Race and Reproductive Rights

  • In the Summer of 2018, I undertook a course in Germany called Reproductive Justice. This turned out to be my favourite course of my whole degree. Within this blogpost I will explore the reasons behind why reproductive justice is so essential to the lives of many women, and particularly women of colour.


    When nineteenth century feminists began campaign for the rights to voluntary motherhood, the birth of the birth control movement was born.


    Reproductive justice can also hint at freedom in sexuality. Audre Lorde (1984), for example, talks in great detail about the power of the erotic and how society subordinates the erotic within us. She notes that sexuality is a powerful resource, but in Western society, we have been taught to suspect this resource, leading to a devaluation in Western society. Within this analogy, Lorde is specifically referring to Western society, but her hypothesis can be translated across different cross-cultural spheres.


    Often the lines between the case of reproductive rights and reproductive justice become blurred when sexual violence becomes a factor. Women thus look to abortion out of acts of desperation, rather than individual choice. This is mixed with the case of rape and the murky territory it treads upon. Audre Lorde is quoted as saying ‘as long as male domination exists, rape will exist’ (Lorde, 1984, p.113).


    The issue with sexual violence and consent thus gets merged into an issue with access to reproductive justice through birth control and abortion. It is generally assumed that women within consensual unions or relationships have a greater autonomy over their reproductive justice than victims of rape or sexual assault. However, the reality is, is that often race and gendered power relations dominate a women’s autonomy over her sexual or reproductive freedoms. Heise (1995) argues that women’s decision-making in family-planning is a useful analogy to illustrate this hypothesis. Much of the literature on family planning illustrates how for many women, fear of male reprisal greatly influences and limits their ability to use contraception. Furthermore, in many countries within the Global South a woman must often seek the permission of her spouse to access birth control.


    When discussing race and the Global South, Angela Davis is critical. She notes that women of colour often did not join the march for voluntary motherhood as they were fearful of forced abortion or sterilisation. Furthermore, the legacy of slavery must be accounted for when disseminating reproductive rights and reproductive justice. This can often bring us on to the greyer area of infanticide. Angela Davis is noted as saying that ‘abortions and infanticides were acts of desperation, motivated not by the biological birth process but by the oppressive conditions of slavery’ (Davis, 1985, p.185). 


    What is important to analyse within this conundrum is the motherhood movements that are associated with reproductive rights. Motherist movements are often mocked as being collusive in the perpetuation of patriarchal and capitalist regimes and orders. Yuval-Davis (1999) is critical of such a view, arguing that motherhood movements are emancipatory for the reproductive rights of women in general when facing state and male violence.

    Female genital mutilation (FGM) is also a dynamic that must be assessed. Toubia (1995) argues that FGM is the collective name given to several cultural and traditional practices that involve the cutting and mutilation of the genitals. The term FGM is reserved to describe practices where the actual cutting and removal of sexual organs takes place. FGM restricts a woman’s sexual autonomy and reproductive freedoms by circumcising her to prevent sexual activity and pleasure. What is concerning is it is mainly an issue pertaining to women of colour and women within the Global South.


    The question thus lies in the conundrum of what solutions can be made to end the abuse of women’s reproductive powers. Ross (2017) argues that the key to solving the issue of reproductive justice is to make it an issue of intersectional feminist activism. By bringing reproductive justice to the forefront of the feminist campaign we can emancipate women with more access to birth control and end the plague of FGM.


    Sources used:


    Davis, A. (1981) Women, Race and Class, New York, Penguin Modern Classics.


    Heise, L.L (1995) Freedom Close to Home: The Impact of Violence Against Women on Reproductive Rights in (eds.) Peters, J. and Wolper, A. (1995) “Women’s Rights, Human Rights”, New York, Routledge.


    Lorde, A. (1984) Sister Outsider, New York. Penguin Modern Classics.


    Ross, L.J. (2017) Reproductive Justice as Intersectional Feminist

    Activism, Souls, 19:3, 286-314, DOI: 10.1080/10999949.2017.1389634


    Toubia, N. (1995) “Female Genital Mutilation”” in (eds.) Peters, J. and Wolper, A. (1995) “Women’s Rights, Human Rights”, New York, Routledge


    Yuval-Davis, N. (1999) “Women, Citizenship and Difference”, New York, St Martin’s Press Inc.