A New Reproductive Rights Discourse

Malika Saada Saar

A new reproductive health movement must include language about mothering with dignity. For vulnerable mothers, mothering with dignity means opportunities to heal from sexual violence, child welfare practices, education, and alternative sentencing to maternal incarceration and sentencing reform.

Is it just me or does the recent and popular support to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies hint of an uncomfortable subtext? Specifically, that we should reduce the number of teenage pregnancies for low-income girls of color? Of course, teenage girls of color–and for that matter, all teenage girls–should be given the support, education, and access to contraception to exercise their agency and to avoid unintended pregnancies. But I am disappointed that so many in the reproductive health community are scrambling to support this issue as proof of how we are broadening our message and discourse. I want to have the much harder, complex, yet succinct conversation about why so many teenage girls desire to have children. Or how in vulnerable communities, many teenage girls are subject to sexual violence, and then become involved in addiction, prostitution, and the criminal justice system.

Many girls in the foster care system have been bounced around, sometimes living in an average of 10 different foster homes and group home settings. They exist without the sacred ties to their mothers, to a safe and stable home where they can develop their full potential. Many of these girls have children in the hopes of creating for themselves the connections to love and family that they were denied. And so many teenage girls who exist at the grim margins, like girls everywhere, are subject to sexual violence.

For girls, the silent suffering of being violated, often by family, friends, or other persons who were to be trusted, dims girls' self-esteem and cuts down their belief in who they can become and what kind of relationships they deserve. They remain forever changed by the violation done to their bodies and spirits, and they are too often denied the supports they need to heal. Instead, girls–especially girls in vulnerable communities–are left to quietly endure the iniquity. These vulnerable girls who are left behind often become involved in, and re-traumatized by, the juvenile justice system.

There are unprecedented numbers of teenage girls entering the juvenile justice system–and they are outpacing boys in the rate of incarceration. Most are detained for the gendered offenses of prostitution or running away from abusive homes. Most have been sexually abused. In a study conducted by the Oregon Social Learning Center, chronically delinquent girls reported their first sexual encounter at the age of 6. Another study on delinquent girls revealed that in California, 81 percent of chronically delinquent girls reported being physically abused and 56 percent were sexually abused. Sexual or physical violence is more central to girls' pathways to detention than it is for boys.

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Why aren't we talking about these girls and in this way–not in terms of simply lowering unintended pregnancies but in terms of the ways in which vulnerable girls experience sexual violence and how that diminishes their full potential, aspirations, and abilities? Why aren't we talking about sexual violence in the lives of girls and how they deserve to live free of fear and violence?

It's not just about how we talk about girls–it's also about which women and which mothers are claimed. At the corners of reproductive health conversations and agendas, are low-income mothers of color who are often denied the chance to choose motherhood and care for their own children. Most African American and Latina women behind bars, for example, are non-violent offenders who are mothers to young children. They are not violent murderers or major drug dealers, but untreated addicts suffering from an addiction that is often tied to unaddressed sexual violence and trauma. These mothers' ties to their children are severed as a result of their incarceration. Pregnant women behind bars are placed in the inherently violent condition of being restrained or shackled during labor and delivery–and then suffer the removal of their babies within a 24 hour period. The desires of incarcerated mothers to heal from addiction, sexual violence, and to be able to care for and love their children–their desire to mother–are not construed as necessarily relevant in reproductive health rights discourse.

It is not enough to talk about reducing the number of teenage pregnancies, or reducing the overall number of unintended pregnancies in general–although these are worthy goals. We need to bravely discuss the complexity of our lives as women and girls. We need to talk about gendered violence, poverty, mothering, and mothering with dignity. And we need to stop being afraid, leaving certain mothers out, and dodging the difficult questions.

For those of us who were born post-Roe, there is a need to re-craft the language of choice. Many of us have felt betrayed by the silence surrounding the pain of choosing an abortion–despite our belief in its necessity. We want to be able to give voice to that pain, without feeling that to do so jeopardizes Roe (and without having Justice Kennedy do it for us in a paternalistic and condescending tone). The post-Roe generation (like the post civil rights generation) must develop a new narrative that honors the complexity of our lives as women and frames choice within a narrative of women and mothering. We want to discuss abortion within the context of when, how, and if we want to be mothers.

A new reproductive health movement must also include language about mothering with dignity. Mothering with dignity means creating for children an environment in which they can feel safe, loved, and confident. For mothers to parent with dignity they must have access to health care, affordable daycare, comprehensive family leave polices, flexible work places and be free of violence. For vulnerable mothers, parenting with dignity also means opportunities to heal from sexual violence through comprehensive, family based treatment programs, improved and culturally competent child welfare practices, a living wage, access to quality education, and alternative sentencing to maternal incarceration and sentencing reform.

Certainly, the traditional terms, language, and approach of the reproductive health discourse is lacking resonance with so many Americans. Let us develop a new narrative that maintains a steely commitment to Roe yet pushes out the parameters of a discourse on choice that is becoming increasingly calcified and exclusive. It's time to make that new choice.

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