NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Reproductive rights activists are setting the stage for new direction on the historically nettlesome issues of race and class and how they influence the priorities of the reproductive rights movement.

Organizations of women of color will unfurl their visions of a more inclusive agenda, with social justice as the centerpiece, later this week at the first public meeting of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Initiative.

Earlier this month, in a breakthrough dialogue, "Making Connections: Race, Class and the Future of the Reproductive Freedom Movement," activists searched for ways to broaden the agenda of mainstream reproductive rights organizations. The Othmer Institute of Planned Parenthood of New York sponsored the session.

The reproductive rights movement needs to embrace a vision of social justice if it is to become truly inclusive and diverse, Dorothy Roberts, a well-known author and professor at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, told the Othmer group.

She and other speakers described concerns about which women of color often hold views that diverge from mainstream opinion:

  • The harshness of "family caps" in federal welfare rules that seek to control poor women’s reproductive decisions by refusing financial support for their additional children;
  • Social experiments with distribution of long-term birth control in low-income neighborhoods;
  • Lack of cultural and multilingual competence by providers who are ignorant of important social and historical influences;
  • Emphasis on access to abortion and birth control to the virtual exclusion of other concerns.


Critics: Mainstream Needs to Fight Racism, Embrace Social Justice

"Even radical white women who understand the concerns are not convinced that the movement must take an anti-racist approach," Roberts, author of "Killing the Black Body," said in an interview following the conference. "The movement should be a struggle for a just and more open society," she said.

Women of color might be better-off forming coalitions with social justice organizations, she said. "But, some social justice organizations don’t understand reproductive rights, either," she added.

"We need to work with people moving in the right direction, and make sure they don’t go off in the wrong direction," she said. With the hope of getting the attention of reproductive rights organizations, Roberts has spoken at dozens of meetings, conferences and campus seminars nationwide.

Some mainstream reproductive rights leaders are beginning to take note.

Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles embarked on an effort to expand services to African American communities in South Los Angeles by first hiring a community organizer and a health educator, said Nancy Sasaki, president and chief executive officer, who attended the Othmer event. The community liaisons conduct breakfasts and dialogues "to find out what people want and need from us," she said in a telephone interview. As a result, the organization is making a firm commitment to a permanent facility, but will locate teen education programs apart from abortion services.

"My feeling is that we can make mistakes, even accidentally, if we haven’t taken the time to find out what the perceptions and the misperceptions are," said Sasaki. "We can’t say we know it all. We need to hear from people who are willing to be in our face about it."

The Othmer program sprang from the realization that pro-choice women’s organizations responded differently to two U.S. Supreme Court cases heard in 2000, one involving abortion rights, another the drug testing of pregnant African American women.

Mainstream Virtually Ignored Decision on Drug Testing of Pregnant Black Women

"One (Stenberg v. Carhart) was about the right to abortion, and the other (Ferguson v. City of Charleston) was about fighting for the right to bear children," said Laurie Beck, senior policy analyst at Planned Parenthood of New York. "All of the organizations went crazy on Stenberg and gave squat attention to Ferguson."

In Stenberg, the Supreme Court ruled that a Nebraska law on abortion practices was unconstitutional because it did not have an exception for the health of the woman, and the language was so broad that it could criminalize many procedures that occur in the earliest stages of pregnancy.

The Ferguson case, named after plaintiff Crystal Ferguson, involved the arrest of pregnant women in South Carolina, all but one of whom were African American, on charges of drug distribution or child abuse after their urine was tested without their knowledge or consent while they were receiving prenatal care. The test results were handed over to the local police and the women were arrested, often immediately after they had given birth. Issuing its decision in March 2001, the court found the drug testing was an invasion of privacy and an unconstitutional search and seizure.

Many activists expressed concern that discussion of this case focused primarily on the use of drugs, specifically crack cocaine–by pregnant minority women. Little was mentioned about the research indicating that poverty was just as likely to produce harm to a fetus as cocaine use, and mainstream women’s organizations often were not vocal in their defense of the women’s right to privacy, due process or even prenatal care that would include treatment for drug abuse.

The narrow casting of the mainstream reproductive rights agenda to access to abortion and birth control may sell well to funders and "middle" America, but it has diminished an overall vision for "reproductive justice" that dignifies the decisions of all women, said Loretta Ross, executive director of the National Center for Human Rights Education in Atlanta.

Mainstream Language of ‘Choice’ Ignores Social, Historical Forces

The emphasis on women’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, which dominates mainstream reproductive rights efforts, does not work for all women because it focuses on the individual and "glosses over social and historical forces," said Professor Iris Lopez, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program at the City College of the City University of New York. She described the scars left by forced sterilization programs in Puerto Rico in the late 1930s as part of the history that must be understood and incorporated into any discussion of reproductive rights.

Roberts, from Northwestern University, insists that a fundamental shift in ideology is necessary. "Is the movement a struggle for abortion for itself or is this a movement for reproductive freedom and equality? And if it is the latter, that will change our strategies."

Exactly what those strategies should be is on the agenda of SisterSong, an initiative of 16 organizations of women of color focused on reproductive health. At their first public conference on June 30 at Hunter College in New York, they will discuss recommendations and priorities developed in the past three years. The conference is free and open to the public.

"This sets a precedent of approaching these issues from the perspective of grassroots women of color," said Haydee Morales, co-founder and director of Casa Atabex Ache, the House of Women’s Power in the South Bronx, one of the participants. Her organization trains Bronx teens to be peer counselors.

SisterSong Women of Color Link Health, Human Rights, Call for Shakeup

With a grant of nearly $5 million from the Ford Foundation, SisterSong groups undertook service-based projects and research. They divided into four priority-setting "mini-communities" of Asian American, African American, Latina and Native American groups. Each "mini-committee" created an action agenda, which will be published in July.

The resulting agenda will emphasize the connections between health and human rights.

"We are not just fighting diseases, but the poverty, homelessness, inadequate health care and the denial of human rights that are the root causes of many of our problems," reads a SisterSong document.

"Abortion and abortion access are important, but it’s not up there," said Morales. "It (the final document) is going to shake up the mainstream."

For women of color who have navigated the reproductive rights movement, a shake-up could not come soon enough.

"We’ve talked and we’ve talked and we’ve talked. When are we going to walk?" asked Angela Wong, a board member of the National Asian Women’s Health Organization.

"I need to have a victory in this movement," added Leslie Watson, director of the Campaign for Access and Reproductive Equity of the National Network of Abortion Funds, which co-sponsored the Othmer event.

Cynthia L. Cooper is a free-lance journalist in New York City who writes about reproductive rights.