On confusing abortion rights with larger reproductive rights

Five years ago, I wrote an extended piece about the critical need for nuance in reproductive rights discussions — it became, ultimately, a chapter in Get Out of My Crotch!an anthology on the subject pulled together to commemorate Roe v Wade. Five years later, the points I raised are all still relevant. Reproductive rights and justice are a huge, complex, diverse family of interrelated issues. But to hear mainstream conversations, you’d think only one is important. That one, of course, is abortion, and the hyperfocus on abortion to the exclusion of all other issues is a serious problem.

Let’s be clear about something: Abortion rights are under escalating threat in the United States, and I categorically support access to abortion on demand and without apology. Because this country is launching a war on abortion access, it’s catching many reproductive health needs — including family planning, screening and treatment for illnesses, prenatal care, and more — up in its wake. When you force standalone clinics to close, for example, you exclude low-income patients from treatments they critically need, but can’t access anywhere else. Attempting to suppress abortion in the US endangers pregnant people and it has serious consequences for the population as a whole. It’s an issue that I want us to continue addressing collectively.

However, abortion isn’t the only issue of concern here, and I often hear people confusing ‘reproductive rights,’ ‘reproductive freedom,’ and ‘reproductive justice’ with abortion. People need to stop doing this. Here are some issues that are also very closely connected to reproductive rights: Access to family planning, including voluntary sterilisation, long-term birth control services, and short-term birth control. Prenatal care. Perinatal and postpartum care. Well-baby care. Intersectional health care that considers cultural and social factors and how they interact with marginalised communities, like how post-partum depression is handled in Black patients, and how disabled patients are treated when they seek birth control and sexual education.

Abortion doesn’t equal reproductive rights. Reproductive rights don’t equal abortion. Abortion is reproductive right. And it’s an important one, but it’s not and shouldn’t be the cornerstone, because when people plow through other issues, they lose out. This isn’t to say, by any stretch of the imagination, that all people approach these issues this way, or even that all mainstream authorities, commentators, and publications behave this way. RH Reality Check is living evidence to the contrary, with incredibly diverse, intersectional, important pieces on the full spectrum of reproductive rights — on any given day there’s often a story about abortion, sure, but there are also pieces on reproductive health for women in prison, responding to gender-based violence after disasters, forced sterilisation, and a myriad of other topics. (It’s one reason I write for them.)

When we want to talk about abortion, we should be open that this is what we’re talking about. There’s nothing wrong with abortion. Abortion is a great thing to talk about, and to protect. Many people need abortions at some point in their lives and they should be able to access safe, compassionate procedures in appropriate clinical settings. But when people say ‘reproductive rights’ when they mean ‘abortion,’ it clouds the waters in a number of troubling ways. For one thing, it suggests — often unintentionally — that abortion is shameful and needs to be cloaked behind a euphemism. ‘Reproductive rights’ suggests something nice and broad, friendly, fitting in with other identity-based rights movements. Something that’s harder to oppose, including in liberal communities, because there absolutely are anti-abortion liberals.

It also tends to build up a dangerous association that when people say ‘reproductive rights,’ they mean abortion. Which means that we don’t talk about things like the fact that some people need protections while they try to get pregnant, carry pregnancies to term, have babies, and keep them. This is a country that discriminates against many large collectives of people, and one way they do it is through restriction of reproductive rights. Mary may want an abortion — and she should be able to get one — but José may actually be working with his partner to get pregnant, facing discrimination as a trans man and struggling with the right to safely carry his pregnancy.

This came up to startling effect in February, when news about the Zika virus began to sweep across the globe as public health officials warned that it was spreading like wildfire and could potentially cause severe complications for babies exposed to the virus in utero. There were a number of things about the conversation to deconstruct, and they started with suggestions from public health officials that people avoid pregnancy for a year or more. These things interacted extremely intimately with a very long history of attempts at controlling the fertility of Latin American women — whether it was the rape of slaves in the Caribbean, the testing of birth control on unsuspecting patients in Puerto Rico, the forcible sterilisation of Latinas in Los Angeles. State officials were ordering patients not to get pregnant, which was seriously troubling, and the way the conversations around that were framed was also sometimes troubling, with a focus on how patients in the region have ‘limited access to reproductive rights,’ by which many meant abortion (and in some cases birth control as well, to their credit). No one talked about how pregnancy itself is a reproductive right, and the ability to stay pregnant is as important as the ability to get an abortion.

There was a side of disablism too, as the reason people were told to avoid pregnancy was because of the strong association between Zika and microcephaly. This congenital anomaly can manifest in varying degrees of severity, but it’s not a death sentence, nor it is a sentence to a life of being unable to complete tasks of daily living, or a life in which someone can’t thrive and interact with society. The assumption made by many people advocating for ‘reproductive rights’ was ‘better dead than disabled,’ paired with upset about abortion restrictions — but not a larger conversation about the fact that reproductive justice is a huge collective of important concepts, all of which need to be protected.

Image: Me and Mom in the North York Mirror, April 26, 1972, Cory Doctorow, Flickr