Loretta Ross is a human and women’s rights activist who co-founded and served as National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, a historic organization that helped define and steer forward the contemporary reprpductive justice movement and its framework. Ross’ book, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, co-authored by Rickie Solinger, is out now—and was featured in the latest issue of Ms.!
Ross talked to Ms. about the power of a reproductive justice framework, what she’s working toward and thinking bigger than resistance.
SisterSong is founded on the principle of reproductive justice, as opposed to just reproductive rights. Could you explain the difference between reproductive justice and rights?
Reproductive justice is based on the human rights framework, while reproductive rights is based on constitutional rights framework. So there’s a foundational difference in how they are defined. If you’re using the U.S. Constitution as your framework, it is more limited because the document itself is more limited than the global human rights framework. Philosophically, they rest on two different legal, social, and political regimes.
You have to first consider that they are in dialectical tension with one another. The rights framework talks about legal advocacy within the U.S. political system. And the justice framework talks about organizing around multiple issues—such as race, socioeconomic status, gender identity and sexuality—and connecting them all.
There has undeniably been a lot of progress in the way of reproductive rights, but that progress is often lopsided. How do we equalize these gains for women across race, socioeconomic status and sexuality?
I would argue that Roe itself was an incomplete and partial victory because the Congress then basically said, “Well the Supreme Court has handed us Roe as a privacy decision. Therefore, the government doesn’t have to pay for it.” This is absolutely wrong. Even at its best expression, it was a very complicated decision that delivered victory to those who could enjoy privacy rights, while denying rights to those who couldn’t. If you need assistance paying for your abortion, then your privacy is non-existant because you’re going to get a lot of questions or out-and-out denials. So even terming “abortion rights” as a victory is a complicated statement because it only helped some people while denying others.
But then we’ve seen all the attacks on reproductive rights take place because of religious objections to abortion. So for us in the RJ (Reproductive Justice) movement, that’s a human rights violation because someone else’s religion is being imposed upon your body. Freedom of religion is a human right, but also freedom from religion is a human right. So those in the RJ movement would prefer that people use the human rights framework to talk about even the abortion debates that are going on—showing how they violate people’s human rights. Everything dealing with women’s sexuality is violated by people with certain religious inclinations to do so. Just the human right to have sex is up for debate by some people because of the unhealthy or predatorial relationships they have with sex. Their psychological problems should not become our public policy.
What is your biggest goal for the future of reproductive justice and what is your approach to achieving it? Given the current political climate, how have those goals and approaches had to change?
My biggest vision for reproductive justice is that it becomes a pathway for the full achievement of everyone’s human rights: the right to decide if and when you’ll have a child; the right to decide the conditions under which you birth your children; the right for your children to grow up in safe and healthy environments. I wish these things for all of humanity—regardless of where you live, who you are, or the gender with which you identity. Every human being deserves the same human rights.
Obviously, our own intersectional identities determine what we need protection from in order to enjoy those human rights. Now I’m excited about the fact that somewhat inadvertently, reproductive justice has become a very dominant way for people to talk about reproductive politics in America. When [SisterSong] created this framework 23 years ago, we had no idea it would become so popular and so effective in bringing together our social justice movement. The Black women who created it were simply talking about what they needed from healthcare reform. It ended up spring-boarding a whole new conversation about the difference between equality and justice.
Still, we have a long way to go, as we are in a white supremacist, [post]-colonialist, racist society that is deeply misogynistic both on the left and the right. But the fact that we have a vision towards which we are fighting, as well as the fact that we can articulate the oppressions we are fighting against, is very important to me. We always have to ask ourselves what kind of world we would build if we win. That’s not the kind of question a resistance framework answers. Resistance only talks about what you’re against. It doesn’t talk about what you’re for.
Do you wish that when you were growing up sex and reproductive justice education was not such a taboo topic?
In some ways, there was less talk about sex and sexuality when I grew up in the 50s and 60s, but in many ways, there was more. While my mother, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, found herself incapable of having healthy conversations about sex and sexuality, she made sure that as the leader of the Girl Scouts, we saw films on it. She still ensured that we got the information we needed. Right now, parents think they’re protecting their younger children by offering them misinformation, such as the abstinence program or making sex seem like a dirty word.
Do you think that your mother was ahead of her time in that sense?
I think the social norms then were ahead of our time. It wasn’t seen as controversial for her Girl Scout troop to see films on sex education and how to handle menstruation. That was seen as a learning obligation as a Girl Scout because we didn’t have the religious right agitating against girls learning about what it means to become a woman. All of this fierce opposition that we are experiencing now is part of an organized political movement that is really about power. It’s never about information or keeping children safe—it’s about power. And that simply didn’t manifest itself in the same ways it did in the 1950s and 60s. As a political analyst, I can only posit that a large part of the present right wing that we’re fighting started in reaction and in response to the successes of the Civil Rights and women’s rights and gay rights movements.
What are some of the most important things you would like for the attendees of SisterSong’s upcoming conference, Let’s Talk About Sex, to take away?
You can’t keep people safe from sexual abuse, from STDs and HIV, from sexual domination—from all the things that can go wrong with sex—if you can’t talk about sex. The theme for the conference this year is “Resist. Reclaim. Redefine.” We have to resist what’s going on in terms of the white supremacist oppression, but we also have to reclaim our embodiment and our right to control our bodies. And finally, we have to redefine was justice means for us.
One of the more exciting developments I’ve seen since the election of Donald Trump is the massive wave and the myriad ways people are offering resistance to this immoral and incompetent administration. I think I am one of the people who celebrates how many people are “woke” now. I’m not one of those people to say, “Well I’m sorry you only woke up on November 9th.” I’m glad you woke up at all. I’m not going to attach a timeline to it because we’re all trying to wake up and figure out how we can construct the world that we deserve. If it took a political election, fine. It took sexual abuse for me to do it. I would never want anyone to get raped or go through incest in order to wake up. That seems a little harsh. I’m seeing this moment as full of promise and opportunity rather than full of setback and obstruction.
A lot of people think this is the worst time we’ve ever had in our democracy. But those people are not the descendants of enslaved people. They’re not indigenous people, whose whole communities and tribes were wiped out through genocide.
One of the things that studying fascist movements and white supremacy has shown me is that it has always been a struggle to help white people understand how to be appropriately white—not to deny their whiteness—but to strategically use it to defeat the ideology of white supremacy. White supremacy is a collection of ideologies, not a race of people. So this is a very teachable moment right now—to see the toxicity of white supremacy and offer strategic and categorical rejection of that. Even if people don’t understand the relationship between white privilege and white supremacy, this is the time to show them.