Reproductive Justice: Uncovering the Voices of Women to Address Health Disparities within the United States by Ellie Smith

Notable moments occur throughout data collection and analysis that strike researchers. These moments can be especially powerful when experienced during qualitative, in-depth interviews with women about their reproductive health – an immensely personal topic. This particular interview progressed in a typical, methodological manner with no interruptions or abnormal discussions. However, at the conclusion of the interview, the participant proceeded to  thank me, claiming “nobody ever asks me” about her thoughts and opinions. Nobody ever asked about her reproductive health care status and access within the rural, close-knit community she resided. Her voice had been overlooked in the larger discussion of health care access, specifically in regard to reproduction. This interview, and study at large, brought her voice to light, uncovering her story and highlighting her lived experience as a woman of color and a rural woman within the United States.

Women of varying backgrounds, such as women of color and rural women, face unique reproductive health care disparities, resulting in high incidence of poor health outcomes. Women of color face a disproportionate share of reproductive health disparities including low birth weights, preterm deliveries, and infant mortality. Often these disparities result from systemic issues such as oppression, racism, socioeconomic status, cultural norms. Additionally, reproductive health care physicians and activists must combat a legacy of coerced sterilization, and consider overwhelming mistrust of medical services due to racial discrimination. However, current discussion regarding reproductive health care access throughout the US often overlooks the unique and complex experience of women from underrepresented groups.

Reproductive justice encompasses the complete state of well-being of women and the full protection and realization of women’s internationally recognized human rights. Reproductive justice aims to create a more inclusive moment, one highlighting the intersectionality of race, gender and class on reproductive health. This brings attention to systemic issues women of color and rural women face including oppression, poverty, lack of social support, racism, and cultural stigma. The initial struggle for reproductive rights (i.e. Roe v Wade) predominately served the needs of white, middle-class women. However, these women maintained the ability to exercise “choice” in reproductive health care. Utilization of “choice” disregards women on the margins of society who may not have the social capital to exercise “choice” in reproductive health care.

This requires a shift from reproductive rights to a matter of justice to address issues that influence reproduction such as economic justice, environmental issues and racial discrimination. Moving beyond “choice” creates a more diverse and inclusive movement, providing a platform to address barriers women from unique backgrounds face when accessing reproductive health care. US-based organizations such as SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Health Project facilitate a national grassroots operation to view reproductive health care access as a universal (Greene, Joshi, & Robles, 2012)human right. Utilizing grassroots initiatives highlight individual experiences, especially those of women with limited autonomy of their reproductive health due to systemic issues. Further, reproductive justice allows autonomy for women to decide when, whether, and how to have children, but also to raise them in safe and supportive environments. Uplifting the voices of historically marginalized women not only constructs empowerment, but uncovers hidden truths of reproduction, allowing researchers, scholars, and activists alike to address barriers to reproductive health care access.

References:

Chrisler, J. C. (2014). A Reproductive Justice Approach to Women’s Health. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 14(1), 205–209. https://doi.org/10.1111/asap.12056

Dominguez, T. P. (2011). Adverse birth outcomes in African American women: The social context of persistent reproductive disadvantage. Social Work In Public Health, 26(1), 3–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/10911350902986880

Greene, M., Joshi, S., & Robles, O. (2012). By choice, not by chance: Family planning, human rights and development. Presented at the The State of World Population 2012, United Nations Population Fund.

Hooton, A. (2005). A Broader Vision of the Reproductive Rights Movement: Fusing Mainstream and Latina Feminism. American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, 13(1), 59–86.

Lu, M. C., & Halfon, N. (2003). Racial and ethnic disparities in birth outcomes: a life-course perspective. Maternal And Child Health Journal, 7(1), 13–30.

Meier, S., Sundstrom, B., & DeMaria, A. L. (2015, October). “Beyond a legacy of coercion: Long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) and social justice. Presented at the American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting and Exposition: Socialist Caucus, Chicago, IL.

Price, K. (2011). It’s not just about abortion: Incorporating intersectionality in research about women of color and reproduction. Women’s Health Issues, 21(3), S55–S57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.whi.2011.02.003

Rosenthal, L., & Lobel, M. (2011). Explaining racial disparities in adverse birth outcomes: Unique sources of stress for Black American women. Social Science & Medicine, 72, 977–983. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.01.013

Ross, L. (2011, March). What is Reproductive Justice? Retrieved November 16, 2016, from http://www.trustblackwomen.org/our-work/what-is-reproductive-justice/9-what-is-reproductive-justice

Zucker, A. N. (2014). Reproductive justice: More than choice. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 14(1), 210–213. https://doi.org/10.1111/asap.12059

Ellie Smith, B.S. is a graduate student in the Master’s in Communication program at the University of Charleston, South Carolina. Her research interests include women’s health, health communication, and reproductive justice. She is currently examining women of color’s reproduction across the lifespan utilizing a reproductive justice framework.

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