debate?

Today in the US, some reproductive rights activists have started moving away from the language of reproductive rights. That’s because they feel that when we talk about rights we’re really talking about individual rights, and that when we talk about reproductive rights we’re mostly talking about contraception and abortion. We’re not talking about the right to parent your children as you wish, the right to have housing in which your children can grow up without being exposed to violence, have good education, good child care, good health care.

So rather than reproductive rights, activists have started talking about the concept of reproductive justice. That term is used a lot these days. Reproductive justice is considered to be something that’s broader, more inclusive, that really takes account of economic inequality. And the fact that people who have money have access to resources that people without money don’t.

A lot of activists and advocates of sexual and reproductive rights have been emphasizing the judicial route. They’re trying to create high-impact litigation that will establish reproductive rights in the law for people in different countries, through the European Court of Human Rights, the African Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Some observers have talked about that as the judicialization of human rights. So this whole debate is moving into the law.

The UN platform from the Beijing conference is not binding, it’s what they call “soft law.” So it needs to be worked out in each country in each context. As an anthropologist, that’s one of the things I’ve become really interested in: what form do human rights or reproductive rights or sexual and reproductive rights take in these different contexts? Because each of them has its own history of relating to these things. And this concept of sexual and reproductive rights enters differently into each context depending on what’s going on there.

In your most recent work, you have been examining the backlash against reproductive and sexual rights movements in Latin America. How has this conflict contributed to the conversation on this topic?

While a lot of the attention is turning to judicialization, I want to pull back as an observer and look at what that means without getting lost in the advocacy rhetoric. What is the emphasis on rights language, rights talk, how is it skewing the debate, how is it forcing us to pay attention to certain kinds of issues and maybe ignore other kinds of issues.

An example of this is a strategy that reproductive rights activists in Latin America are using to publicize what are called “hard cases.” A young girl who becomes pregnant through incest. This happens over and over again. She’s 9, 10, 11 years old. Should she have access to an abortion? Or a woman whose life is threatened by her pregnancy? There are women who have died under these kinds of circumstances and those cases get publicized.

My question has been, what do we do when we publicize those cases without mentioning the other kinds of circumstances under which women might want access to abortion services? The risk is we end up making a divide between the so-called good abortions and bad abortions. I think that’s wrong. I believe we should have access to abortion without judging women for their motivations because we haven’t walked in their shoes. I think we need to acknowledge that women should have the autonomy and the integrity to make these kinds of decisions for themselves.

The sexual and reproductive rights movements are going to need to be broad-based movements, they can’t just be women’s movements. That’s one of the reasons why the Argentines in particular, and some of the Latin American movements, have built these broad coalitions. They bring in prominent and well respected intellectuals, politicians, and people—including men— to talk about their own commitments to these issues. That’s something we haven’t done as much in the United States.

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