Commentary Religion

Understanding Reproductive Justice: A Response to O’Brien

Marlene G. Fried, Loretta Ross & Rickie Solinger

“Inclusivity” and “intersectionality” are not just words. They describe the theory and practice of the reproductive justice movement with the potential to revitalize all of our advocacy and enable us to create the large and motivated base of support required to secure reproductive rights, health, and justice for all.

See here for further discussion of framing choice and reproductive justice.

We are writing in response to Jon O’Brien’s April 25 article for Rewire, Why We Are and Must Remain ‘Pro-Choice.’ We see the history and content of the reproductive justice framework and movement, and its critique of choice, quite differently. Because Catholics for Choice is a strong ally in the struggle for reproductive justice, we feel it is especially important to offer our perspective.

“Reproductive justice is not a label—it’s a mission. It describes our collective vision.”

The reproductive justice (RJ) movement has developed its analysis and agenda over many years. It is an inspirational vision for the future that also provides direction for the present. Activist Eesha Pandit puts it this way: “This was never about semantics, but about priorities and goals; about what we are willing to fight for and how we do it; about organizing differently, telling different stories, having different leadership. RJ’s inclusive lens expanded the agenda beyond abortion and contraception. In so doing, it drew new constituencies to the battles for reproductive autonomy and created solidarity with other movements.”

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Planned Parenthood’s recent decision to stop using “choice” language has led to a broad discussion about which labels and messages are most effective. Although Planned Parenthood’s rationale for the shift is not based on the analysis and critique developed by the reproductive justice movement, the group’s action provides an opportunity to talk about reproductive justice to a larger audience. As Kierra Johnson and Jessica Gonzalez–Rojas discuss in their excellent article, advocates are determined not to have this be a conversation merely about semantics or labels. Rather, they are taking the opportunity to talk about political goals and vision.

From Choice to Justice

The reproductive justice analysis was developed by women of color working both inside and outside a pro-choice movement that focused on defending a woman’s right to choose an abortion. The choice movement was not advocating for full reproductive autonomy for all women and ending all reproductive injustices. Notably, the right to have children and families, a front-line reproductive rights issue for women of color, was not put on the same footing as the right not to. Even within the sphere of abortion advocacy, access for poor and low-income women was not prioritized. As a result, women whose lives were shaped by reproductive oppression wanted a more inclusive approach that would reflect the realities of their communities. This meant going beyond the fight for abortion rights and recognizing the damage caused by isolating abortion from other social justice issues. Loretta Ross, one of the activists leading this effort, explained, “Not wanting to use the language of ‘choice’ because they (women of color) represented communities with few real choices, they integrated the concepts of reproductive rights, social justice and human rights to launch the term ‘Reproductive Justice.’

Women of color struggled within the pro-choice movement to bring their needs to the forefront, and they also created new organizations built on a broad, intersectional analysis and understanding of reproductive rights and health. The shift from choice to justice does not, as O’Brien says, devalue the autonomy of women who face obstacles. Instead, locating women’s autonomy and self-determination in human rights rather than in individual rights and privacy gives a more inclusive and realistic account of both autonomy and what is required to ensure that all women have it. Advocating for reproductive justice was not counter-posed against being “pro-choice” or supporting abortion rights. Rather, reproductive justice re-framed and included both.

Vision Leads to Action

O’Brien is concerned that reproductive justice does not allow for focused advocacy. We disagree. Having a broad, intersectional analysis does not mean that every organization has to fight on all fronts all the time. Achieving reproductive justice does require countering an opposition that is itself broad and intersectional, as it pursues an anti-woman, pro-patriarchal, and racist agenda. No one organization can possibly do this alone. It is precisely because we do not and cannot all work on the same issues that we need the cross-cutting analysis and shared values encompassed in reproductive justice. Embracing that framework enables us to shape our particular piece of the advocacy in ways that support each other’s work, without undermining our common long-term goals and values, and without sacrificing any group’s human rights for the political expediency of achieving limited gains.

For example, for decades, leading organizations in the choice movement did not advocate for restoring public funding for abortion. The issue was always put on the back burner. Taking a reproductive justice approach tells us to flip this script—to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable women and to build the political power necessary to effect policy. The 1994 Campaign for Abortion Rights and Equity, organized by the National Black Women’s Health Project (now the National Black Women’s Health Imperative) is a good example of this approach. By attempting to rescind the Hyde Amendment, the campaign centered on the needs of the most marginalized women in abortion advocacy.

Reproductive Justice and Abortion Advocacy

Not only must we continually resist attacks from a virulent, persistent, and well-funded anti-choice movement, but, as O’Brien correctly points out, we must fend off efforts from within our own and other social justice movements to retreat from working for abortion rights. We are told that abortion is too hard and too divisive, or, as O’Brien says, “With so many issues and agendas to push, something has to give. All too often it is abortion.” We have been urged to work on less controversial issues that have greater public support.

However, while O’Brien lists failing to address abortion head on as one of the challenges facing the reproductive justice movement, we do not agree. Reproductive justice advocacy is about representing the full reality of all women’s lives, and this simply cannot be done without including unwanted pregnancy and abortion.

Reproductive justice also pushes us to see individual autonomy and personal decision-making differently than the way the choice movement has in the past. As Rickie Solinger reminds us, “Some women have much better access to reproductive choices than others. Decisions about whether to get pregnant, stay pregnant or raise a child are shaped by laws and policies that can compromise personal choice.” Reproductive justice advocates are all too familiar with that reality. They bring to the fight for abortion rights an understanding and urgency that is grounded in the experiences of women in their communities who have always borne the brunt of bans on abortion funding, as well as all other restrictive laws and policies. They also bring a determination to place those needs and concerns in the forefront of abortion rights advocacy.

Allies and Accountability

O’Brien warns that we risk making adversaries of our allies by demanding that everyone work on a broad agenda. We think it is just the opposite; broadening our agenda strengthens our ability to draw in new constituencies. Toni Bond-Leonard, the founder of Black Women for Reproductive Justice, sees it as a bridge to religious groups in communities of color: “While the reproductive justice framework did not come out of a faith community, it can be used to create a theological context that reflects the concerns, needs, and goals of faith communities of color, in a culturally appropriate context.”

Reproductive justice advocates have pointed out that having too narrow a lens led to a significant missed opportunity in the November 2011 election cycle. Pro-choice forces in Mississippi successfully defeated a “personhood” amendment. However, they did not make the link to a simultaneous voter disenfranchisement initiative. Connecting reproductive and racial justice would have expanded rights in both arenas.

We also must be clear about the principles on which we will build our alliances and hold each other accountable. O’Brien is right in his assessment that “in recent years, the Democrats have cravenly played politics with our priorities.” How we cringed when Obama made the deal on the Affordable Care Act by invoking and perpetuating the “tradition” of not funding abortion. At the same time, while we welcome support from other points on the political spectrum, we should not be willing to shape our political strategies to make them more palatable to those with a different agenda. Nor should we make expedient compromises that trade away the rights of one group in order to advance another. Those who claim to be pro-choice but do not support public funding for abortion, or want to cut welfare and social services, or oppose immigrant rights and access to health care for people who are transgendered are not the allies and champions demanded by the reproductive justice framework and the new inclusive movement we are building.

The women of color who developed the reproductive justice frame became the leaders of a dynamic new movement. Neither the concept nor the movement applies only to women of color. “Inclusivity” and “intersectionality” are not just words. They describe the theory and practice of the reproductive justice movement with the potential to revitalize all of our advocacy and enable us to create the large and motivated base of support required to secure reproductive rights, health, and justice for all.

Correction, May 9, 1:45 pm Eastern: A version of this article incorrectly noted that the Mississippi “personhood” amendment was voted on in November 2012. It was voted on in November 2011.

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.

News Politics

Congresswoman Pushes Intersectionality at Democratic National Convention

Christine Grimaldi

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) charges that reproductive health-care restrictions have a disproportionate impact on the poor, the urban, the rural, and people of color.

The members of Congress who flocked to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week included a vocal advocate for the intersection of racial and reproductive justice: Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).

Watson Coleman’s longstanding work in these areas “represented the intersection of who I am,” she said during a discussion in Philadelphia sponsored by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Cosmopolitan. Reproductive health-care restrictions, she stressed, have a disproportionate effect on the poor, the urban, the rural, and people of color.

“These decisions impact these communities even more so [than others],” she told Rewire in an interview. “We don’t have the alternatives that middle-class, suburban, white women have. And we’d rather they have them.”

Watson Coleman has brought that context to her work in Congress. In less than two years on Capitol Hill, she co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls and serves on the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, a GOP-led, $1.2 million investigation that she and her fellow Democrats have called an anti-choice “witch hunt.”

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Coleman said she’s largely found support and encouragement among her fellow lawmakers during her first term as a woman of color and outspoken advocate for reproductive rights.

“What I’ve gotten from my Republican colleagues who are so adamantly against a woman’s right to choose—I don’t think it has anything to do with my being a woman or an African American, it has to do with the issue,” she said.

House Republicans have increasingly pushed anti-choice policies in advance of the ongoing August recess and November’s presidential election. The House this month passed the Conscience Protection Act, which would give health-care providers a private right of action to seek civil damages in court, should they face supposed coercion to provide abortion care or discrimination stemming from their refusal to assist in such care.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) lauded passage of the bill and the House’s thus-far unsuccessful effort to prove that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations—allegations based on widely discredited videos published by the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-choice front group that has worked closely with GOP legislators to attack funding for Planned Parenthood.

On the other side of the aisle, Watson Coleman joined 118 other House Democrats to co-sponsor the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act (HR 2972). Known as the EACH Woman Act, the legislation would overturn the Hyde Amendment and ensure that every woman has access to insurance coverage of abortion care.

The Hyde Amendment’s restriction of federal funding for abortion care represents a particularly significant barrier for people with low incomes and people of color.

The Democratic Party platform, for the first time, calls for repealing the Hyde Amendment, though the process for undoing a yearly federal appropriations rider remains unclear.

For Watson Coleman, the path forward on getting rid of the Hyde Amendment is clear on at least one point: The next president can’t go it alone.

“The president will have to have a willing Congress,” she said. She called on the electorate to “recognize that this is not a personality contest” and “remove some of those people who have just been obstructionists without having the proper evidence.”

In the meantime, what does a “willing Congress” look like for legislation with anti-choice roadblocks? A majority voting bloc helps, Watson Coleman said. But that’s not everything.

“There are lots of bills that Republicans will vote for if their leadership would simply bring them up,” she said.