What is reproductive justice?

illustration of a woman looking down, sadly/thoughtfully.

Women need more than a right to choose. Unitarian Universalists are joining a broader movement seeking reproductive justice.

Image: © Jody Hewgill

© Jody Hewgill


‘I know this is going to sound crazy,” I said into the phone. “But it’s the only thing I can think of right now. There is a Unitarian Universalist church 100 miles from you. Give them a call.”

This was not the typical advice we gave to women calling our national abortion hotline. Melissa lived in a big midwestern state. She had little money, two kids, and an unplanned pregnancy. The closest abortion provider was over 500 miles away. Even though Melissa was enrolled in Medicaid, both federal and local government forbade using tax dollars for abortion services.

Things were looking pretty bad for Melissa. And in that moment of desperation, a moment all too common among my hotline experiences, I told Melissa to go to church.

“I am really not kidding. Call them,” I said to Melissa. “Tell them you just talked to this abortion hotline and the counselor you spoke to was Unitarian and told you to call. It sounds crazy, but this church is not like a lot of other churches. It is part of our tradition that we support women like you. Maybe there is a doctor in the congregation. Maybe someone in the congregation knows somebody.”

After I hung up the phone, another counselor peeked over the cubicle divider and looked at me kind of strangely. “Did you just send that woman to a church to get help with an abortion?”

“Yes. Yes, I did.”

Every couple of years at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly, congregational delegates choose a social justice issue for our congregations to engage with over a period of four years. The UUA provides resources and a study guide for congregations. Each congregation then decides how it will act on that issue.

In June 2012, the General Assembly voted to make reproductive justice our Congregational Study/Action Issue for the next four years. (Learn more at UUA.org/reproductive.) In the months leading up to this vote, we had reason for concern. Scandal engulfed the Susan G. Komen Foundation over its decision to withdraw cancer-prevention funding from Planned Parenthood because Planned Parenthood also provides abortion care. Political battles broke out over contraception coverage under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, including accusations by Roman Catholic bishops that mandatory insurance coverage of birth control violates the religious liberty of some religious employers—even though 98 percent of women in their congregations have used contraception.

These political battles were just another round in the culture wars. For at least thirty years, if anyone in the media was talking about cultural issues while invoking morality, religion, or values, they were preaching the evils of abortion and the sin of homosexuality. Religion meant socially conservative. Religion never meant socially progressive.

Yet that day on the phone, in the midst of the culture wars, I did not think twice about sending Melissa to the closest UU congregation. I did not think twice about urging her to go to church. Why?

I did not think twice because church was the only place my parents could send me to get a high-quality comprehensive sexuality education. I did not think twice because while I was growing up, my minister told stories of being part of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a pre-Roe v. Wade network of Protestant and Jewish clergy who connected women with safe abortion providers. I did not think twice because Unitarian Universalists, Jews, and Buddhists have been even more supportive of legal abortion than those who identify as religiously unaffiliated. I did not think twice because the Roe v. Wade legal case was forged in the basement of First Unitarian Church of Dallas, Texas.

When it comes to the culture wars, we Unitarian Universalists have clearly claimed our ground. We are “Standing on the Side of Love,” especially for same-sex marriage. I’m proud of the rainbow flag that flies outside my church. But it has been nearly twenty years since our denomination has claimed any significant ground regarding reproductive issues. What does it mean to “stand on the side of love” when it comes to decision-making about our bodies, sexuality, and families?

I have heard it said that most Unit­arian Universalists know our First Principle (“the inherent worth and dignity of every person”) and our Seventh Principle (“respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”). And then there is some stuff in between.

These two principles are the best known because they speak to something we know deep in our bones and yet struggle with—that we are individuals and that we are part of community. We are both “me” and “we.” Do we conform or speak up? Belong or stand out?

And this brings me back to Melissa. Technically, Melissa had the legal right, as an individual, to have an abortion. But for Melissa, and many like her, there is little or no community enabling and supporting this kind of decision. There is no “we” within which this “me” can flourish.

While Melissa theoretically had a right, in practice she did not have access to the means that could make that right a reality. Reproductive justice is both a concept and a movement that calls on us to focus on a woman’s lived realities and the complex interdependent web of circumstances that must exist for her to exercise what we call “rights.”

Yes, of course women need legal rights to abortion. But we need a lot more than that in order to make an honest-to-God choice.

To be truthful, even if Melissa had access to an abortion, I do not know if she would really have had a choice. I’m not so sure Melissa would have been considering an abortion had she known she would have the basic resources to raise her child well. The number one reason cited by the women I counseled for having an abortion was money. What would have given Melissa a real choice? The guarantee of good childcare, a safe neighborhood, quality healthcare, and a good education for her child.

And these issues do not affect only women who are struggling economically.

While I worked as a chaplain on a birth and neonatal intensive care unit, I spent time with many educated and professional women who were having children later in life. For them to end up on my unit meant they had encountered complications, often connected to their relatively “advanced maternal age.” I have to ask: Did they really choose to have children later in life? How much choice do any of us have in a society that provides so little support to parents and families, in a society where you might not be secure enough to start a family until you are well into that advanced maternal age? Unless you are one of the fortunate few who has financial security early in life, our choices today are quite limited.

Or perhaps you have watched The Business of Being Born. Maybe you have read one of many articles questioning the rate of Cesarean sections to vaginal deliveries at hospitals; articles that examine the increased likelihood of a Cesarean section at for-profit versus non-profit hospitals, that explore how a Cesarean birth can bring in twice as much revenue as a vaginal delivery. We all rely on social systems and their professionals to lay out our options, whether the system we rely on is a hospital or Medicaid. But how much choicedo we actually have?

For many activists and advocates today, the pro-choice movement has focused too much on legalized abortion and not enough on actual access to abortion services; focused too much on the right not to have children and not enough on the right to have children. Many communities of color carry with them a history of government abuse and intervention in their reproductive lives, including forced sterilization, discriminatory foster-care enforcement, and forced abortions for incarcerated women. Reproductive freedom requires much more than a legal right to abortion. In order for a person (of any sex or gender) to live with dignity, a matrix of rights, resources, and relations must exist.

The reproductive justice movement was created by a coalition of women of color to promote the right of all women to have children, not to have children, and to raise their children in safe and healthy environments. In 1984, the National Black Women’s Health Project was founded with two goals: to more effectively address reproductive health issues in African-American communities, and to advocate within the mainstream (predominantly white) pro-choice movement for a broader agenda that includes the concerns of women of color. Over the next ten years, other women of color created reproductive justice organizations, such as the National Latina Health Organization, the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, and Asians and Pacific Islanders for Repro­ductive Health. Following the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, the women involved with these organizations coined the term “reproductive justice” to name their work, ideas, and aspirations. In 1997, the SisterSong Women of Color Reproduc­tive Justice Collective was formed, bringing together sixteen organizations advocating for the reproductive and sexual health of women of color. SisterSong has been instrumental in promoting reproductive justice and in building support for it, as a conceptual framework and movement-building political strategy.

Reproductive justice emphasizes that everything is connected, and therefore insists we refuse to isolate or pit important social issues against each other. Instead, reproductive justice advances these rights across the interdependent web of social justice issues. As the advocacy group Forward Together puts it in their “Strong Families” initiative, reproductive justice calls on us to work towards a world where every person and family has the rights, recognition, and resources to make decisions about their gender, their bodies, and their sexuality; where every person, family, and community has what they need to flourish.

So, what would engaging with reproductive justice look like for your community or congregation?

Let’s say your congregation has been particularly active in supporting LGBTQ equality and same-sex marriage. How could you engage with reproductive justice and LGBTQ issues?

Forward Together’s “Reproductive Justice Lens Toolkit” offers these observations: All LGBTQ parents must battle with the lack of social support for their role as parents. Whether interacting with schools or social services, parents often mask their sexual orientation or gender identity to prevent discrimination against their children. The lack of legal recognition and protection for non-biological children, or legal bias against transgender parents, can result in parents losing custody of their children. Many LGBTQ couples raising children are people of color, making them more likely to experience discrimination. From bullying in schools to physical assault on the street, people who are perceived to be LGBTQ are targets for attack and harassment. Because of stereotypes and bigotry, LGBTQ people face disproportionate barriers to employment, housing, education, and healthcare.

How does reproductive justice fit in? It fits in everywhere. Whether you focus on bullying, parental rights, or antiracist education in social service agencies, any organizing you do to address these injustices will help women, children, and families.

I recently facilitated a workshop on Unitarian Universalism and reproductive justice for a congregation near me. During the question and answer section, a number of congregants expressed confusion and seemed overwhelmed. Reproductive justice seemed “unfocused” and “too broad.”

“Isn’t it more effective to focus on one issue at a time?” one person asked me.

My answer? “Well, apparently not.”

The singular focus on abortion rights these past forty years has not secured access to abortion or women’s reproductive freedom. If anything, abortion is more inaccessible today than it was forty years ago. If anything, families are more vulnerable.

It comes back to our First and Seventh Principles—to the tension of the “me” and “we.” Reproductive justice calls on us to resist focusing either on the inherent worth and dignity of every person or on the interdependent web of existence. Reproductive justice is about holding both at the same time. We are all people with inherent worth and dignity who cannot thrive outside of the interdependent web of existence.

All of us are many things at once, even though we often feel a need to hide or highlight one part over another. For me, religious community is about a place of connection and interconnection. It is about building a space where all parts of us can show up, where we do not have to be singular, tidy, and complete. Religious community should be a place where each of us can be our multiple, messy, in-process selves.

As I was about to get off the phone with Melissa, she had one more thing to say.

“There was a big blizzard.” She paused for a long moment. “There was a big blizzard and my pills were out in the truck. I was exhausted and just couldn’t bring myself to go get them. That’s how I got pregnant.”

Reproductive justice centers us on connection, community, and the messiness of lived realities. But reproductive justice is also about humility. Particularly when it comes to women, sexuality, pregnancy, and families, many of us slide into a distant and judgmental stance. “Well, Melissa was just being lazy. How irresponsible of her.” Perhaps you think she did not deserve help with an abortion. Or maybe you think she definitely needed an abortion because she was clearly irresponsible.

Such judgments are understandable. This is emotionally charged stuff. Counseling hundreds of women and serving as a minister, I’ve heard plenty of stories. So many of us work hard on presenting ourselves as tidy and put-together. But I’ve spent too much time with the messy, complicated realities of our individual lives, our relationships, and our families to put much faith in these sorts of ap­pearances, to believe these sorts of swift judgments.

“You know, Melissa,” I told her, “I think a lot of us would not have made it out to that truck. Life is hard. We are not perfect. We all do the best we can.”

Many of us in UU congregations are professionals, trained and paid to be experts. We are supposed to know what is best. But I think if we Unitarian Universalists really embrace reproductive justice—honoring the spirit, experiences, and struggles from which it came—we will not be the experts. Instead, we will cultivate our unknowing, our curiosity, and our compassion—not only for others but also for ourselves. We will practice experiencing difficult emotions and being in our bodies, because these issues run deep. We will challenge our habits of hubris, control, and over-management. I believe doing reproductive justice can move us from our protective and isolating postures of individualism and perfectionism toward behaviors of beloved community, where our messy, multiple, and in-process selves are welcomed, nurtured, and loved.

I wish I knew what happened to Melissa. But I do not. I do not know if she called that church or what happened if she did. But I do know what my hopes are—for Melissa, for Unitarian Universalism, and for you. Let this reproductive justice work be a way for us—all of us—to nurture our practices of justice and care in our shared, messy, lived, and interdependent community.

Related resources

  • Reproductive Justice.Resources from the Unitarian Universalist Association, including materials related to the UUA Congregational Study/Action Issue, 2012–2016. (UUA.org)
  • Forward Together.Leading reproductive justice advocacy organization. (forwardtogether.org)
  • Reproductive Justice.Resources from the Religious Institute: Faithful Voices on Sexuality and Religion. (religiousinstitute.org)