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Reproductive Justice and Anti-Racism

This month, we are looking at Reproductive Justice. SisterSong defines Reproductive Justice as the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities. It is intricately tied to anti-racism work and, as moms, a cause that is pivotal to each of our personal experiences. Our MAR Blogger Becky Leyva, who is a descendant of colonizers but mom to biracial children, looks at what Reproductive Justice is and how we can bring those values into our homes.

Black and white photo of Sir John A Macdonald circa 1875

It’s important to understand that many of these reproductive services that are seen as fundamental rights for the privileged are not available for all. This is how the system is designed to work - to keep these vulnerable communities oppressed.

What Is Reproductive Justice?

You may have heard the term Reproductive Justice and, if you are a mother, you have certainly been part of the healthcare system surrounding your own reproductive health. But reproductive accessibility is not the same for all people. If you are part of a privileged community, you may not even be aware of the barriers to reproductive health that many face. So what is Reproductive Justice (RJ), or Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), and how can we work towards equal rights and accessibility for everyone?

Upon seeing the exclusion of women of color, low-income women, women with disabilities, and trans birthing people in the feminist reproductive rights movements of the 1970s, a collective of Women of Colour created a critical, theoretical framework to combine reproductive rights and social justice which they coined Reproductive Justice. This group of women - Toni M. Bond Leonard, Reverend Alma Crawford, Evelyn S. Field, Terri James, Bisola Marignay, Cassandra McConnell, Cynthia Newbille, Loretta Ross, Elizabeth Terry, ‘Able’ Mable Thomas, Winnette P. Willis, and Kim Youngblood - lay the framework for what would be a movement across many communities of colour. They would eventually become known as SisterSong. SisterSong, established in 1997, is a collective of 16 organizations of Women of Colour from four mini-communities - Native American, African American, Latina, and Asian American. SisterSong “recognized that we have the right and responsibility to represent ourselves and our communities, and the equally compelling need to advance the perspectives and needs of women of color.”

The progression that we have today in reproductive justice is largely thanks to these organizers. In learning their work, we have the tools to teach our children some actions to create reproductive equality and safety from a young age. Below we will describe some ways in which reproductive justice is enacted or withheld. We can all take steps towards supporting healthier, more empowering reproductive lives for everyone.

Teaching Consent and Body Autonomy

It has been shown that understanding what is and isn’t consent is fundamental to many sexual health and abuse issues. These concepts can, and should, be taught at a very young age. One of the primary steps in teaching consent in young children is teaching body autonomy.

For example, Isy Abraham-Raveson teaches a school workshop across the northeastern United States that keeps things age-appropriate but examines body autonomy in ways that 7- to 8-year-olds can understand. Describing things like touch that feels good and touch that doesn’t, tickling, and hugs are segues into topics like consent and physical boundaries.

Ravenson also teaches body autonomy in the form of choice around hugs or cuddles or tickles; a concept that many adults did not grow up with. This teaches children they do not have to let anyone touch them which is a powerful awareness. It is another brick in the foundation of confident body awareness and autonomy preparing children to understand their reproductive rights - their body, their choice - in the future.

Access to Family Planning Services

Another way that we can support reproductive justice is by fighting for equal access to family planning services. There are many barriers to birth control, abortion, STI prevention, and care that affect women, especially Indigenous, poor, or rural folks, and communities of color, that are more nuanced than pro-life/pro-choice. SisterSong, for example, deliberately advocates for access to these services instead of fighting for legalization because, as they say, legalization does not matter if there are still too many barriers to access. Things like adequate prenatal and pregnancy care, alternative birth options, and domestic violence assistance are all under the umbrella of reproductive justice.

It’s important to understand that many of these reproductive services that are seen as fundamental rights for the privileged are not available for all. This is how the system is designed to work - to keep these vulnerable communities oppressed. “Barriers and Facilitators to Family Planning Access in Canada”, a US national library of medicine article by Jennifer Hulme, MDCM 2015, cited that cost and distance to travel were the top two significant barriers to access for contraceptive and pregnancy care in Canadian women, leaving those in rural Indigenous communities with the least availability to these kinds of supports. “Vulnerable populations, including youth and those of low socioeconomic status, are disproportionately affected by unintended pregnancy and abortion, raising concerns about their access to quality contraceptive education and healthcare.“

Midwives and Birth Practitioners

Birth justice, through the availability of training and funding for midwives and doulas in Canada, explicitly benefits vulnerable communities. The colonial mindset in healthcare, including systemic mistreatment and medical biases, affects the reproductive health of Indigenous, Black, birthing people of color, and trans folks. NACM, the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives, addresses many of these issues in their work. There are efforts to return to traditional birth care which was forced to stop through settler actions, and the knowledge of which continues to be suppressed to this day. NACM and other organizations like them are crucially important for restoring autonomy, Indigenous practices, and accessibility to culturally relevant care to protect against systematic trauma that is too common in the Canadian healthcare system. Taken from the NACM, “Indigenous midwifery matters because they have specific core competencies, respond to needs that are unique to Indigenous peoples, bring birth back to communities, enable a reduction in the number of costly medical evacuations for birth in remote areas, maintain and restore our traditional ways and advocate that all Canadians have universal and equitable access to healthcare, specifically sexual and reproductive health”

Furthering your Understanding

For an overview of racism and reproductive rights in Canada read “The politest form of racism: sexual and reproductive health and rights paradigm in Canada”, published March 9, 2021 in Reproductive Health. The researchers state “...the cruel reality of inequity, injustice, and racism is rampant within the Canadian sexual and reproductive health and rights realm. Indeed, the inequitable health outcomes for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) are rooted in policy, research, health promotion, and patient care. Built by colonial settlers, many of the systems currently in place have yet to embark on the necessary process of addressing the colonial, racist, and ableist structures perpetuating inequities in health outcomes.”

For books to read with your children, or for you or your teen, that teach about body autonomy, consent, diverse families, birthing practices, and reproductive justice, check out MAR’s May book list 25 Diverse Books on Reproductive Justice.

Lastly, each month MAR releases Anti-Racism Learning Activities to do at home with your family. If you are a member of our private online group, you can access these activities in the files section to help you #dothework #startingathome.

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