What we need now isn’t just abortion access; it’s time for a reproductive justice framework

By Sam Sears, Health Policy Associate, National Consumers League

For two years now reproductive justice – as a term, a framework, and an ideal – has been thrust into the mainstream. While those who work in reproductive healthcare access and advocacy, particularly abortion access and rights, are familiar with the term, not many people knew about it before the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Given the most recent rulings from the Court this past month, and what’s been happening in the states in the two years since Dobbs, reproductive justice is all that more important.

So, what is reproductive justice?

It’s actually a very simple concept and framework from which advocacy work stems. Coined by Black women in 1994 before the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the term mashes together reproductive rights and social justice. These women recognized that the pro-choice movement at that time was not accomplishing enough for women of color. Expanding upon the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, reproductive justice is often defined as the right to have children, the right to not have children, and the right to parent the children in safe and sustainable communities and environments. Thus, reproductive justice not only includes access to reproductive healthcare, such as birth control and abortions, but it also encompasses economic factors, such as pay equity, childcare costs, and more.

Since the Dobbs decision, there has been an influx of state bans on abortion at various points of gestation and with ever-varying limitations. The most common in the mainstream knowledge base would be Idaho’s ban, one of the nation’s strictest which went into effect in August 2022 (not long after Dobbs). Idaho bans abortion at 6 weeks, with minimal exceptions for the life of the mother and in cases of reported rape or incest, making it one of the most restrictive bans in the country. However, there are 15 other states with some of the most restrictive abortion bans as well.

Anti-abortion conservatives have also begun attacking other aspects of reproduction, further bringing the need for reproductive justice to the forefront. In the last two years, there has been an increase in the dis- and misinformation being spread regarding birth control – calling them abortifacients.

Now, I want to be explicitly clear here. Birth control, be it intrauterine devices (IUDs), the standard pill, or a Plan B emergency contraceptive are NOT abortion-inducing drugs. Contraception prevents pregnancy; it does not end it. Because of this misinformation, attempts to secure the right to birth control or attempts to increase access are not passing within state legislatures. And in Idaho, state elected officials are seeing are being pushed to ban access to emergency contraception and IUDs.

Let’s not forget the chaos surrounding in-vitro fertilization (IVF) because of Alabama and this state’s Supreme Court. As a reminder, in February the Alabama State Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are recognized as children under state law. Now the big question is whether, because of this decision, IVF is banned within the state given that not all embryos are viable after being frozen and thawed for placement. So many of the state bans on abortion also include fetuses within the definition of personhood. The impact of the Alabama IVF decision is further-reaching than just the state, especially with the nation’s patchwork web of definitions of personhood because of these bans.

Federal lawmakers have begun trying to clarify and codify access to birth control and IVF. Earlier in June, Senate Democrats hoped to bring a floor vote forward to establish the right to IVF as a method of conceiving. However, the bill, which was authored by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who conceived her children with the help of IVF, was blocked by the GOP because of claims of religious freedom and states’ rights concerns. Senate Democrats have also seen the Right to Contraception Act be blocked by the GOP around the same time. Missouri Sen. Hawley states that his concerns regarding the Right to Contraception Act are regarding state laws and how the bill could lead to mifepristone, one of two medications used in the abortion pill, being available in states regardless of their laws.

Last month there were two small wins within the reproductive justice space. SCOTUS had two cases before it that were related to abortion – Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v FDA and Idaho v. United States. For the first case, the suit took aim at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) challenging the agency’s approval of mifepristone, arguing that the FDA did not adequately consider the evidence back in 2000. SCOTUS unanimously ruled that the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine and the other plaintiffs in the case did not have the standing to challenge the FDA. SCOTUS ruled to dismiss Idaho v. United States thus leaving in place the order that blocks Idaho from enforcing its current abortion ban, described above. In this case, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed against Idaho, arguing that the state’s abortion ban violates the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA).

Overall, the anti-abortion groups are expanding their work well beyond simply abortion. Thirty years ago, the Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice recognized that the then-pro-choice movement was not enough; it left women of color and other disenfranchised women behind and out of the conversation. These women expanded their work to also include childbirth and child-rearing. With the current attacks against contraception, as well as the uncertainty and expected attacks against IVF, the pro-choice movement must expand as well. It is time for the nation to begin working toward reproductive justice.


About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization.  Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.  For more information, visit nclnet.org.