Words Mean Things: Reproductive Justice Doesn’t Need to be Redefined

| Reproaction

By: Evonnia Woods

As with all concepts that enter the mainstream, the concept of reproductive justice is in the process of being stripped of its complexities and specific contributions to the ongoing liberation struggle. It’s the same thing I’ve seen happen with concepts like ‘diversity,’ ‘intersectionality,’ ‘feminism.’ A part of me feels like I should calm down, because I know that with language, words and concepts evolve in meaning over time. The last thing I want to do is become a badge-wearing member of the linguistics police, but words mean things. There’s also a difference between words and concepts changing meaning over time – like what it means to be a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ – and reducing the meaning of concepts down to whatever changes those in the status quo are willing to compromise on.

Diversity is more than a word that means different in some way. Intersectionality means more than your social location. Feminism means more than gender equality. Reproductive justice extends beyond reproductive health and reproductive rights. If you’re a lover of charts, then this chart – and this chart – will be very helpful in assisting with the notion that there are notable differences between reproductive health, reproductive rights, and reproductive justice work. In brief, reproductive health work refers to service providers (e.g., the work done by Planned Parenthood), reproductive rights work refers to advocates who work on what have been designated as ‘women’s issues’ (e.g., the work done by NARAL Pro-Choice America) and reproductive justice work refers to an approach that highlights our ability to have autonomy over the direction of our lives as a human right (e.g., the work done by SisterSong Women of Color Collective).

It is currently common for the word “justice” to follow environmental (justice), gender (justice), economic (justice), and pretty much every other social problem; such that we speak about issues as social ‘justice’ issues. This addendum is meant to signal that the particular social problem must not be left out of this continuous liberation struggle for everyone. It works to show how all social problems are interrelated. Likewise, ‘reproductive justice’ takes this reflexive stance by working to show how all social problems are reproductive health issues and all reproductive health issues are social justice issues. The message is clear: We cannot all be free unless people have the freedom to choose if and when to become parents and start a family. People can’t freely make this decision if they’re being unfairly detained or deported, their water is polluted, they don’t have access to reproductive healthcare – including abortion and contraception, they don’t have paid maternity leave, and if they don’t make a living wage.

There is not only space in this movement for reproductive health providers, reproductive rights advocates, and reproductive justice organizers, but each of these aspects of the movement are vital. In reality, we need a diverse movement of people working on the same issues from a variety of different angles. If the intention is to support reproductive justice work then stand in solidarity with us as partners, volunteers, and donors. Solidarity is what gives us our power. Solidarity (as the great bell hooks has informed us in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center) looks different than support. “To experience solidarity, we must have a community of interests, shared beliefs, and goals, around which to unite, to build Sisterhood. Support can be occasional. It can be given and just as easily withdrawn. Solidarity requires sustained, ongoing commitment” (p67, 2nd ed). Conflating our work means that we lose our nuance as a movement, we lose valuable perspectives, and limit our outcomes unnecessarily. Working in solidarity is what makes our movement a force to be reckoned with.

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