A Learning Curve: From Human Rights to Reproductive Justice, And a Glimmer of Universal Justice

My antenna zoomed up in February when Loretta Ross, currently Activist-In-Residence, at Smith College, in her key-note address at the Take Root conference, spoke about how Reproductive Justice framing had been stimulated by women of color’s exposure to and interaction with the international women’s community. The human rights framing that international activists spoke from was not commonly used among US based groups at the time, in the early 1990s. As a kind of side comment, Ross mentioned that their Reproductive Justice concepts were now beginning to expand and deepen international human rights work.

Two simultaneous images popped into my mind’s eye. One was the significance of learning from and being exposed to groups in other countries and cultures. Second, is how good old American ingenuity, in this case personal is political experiences of women of color, can deepen the human-rights-political context.

Since stepping into my present work to galvanize, and resource, the US based women-lead media community with a long term aim to encourage its interaction with the international women’s media community, I had instinctively known a part of this equation of global interactions. Suddenly, Ross’ comments provided me a new framework in which to explore and deepen an analysis of women’s media within a gender justice frame. Most critically, I began to see how points of evolution within the trajectory of Reproductive Justice can propel growth of gender justice media forward.

“We were making double time to keep up. It made us very humble. Something most Americans are not used to,” recounted Loretta Ross when I spoke with her on the phone in March. She was describing how American women of color health activists were behind the curve at the 1994 global meeting in Cairo, UN International Conference on Population and Development.  Ross described how a number of these women of color “de-briefed” shortly after the Cairo meeting at the Illinois Pro-Choice conference.

Zakiya Luna, MSW, PhD, University of California, President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at the School of Law, has been documenting the history and evolutions within the Reproductive Justice movement since 2007. About the Black Women’s Caucus at the Chicago Pro-Choice conference in 1994, she writes “reproductive health integrated into social justice” became the new framing that these women crafted from the combined lessons of their own practice and their interaction with international human rights activists. This new theory was midwifed from practical, experiential activism.  Over time, and through creation, and evolutions, of a national network, SisterSong, the 1994 phrase has been shortened to Reproductive Justice.


In Ireland, I called Niall Behan, Chief Executive of the Irish Family Planning Association, the country’s leading sexual health charity. “We are always looking to the international community for what new issues are emerging.  A few years back Loretta Ross gave a very informative seminar,” Behan recalled. He explained how the complications of a blanket ban on contraceptives makes achievement of their mission “promoting the right of all people to sexual and reproductive health information and dedicated, confidential and affordable healthcare services” challenging.

“Loretta gave us a framework in which to look at all these issues. Also on class issues, how failure to have comprehensive reproductive health care impacts most severely on poor women. People can see the links, that there is a common thread between poverty and health care, for instance.”

Behan concluded our conversation with this important comment, “Anti-choice work in Ireland is borrowed from evangelists in the U.S. So, it is good to get something back. Loretta’s analysis is very very helpful.”

Luna points to various other developments and international organizations that are crafting Reproductive Justice concepts into their work. Resurj is an international network of global young women “realizing sexual and reproductive justice” with a very powerful vision statement.  Among their work is a Call to Action in which they seek a revisit of Cario@20 platform originally formed two decades ago.  Especially in light of today’s youth demands for “fulfillment of human rights, including sexual and reproductive rights” they desire a fuller, more comprehensive analysis.

In Oakland, CA Core Align has a mission to “build a network of leaders working innovatively to change policies, culture and conditions that support all people’s sexual and reproductive decisions.”

Also, Luna outlined how new laws, for instance in California prevent all shackling of pregnant women. This evolved from a better understanding of what it means to be a pregnant incarcerated woman.

A sprinkling of brand new academic programs such as the Program for the Study of Reproductive Justice, at the Yale Law School and Program for Sexual Rights and Reproductive Justice (SRRJ) at the University of Michigan are addressing reproductive justice analysis in their studies. A third program is the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at Berkeley Law where Luna leads the center’s working group. She joined Kristin Luker and Jill Adams in “founding and shaping the first – and to date the only – multi-disciplinary policy research center dedicated to reproductive rights and justice.”

For women to see their many layered, lived experiences as the fundamental impetus for their actions is the true benefit that reproductive justice is bringing to women, not solely women of color. This was abundantly clear in story after story that unfolded at Take Root. The integration of many issues—economy, housing, education, information, etc—into an over-arching analysis is re-invigorating activism, going back to original roots of the early women’s liberation movement. As Luna states, “The problems are mutli-faceted, so therefore the solutions need to be multi-faceted, as well.”

A conference, Reproductive Justice: Activists, Adocates and Academics in Ann Arbor at the end of May is a strategic meeting ground for formulating new research that is informed by applied projects and advocacy.

There is lots of organizing to do, papers to write, systemic change to make in women’s real lives that the dynamic theories of reproductive justice can foster. There is a vital role for gender justice media making – as a cacophony of women’s voices, visions and information exchange – to play in broadcasting these processes and women’s lived experiences.  The good international gathering place to shop that energy around is the next International Forum of AWID, in Spring 2015 spurting a big learning curve for all of us! Check out AWID’s Resource and Learning Hub: Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and Justice, as a first step.

Ariel Dougherty, national director of Media Equity Collaborative, writes about the intersections of gender justice media, women’s rights and their funding. Research and documents she has developed over the past years can be found  at http://www.scribd.com/ariel_dougherty

Credit: Charlotte Cooper, under Creative Commons

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