BCRW @ 50

Reproductive Justice in the 21st Century

Feminist analysis of reproductive justice in the 21st Century has shifted from earlier conversations held at the Center. While many of topics remain the same—abortion, sterilization abuse, reproductive technologies, etc.—the context and conversation around them show new feminist frameworks of conceptualizing these issues. In particular, much of 21st Century engagement with reproductive justice is rooted in analyzing the history of racist, classist, and ableist thought around reproduction and control of fertility. This more intersectional framework often critiques the white feminist movement of the 1970s for its lack of attention paid to issues other than those of wealthy white women. 

In 2009, the Scholar and Feminist Conference on The Politics of Reproduction: New Technologies of Life led to the Scholar and Feminist Online publication on Technology, Justice, and the Global Reproductive Market in 2012. This conference and subsequent publication harkens back to a talk at the 1983 Scholar and Feminist, The Question of Technology, on “The Engineering of Reproduction.” While the 1983 talk highlighted ways that reproductive technologies—such as abortion technology, prenatal diagnosis, nursing and postnatal nurturing, and genetic screening—were not studied through a feminist lens, the 2012 publication denotes a shift. In the introduction to the edition, Rebecca Jordan-Young stated:

“Contributors, many of whom spoke at [the 2009] conference, were invited to think broadly about reproduction, including new technologies, but also adoption, so-called 'non-traditional' families, and the aspects of reproduction that are about family maintenance rather than simply conception and birth."

The edition posed many questions to contributors, including: How do we create a feminist practice that is honest about the political economy of reproduction, on the one hand, and respectful of the affective dimensions of people's family-building practices, on the other? How do we move beyond the observation that reproductive technologies often serve to reinscribe conservative notions of what constitutes a "natural" family, and begin to explore ways in which such outcomes are not necessarily inevitable? How might critical feminist analyses affect the future of reproduction? These questions push us to engage with the ideas of reproduction and technology with a critical intersectional approach, both critiquing and building on earlier feminist work like that featured in the 1983 Scholar and Feminist Conference.

In March of 2020, BCRW was on track to host a Book Salon for Dána-Ain Davis’s new book, Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth before the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City. The panel would have featured Davis alongside colleagues and researchers of reproductive justice Dorothy Roberts, Toni Bond, and Cara Page to discuss the ways that racism and the Medical Industrial Complex function to create systems of oppression that disproportionately affect Black women in particular. In light of our new all-virtual world, BCRW staff and organizers of the event turned to a different model of online engagement with Davis’s book. Rather than turning the Book Salon into a Zoom event, an upcoming issue of the Scholar and Feminist Online will be dedicated to Reproductive Injustice, and will comprise long reviews of the book, along with articles by scholars whose work has been inspired by Davis’s. The edition will feature writings by medical professionals as well as researchers in academia, for an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing racism in the reproductive medical field. The edition, tentatively scheduled to be published in mid-2022, is an example of BCRW’s ongoing dedication to reproductive justice. 

Although much has changed over the course of the Center’s 50-year study of reproductive justice (namely, a more intersectional approach to the issue), it is still easy to see the throughlines and the sustained commitment to reproduction as a site for feminist analysis. Forced sterilization remains a focal point in present-day reproductive justice analysis in Cara Page’s Medical Industrial Complex Timeline. Additionally, beyond BCRW, the politics of abortion in the United States are once again in the forefront of many people’s minds: as I write this, we are just a few months out from Amy Coney Barret’s nomination and appointment to the Supreme Court, only two years after the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh. With such a strong conservative majority, Roe v. Wade’s legal precedent protecting aboriton rights feels incredibly precarious—much like it did in the early years of BCRW’s history, when Roe v Wade was newly ruled on, and legal scholars at the 1973 conference Women Learn from Women identified the ruling’s weak points and loopholes; and in 1990, when, just like now, a conservative Supreme Court threatened to revoke reproductive rights.

However, as many speakers throughout BCRW’s history have reminded us, reproductive rights are not the end-all be-all of reproductive justice: access to adequate, affordable, and equitable reproductive care at the intersections of bodily autonomy, racial and gender justice, it is a fight that is ongoing and echoed throughout the Center’s history. One present-day example of this is the project Changing Frequencies, started by Social Justice Institute Activist-in-Residence Cara Page. This project exemplifies the shift towards reckoning with the history of reproductive justice, and healing justice as it pertains to forced sterilization, eugenics, and racism in the United States and globally. The Center’s research efforts are focused on supporting Changing Frequencies as it grows into its second year. 

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