It is rare that you can see something you’ve helped to create change the behavior of a government thousands of miles away. So imagine my surprise when I opened my email this morning to read the speech about reproductive justice (RJ) made by South Africa’s Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini in front of the United Nations General Assembly on September 19. She didn’t speak in general language that could be interpreted to suggest reproductive justice; she actually used the specific term, acknowledging the role African-American women played in gifting this theory and framework to the world.
In addition to discussing sexual rights, reproductive health issues, and economic justice, she used the speech to explicitly embrace LGBTQ rights. As a representative of an African government that supports gay, lesbian, trans, bi, and intersex rights, her remarks act as an important backstop against the rampant anti-gay hysteria around the continent fomented by the evangelical religious right in Uganda and elsewhere. Yet it was her use of the reproductive justice language that started my heart pounding Tuesday morning.
It is no longer surprising that RJ has caught on in the United States among thousands of activists eager to move beyond the paralyzing pro-choice/anti-choice stalemate. It is very simple to embrace RJ as both a theoretical paradigm shift and a model for ideal practices because it’s easy to understand and, in a few words, can state the sum of our expectations. As I’ve written in other places, it comes with its own “elevator pitch:”
RJ is about three interconnected sets of human rights: 1) the right to have children; 2) the right not have children; and 3) the right to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments.
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As bell hooks says, “Any theory that cannot be shared in everyday conversation cannot be used to educate the public.”
Reproductive justice does not privilege the production of babies as the only goal of women’s biology; instead, it is based on the human right to make personal decisions about one’s life, and the obligation of government and society to ensure that the conditions are suitable for implementing one’s decisions. Although the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective publicized the concept of RJ, it does not only apply to women of color. Human rights are what everyone deserves, and so everyone is included in the RJ framework. In particular, reproductive justice draws attention to the lack of physical, reproductive, and cultural safety that affects our “choices.” Reproductive justice focuses on oppression—the structures of injustice and inequality.
In 1994, when 12 Black women sat in a hotel room in Chicago and envisioned the concept of reproductive justice as a way to create new avenues of resistance and strategies for change, we had no idea that 20 years later, we’d be discussing how RJ has changed the pro-choice movement in the United States in addition to being used by activists around the world. I’ve been invited to speak about reproductive justice in Ireland, South Africa, China, and Brazil. Activists in these countries told me that using the RJ framework has opened up political spaces to talk about sexual rights and reproductive health issues in a way that moves the lens from centering only on abortion; instead, it enfolds abortion in a larger conversation about people’s lives and human rights. As in the United States, this paradigm shift has brought new allies into the conversation and has thwarted opponents who only want to focus on fetuses instead of the full spectrum of our lived experiences.
In the United States, some adopters of the RJ framework have only focused on the inherent concept of intersectionality, based on the works of Kimberlé Crenshaw. Intersectionality, according to her, “mediates the tension between assertions of multiple identities and the ongoing necessity of group politics,” while at the same time providing a “basis for reconceptualizing” a single identity as coalition, such as “race as a coalition between men and women of color.” Intersectionality is certainly a process that the RJ framework uses as a pathway toward understanding our multiple identities. But it is just that: a process, not a goal. The goal is the full achievement of human rights for everyone.
To get there, we need a legal regime that pushes beyond the limited U.S. Constitution and the tenuous interpretation of “privacy” to protect women’s rights. Incidentally, this is also why Crenshaw conceptualized intersectionality as a lawyer in 1989, when she analyzed the inability of U.S. laws to deal with the compounding of race and gender in cases involving Black women plaintiffs.
In fact, to not reference “human rights” as an international set of laws and standards in discussions and applications of reproductive justice is to divest RJ of its power to challenge the U.S. government to live up to the obligation to protect our people. When RJ is stripped of its most radical potential, we have to ask ourselves, whose interests does that serve?
Nonetheless, back to South Africa. It was wonderful for me that Minister Dlamini referenced the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in her speech. That was where things crystallized for me, 20 years ago: that the ability of any woman to manage her own fertility is directly dependent on the circumstances of the community in which she is embedded. To promote contraceptives in a community that lacks basic health-care infrastructure is a form of population control, not a sincere understanding of the needs of women or their communities. This was the message—in other words, the African philosophical concept of Ubuntu—that global feminists agreed upon at the ICPD, and we pushed it together to ensure that it was included in RJ’s Plan of Action.
On Friday, Dlamini called upon all African countries to improve their human rights commitments for everyone and to stop limiting protections by invoking the phrase “in accordance with national laws and policies.” This mealy-mouthed half-stepping basically admits that existing national laws that violate human rights, such as Uganda’s “kill the gays” law, will not be changed. This is a salutary lesson for the United States. The primary reason we have not ratified the majority of the available human rights treaties—including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)—is because of Congress’ reluctance to bring U.S. laws into harmony with international human rights laws.
So I celebrate this morning in company with my co-creators Toni Bond Leonard, “Able” Mable Thomas, Cynthia Newbille, Rev. Alma Crawford, Evelyn Field, and seven others who were with us in that hotel room. We’ll have our SisterSong-organized reunion in Chicago from November 7 to 9, but we’ll arrive there celebrating the fact that, in the words of South African women, the stone we tossed in 1994 “dislodged a boulder.” Amandla!