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The threat of fines, loss of license, and imprisonment for doctors conveys the (erroneous) impression that most abortions are coerced, and the laws may well deter even more doctors from providing abortion. But the main targets of these laws, ironically, are women of color. As Sujatha Jesudason points out in this issue, "Leveraging a collective sense of shame, unease, and outrage over 'missing girls' and racist eugenics, this legislation and campaign is emerging as the latest tactic of the anti-abortion movement to regulate the reproductive lives of women of color and limit access to abortion for all women." The same week the Arizona law was passed, a billboard campaign was unveiled, beginning in Chicago, President Obama's hometown. The billboard features Obama's likeness, and reads: "Every 21 minutes our next possible leader is aborted." When I read the Chicago Tribune article online, there was a large ad in the middle of the page that read "Millions of Babies Killed on Your Dime. Defund Planned Parenthood." The ad is linked to a petition in support of a major push by anti-choice legislators in Congress to strip Planned Parenthood of all federal funding (including funding for "well-woman" gynecological exams). Meanwhile, the "Stop Taxpayer Funded Abortions Act" which has 221 co-sponsors and is now being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives, would further curtail abortion access, especially for poor women, and create further disincentives for health care plans to cover abortion services. One especially important element of the proposed law is that while Medicaid will currently pay for abortions in the case of rape, the proposed law would narrow this to "forcible rape," which eliminates statutory rape.
Reproductive justice activists have worked overtime to fight this latest challenge, objecting to this as a cynical tactic that fundamentally blames women of color as either stupid or collaborators with murderous racism and sexism. One of the most intriguing fruits of their labor is a newly nuanced understanding of the historical relationship between Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and Black communities. According to research by the Sister Song Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, "African American leaders had worked with Sanger in the 1930s to ask for clinics in black communities. We challenged our opponents' historical revisionism by citing famous leaders like Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Dubois, Walter White, Mary Church Terrell, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and organizations like the NAACP, the National Urban League and the National Council of Negro Women. We dared them to call these icons of the civil rights movement pawns of a racist agenda." Sister Song's work signals a new level of complexity in the discourse on reproductive freedom, a complexity that is on view in many pieces in this issue. Along with the aforementioned piece by Jesudason, Faith Pennick's groundbreaking film Silent Choices undermines the characterization of Black women who opt for abortion as "dupes" or enemies of Black people's advancement. These themes are also echoed in Michele Goodwin's analysis of fetal protection laws, and the response to Goodwin by Jeanne Flavin and Carol Mason. In these pieces, women who are particularly vulnerable to State and medical surveillance by virtue of their poverty and/or race are shown to be targeted both as individually "suspect" (potential or actual) mothers, and also as representing a "wedge" that abortion opponents can use to advance the legal status of fetuses in order to curtail abortion.
In linking reproduction to social, political, and economic power, the activist movement for reproductive justice has an academic "sibling" that emerged around the same time. If a single term can capture this thread of feminist scholarship, it would probably be Shellee Colen's notion of "stratified reproduction," which she first articulated in 1986 and elaborated in a chapter of Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp's landmark volume Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Ginsburg and Rapp succinctly celebrated Colen's notion with the observation that it "helps us see the arrangements by which some reproductive futures are valued while others are despised." Pointing to the role of "hierarchies of class, race, ethnicity, gender, place in a global economy, and migration status," Colen argued that:
The reproductive labor—physical, mental, and emotional—of bearing, raising, and socializing children and of creating and maintaining households and people (from infancy to old age) is differentially experienced, valued, and rewarded according to inequalities of access to material and social resources in particular historical and cultural contexts. Stratified reproduction, particularly with the increasing commodification of reproductive labor, itself reproduces stratification by reflecting, reinforcing, and intensifying the inequalities on which it is based.
Stratified reproduction transforms the meaning of reproductive ethics. When ethical issues are addressed in mainstream reproductive rights discourse, dominated as it is by the concerns of white, Western, relatively affluent, heterosexual women, ethics are generally framed in terms of individual choice, freedom, and privacy. Women are described as actually or potentially in conflict with fetuses, men/fathers, medicine, employers, or the State, but rarely with each other, and rarely do the reproductive struggles women face in these narratives stem from anything other than their female embodiment and gender oppression (both imagined as more or less universal). Both reproductive justice and stratified reproduction frameworks shatter the fantasy of the "universal woman," and direct our focus away from individuals to the level of the social: social structures, social hierarchies of oppression and privilege, and social histories. Rather than the generic (and therefore implicitly privileged) Woman, these frameworks require consideration of actual women, in all their varied, complex, and hierarchically-arranged social locations. Pursuing reproductive justice demands that we ask, "How are the burdens and possibilities for bearing and rearing children distributed?"
Further, to understand these distributions not merely as neutral differences in individual "abilities" to reproduce, we have to also ask: "What are the histories and the social structures that have created these current conditions?" That is, we must seek to understand how reproductive resources (as well as imperatives to reproduce or not) are actively distributed, rather than naturally occurring. Human reproduction, whether "assisted" and "technological" or not, is an inherently social process, and a historically contingent one. By historicizing the conditions of reproduction, such questions return us again to the possibility of transforming human reproduction to fit with a broad vision of social justice.
Of course, reproduction has already been undergoing sweeping transformations in the past few decades with the rapid rise of assisted reproduction, especially via reproductive technologies. New reproductive technologies have helped to generate not only millions of children, but also a vast and diverse literature on the ethical and political questions raised by the use of these new technologies. Interestingly, though, specific attention to the way that the uses of reproductive technologies are entangled with questions of social justice has been relatively sparse. Ginsburg and Rapp's volume, mentioned earlier, is an exquisite exception to this statement. In that volume, contributors considered technologies such as national abortion policies, prenatal diagnostic screening, midwifery, in vitro fertilization, nannying, hormonal birth control, and coitus interruptus (to name just a handful) with an eye towards "comprehend[ing] the transnational inequalities on which reproductive practices, policies, and politics increasingly depend." There have been few entries in this overlapping field since, though two notable short pieces include Emily Galpern's concise "Assisted Reproductive Technologies: Overview and Perspective Using a Reproductive Justice Framework," written for the Center for Genetics and Society, and a recent essay extending the concept to a "post-human" and environmental frame by Greta Gaard. An especially exciting recent addition is Wendy Chavkin and JaneMaree Maher's 2010 edited volume The Globalization of Motherhood: Deconstructions and Reconstructions of Biology and Care. With this special issue of S&F Online, we don't presume to cover the vast territory of entanglement between reproductive technologies and social justice, but rather to contribute to mapping it, and to push some of its apparent boundaries.
To Read the Entire Introduction