The Right to Exist: Women of color redefining reproductive rights

As a gender studies major and a man, I feel as though it is time for me to invoke my feminist North Stars. It is time for me to invoke the women of color that have been at the forefront of movements that do not just affect them, but their communities. On this campus, people have a very simplistic view of feminism due to the fact that we have a simplistic view of issues related to feminism such as abortion. Sometimes, these views can exclude women of color.

I will be talking about abortion, which is an important issue. To clarify before I give my opinion, I decided to cite scholars who are women of color because their voices are important to the discussion. It is important for me to make clear that this is something women of color have been saying all their lives in response to contemporary discourses about abortion. I agree with these scholars because they have helped me shape my understanding of gender, race, sexuality and class.

The discourse around abortion is dominated by white feminism. The current discussions around abortion not only render women of color invisible—they marginalize women of color and poor women through the utilization of the binaries of pro-life and pro-choice.

Feminist movements led by women of color have expanded the discourse of abortion to include healthcare for the poor, welfare rights and anti-sterilization abuse. Abortion for women of color goes beyond the right to terminate a pregnancy—it is to navigate a system that does not want one to survive. Women of color must always redefine themselves against discourses—such as the current one on abortion—that marginalize them and make their issues invisible.

In Andrea Smith’s article “Beyond Pro-choice versus Pro-life: Women of Color and Reproductive Justice,” she articulates how the definitions associated with the language of the pro-life movement do not mean the same thing to Native American women. She says, “I am using these Native women’s responses to questions about abortion to argue that the pro-life versus pro-choice paradigm is a model that marginalizes women of color, poor women and women with disabilities.” For some Native American people, being pro-life does not necessarily make one against abortion, as shown in the dialogue that Andrea Smith provided in her conversations with Native American women. Native American women who have faced sexual violence and have been under attack by horrible reproductive rights laws see words like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” in a much deeper way, for their ultimate goal is to promote native life.
For Native American people in particular, the discourses surrounding abortion are about asserting ones right to exist. You can see the theme of life revitalization within the Black and Latino communities, especially because to this day the forced sterilization of Black, Latina, Asian,, and Native American women is still taking place. This action of sterilization adopted by oppressive institutions are saying that people of color do not have a right to exist. The logic of pro-choice automatically assuming that women of color have a “choice” does not take into consideration that they live under a system that controls and manipulates their bodies.

The right to have children is important, but to be able to sustain those children is equally important in terms of the discourse of abortion. Women of color have taken the movement further by discussing issues such as poverty and access to food. The dominant rhetoric of abortion has been framed around the question “Who has the right to end a life?” Women of color have reframed the debate around sustaining life and providing better futures for their children.

It is important to discuss women of colors’ position in society when it comes to ideas such as the disproportionate criminalization of women of color when it comes to things such as taking drugs while pregnant or being able to access better prenatal care when pregnant in comparison to their white counterparts. These issues do not function under the already established framework. The problems that women of color face are too complex to be theorized in binaries like pro-choice or pro-life. In the case of Perve Patel, a South Asian woman from Indiana who was sentenced to twenty years in jail for feticide, when in reality, she had a miscarriage. This story outraged reproductive right activists.

Patel’s story illuminated many facts about the current reproductive laws in place. Activists like Deepa Iyer at the University of Maryland highlighted other cases of Asian women being affected by these policies as the result of the lack of access that women of color have to medical support or counseling related to this topic. The Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law’s 2013 study on arrests and forced interventions on pregnant women in the U.S. found that approximately 71 percent were low-income women and 59 percent were women of color. This evidence is enough to suggest that women of color and poor women need to go beyond the binaries of pro-life and pro-choice or they will be working for the interest of white women but not their own.

Women of color are at the mercy of the intersections of class and race. The case of Perve Patel highlighted that women of color make up the bulk of women who cannot afford contraceptives. Black feminist authors like Barbara Smith advocate for intersectionality acknowledge that capitalism may restrain one’s ability to be healthy. Yet, Smith does warn us to not to simply point to class, as Marxist feminists do.

The issue of abortion for women of color goes beyond an intersectional approach. This rhetoric around abortion feeds on particular systems such as whiteness and capitalism. Intersectionality is a good way to start the conversation about abortion and the way it has been framed. But what happens next, after we acknowledge intersectionality—what does an intersectional solution look like when we live under a system that has been built in complete opposition to women of color?

In one of Andrea Smith’s essays, she also illustrates how this liberal idea of being pro-life does not necessarily promote freedom for all women. In fact, it promotes the agenda of white women at the expense of women of color. For example, she says “Similarly, the pro-life position implicitly supports the prison industrial complex by unquestioningly supporting a criminal justice approach that legitimizes rather than challenges the prison system.” The pro-life discourse relies on the prison industrial complex that has historically marginalized women of color—specifically black women. Smith says that a pregnant black woman who is on drugs is more likely to be in prison than a white women who pregnant and is on drugs.

The connection between the prison system and the pro-life movement is a link that was established by white feminists who seek justice using a system that is inherently anti-black. Smith makes this clear when she says, “While pregnant white women are slightly more likely to engage in substance abuse than black women, public health facilities and private doctors are more likely to report black women” (Smith 2005). The dangers of allowing white feminists to dictate the direction that the abortion goes in is at the expense of women of color.
In communities of color, the debate on reproductive justice causes patriarchy in the form of men of color’s sexism rearing its ugly head. In Black and Hispanic communities, religious leaders discourage abortion claiming that it is part of a genocidal plot to erase their community. Jennifer Nelson articulates this well when she says, “As we have seen, in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party claimed that any contraceptive use among blacks would inevitably lead to the genocide of the population.” The relation of abortion to the discourse of genocide is seen in the Young Lord movement, or the Puerto Rican Liberation Army. Nationalist movements in the past have a right to feel the way they do, but their discourse only puts women of color in a double bind, where they’re facing issues from both white feminist and the men of their community. Nationalist discourse is rooted in this idea of nation building, where women are seen as necessary to help build the nation.

This helps promote the control of women’s sexuality, homophobic discourse, and gender policing for the stake of the nation. Even though nationalist movement’s ideas do not come from an ill intended place, they manifest themselves in negative ways that affect their community internally. The rejection of abortion by nationalist leaders comes from a much deeper place—it is a symptom that many people who are recovering from colonization face.

As a queer man of color it is imperative that I seek solidarity with women of color, because a lot of our oppressions are intertwined, whether through ideology or through institutions that uphold those ideologies.