The outrage over the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, has sparked a national conversation about police violence, racial justice, and the militarization of our law enforcement. It’s also renewed activists’ calls to broaden the scope of what’s considered to be a “women’s issue,” as reproductive justice advocates argue that Americans need to connect the dots between police brutality and black women’s ability to raise families.
“The killing of Michael Brown, like the killing of many young black people before him, is rarely framed as a feminist issue or as an issue of pressing importance to those who advocate for choice, self-determination and dignity as they relate to family life,” Dani McClain, a fellow at the Nation Institute, wrote in a piece published on Wednesday.
But women of color want to change that, pointing out that Michael Brown’s mother — like many other mothers before her — has been robbed of the chance to parent her child in a safe environment. Just as it’s harder for black women to access the resources they need to prevent pregnancy, thanks to racial and economic disparities in the health care sector, it’s also harder for them to maintain healthy families once they do have a child.
“I would love to see mainstream reproductive rights groups speaking out more about this,” Imani Gandy, the senior legal analyst at RH Reality Check, told ThinkProgress. “There’s been more of a focus on police shootings over the past month, sort of mini outcries every time it happens building up to this massive outcry over Michael Brown. It’s been really interesting to watch it play out on social media. But the people clamoring are black and brown people.”
This is hardly a new issue for activists of color, who coined the term “reproductive justice” two decades ago to articulate a paradigm shift toward a broader agenda. The reproductive justice framework isn’t focused solely on preserving women’s choice to have an abortion. It’s a more holistic approach to addressing the disparities that prevent many women of color from having the freedom to determine the course of their lives.
“We look at the right to have a child, to not have a child, and to parent your child in a safe and sustainable community free from violence,” Jasmine Burnett, a black feminist activist, told ThinkProgress. “If you aren’t safe in your community because you’re racially profiled by the police, and you can’t walk from your home to a clinic or to a hospital to access the services you need, then that’s not really a full articulation of reproductive justice.”
“Reproductive justice is about the whole person — their mental, physical, and economic well being. And when you live in an area that is over policed and dealing with police brutality, that absolutely affects your mental health,” Gloria Malone, a Latina activist who organizes around issues facing young mothers, added. “The killings of these children leave a huge emotional scar.”
Last year, when activist Emma Akpan was helping to organize the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, she was surprised when her fellow organizers didn’t always make these connections.
“When we started discussing what activities we wanted to take up at the next rally or session, women would say, ‘Oh, we can’t talk about police violence today because we’re talking about women,’ ” Akpan recounted in an interview with ThinkProgress. “But I’m sitting in a room with at least three other black women, and we’re saying, wait a minute, we have nephews and uncles and brothers and sons. We’re very concerned about violence against our boys and girls.”
Akpan, who recently published a piece at RH Reality Check about this issue, said that communities in North Carolina have made some strides in this area over the past year. She’s been glad to see activists including a wider range of policies in their conversations about what “counts” as a women’s issue. But for her and other women of color, these issues of reproductive justice have been present throughout their whole lives.
“I grew up listening to women saying, oh Lord, I’m having a son, I’ll have to protect him from the police,” she said. “I guess I’m not upset that everyone’s late to the conversation — I’m happy that people are finally connecting police brutality with reproductive justice, and that we’re getting away from this very narrow ‘it’s my body, it’s my choice’ language.”
But, as the “choice” language is gradually replaced with “reproductive justice” language, new challenges emerge. Gandy noted that as reproductive justice becomes more “fashionable,” there’s a real risk of having women of color’s voices erased. She pointed to a recent New York Times article that highlighted the recent shift away from talking about “choice” without actually quoting reproductive justice activists, or acknowledging that the movement was formed years ago by communities of color.
“I want to see reproductive rights organizations embracing reproductive justice, but I’d also like to see the women of color who created it getting credit for it,” Gandy said.
“People are talking about it — that’s great,” Burnett added. “But it means nothing if your interactions with people of color, and your politics around people of color, don’t change. It will take society really building the power of people of color, because all I see is us being tortured and violated in our communities.”