Reproductive Justice and Intersectionality: definitions, background, history

The following is an excerpt of training materials used during the Lilith Fund’s reproductive justice and intersectionality community workshops.

Intersectionality and Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice
Compiled by Amanda Williams

In order to build a platform of understanding of the concepts we will be using throughout this workshop, we would like to introduce formal definitions of four concepts: reproductive rights, reproductive health, reproductive justice, and intersectionality.

These definitions can also be interpreted as personal philosophies and may have different meanings for each person. That is OK. As a reproductive justice organization, these are definitions we use to conceptualize the work that we do, and today we will be building upon these definitions together to frame and guide us through our activities and group discussions.

*There will be more time in the larger discussion for you to interject your personal philosophies of these concepts and how they contribute to social justice. Definitions adapted from: Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), SisterSong, SAFER, Forward Together, Geek Feminism.

Reproductive health:

Is defined as a state of physical, mental, and social well-being in all matters relating to the reproductive system at all stages of life. (PPFA)

· The concept of reproductive health is emphasized on the necessity for reproductive health services, the availability of those services, and what those services imply in each person’s life.

· Reproductive health embodies the care and services needed for each person to have a healthy reproductive system and sex life.

· Reproductive rights framework focus on the provision of reproductive health services*

Reproductive rights:

The recognition of the basic legal right of all people to decide freely the birthing style and the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, along with the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. Reproductive rights entail the ability to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion, and violence. (PPFA)

· The reproductive rights framework emphasizes the protection of an individual’s legal right to reproductive health services, focusing on increasing access to contraception and keeping abortion safe and legal.

· The legal basis for reproductive rights emerged from Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973, which legalized abortion until viability in the US on the basis of a woman’s right to privacy.

· The reproductive rights framework focuses on individual legal rights.*

· The frameworks of reproductive health and rights do not often take into account the structural inequalities among marginalized people that account for different levels of access to education and services. ‘Reproductive health’ or rights also do not address the root causes of social inequality. (SisterSong)

^So, what does?

Reproductive Justice:

Reproductive Justice is the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic, and social wellbeing of all people, and will be achieved when all people have the economic, social, and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality, and reproduction for ourselves, our families, and our communities in all areas of our lives. (Forward Together)

· Reproductive Justice addresses the social reality of inequality, specifically, the inequality of opportunities that we have to control our reproductive destiny. Reproductive justice also addresses the root causes of social inequality.*(SisterSong)

· The focus for reproductive justice is on movement building, community activism, advocacy, education, and giving voice to those on the margins. As such it brings a community orientation and a systematic critique to the table that the other, more individually-focused, movements do not. Reproductive justice demands that we think about each person’s control over their sexuality in the broadest possible perspective and as a control infringed upon and limited by a variety of forces and oppressions. (SAFER)

· The reproductive justice movement arose in the late 1980s as an attempt by grassroots organizations led by women of color to expand the rhetoric of reproductive rights that focused primarily on choice within the abortion debate and was seen to restrict the dialogue to those groups of women they felt could make such a choice in the first place. Key moment: in a 1994 conference in Chicago called the International Conference on Population and Development, the term was coined when a small group of women of color (out of 150 women, 6 were black) joined forces and planned to make demands of the Clinton administration around the new health care plan. Later the group formed larger groups like SisterSong and The Chicago Abortion Fund, which further developed the reproductive justice framework, pushed it forward, and sparked a nation-wide movement. (Toni Leonard @ NNAF Summit 2013)


Intersectionality is a framework, which acknowledges that models of oppression within society, such as those based on race/ethnicity, gender expression or identity, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, class, or disability do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.

· Intersectionality suggests that various socially and culturally constructed categories of discrimination interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality.

· Intersectionality suggests that our oppressions and privileges interact and encourages the understanding of the variety of different systems that affect our lives. Many of these systems do not work for marginalized people and by not acknowledging a person’s complete layering of identities, we are erasing the true experience of that person’s life.

· Generalizations: “All women ________. etc” // Intersectionality dissects and redirects single-minded generalizations. No one lives single-minded lives and they shouldn’t be regarded as though they do.

· Oppression is multi-faceted for many people.

· Intersectionality also asks us to examine what privileges we have, as well as how it can create forms of oppression for others.

Take a moment to think about the intersections in your life that affect your life experiences.

Race or Ethnicity + Class + Economic Status + Gender + Health + Physical Ability +

Religion or Beliefs >> Can these affect access to health care? Economic status?

Employment status? Transportation? Social support? Safety? Education? Child Care?

Policy Implementation? Geography? Environmental Effects?

Begin to think about how intersections can affect someone’s ability to access safe and legal abortion care.