From Roe to Reproductive Justice

Today, as we mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and remember this momentous victory for reproductive health and rights, we must remain vigilant. We must continue fighting to broaden the frameork of this movement to guarantee reproductive rights and health access for all people—regardless of their race, socioeconomic class or immigration status.

Oftentimes, a person’s reproductive agency, especially their decisions about abortion care, is largely viewed as an issue of personal privacy and individual rights—but it is so much more than that. True reproductive agency means having the fundamental freedom to make choices about what happens to our lives and our families. Women of color need so much more than legal abortion; we need actual access to reproductive care, including abortion. Addressing the issue of access means that we must consider other systemic issues that prevent people, especially low income women of color and immigrant women, from accessing the reproductive healthcare they need.

Women of color are beating the drum about why the legal protections of Roe don’t add up to full agency, and why we need to fight for abortion access, not just legalization. But we can’t do this alone. Our allies must also acknowledge the reality that reproductive rights alone are far from enough to secure agency over our lives and families. When young Asian immigrant women like Purvi Patel and Bei Bei Shuai are being criminalized for the outcomes of their pregnancies, all of us should be asking ourselves what more must be done to achieve reproductive justice, and not just secure our reproductive rights.

Young Asian immigrant women are being criminalized for the outcomes of their pregnancies—which is proof that we need to go beyond Roe to achieve reproductive justice. (Timothy Krause / Creative Commons)

Don’t get me wrong: Losing the legal protections afforded by Roe would be devastating, and women of color have the most to lose. But Roe only ensured a narrow spectrum of reproductive choices for women, and our vision of reproductive choices is limited when we only look at it from a perspective of one landmark decision. Most importantly, continuing to be caught in the defensive fight to protect only the legality of abortion alone has lost us ground. That fight alone isn’t enough to prevent AAPI women and other women of color from being at a higher risk for being prosecuted for their pregnancy outcomes.

In the same way that anti-abortion folks are fixated on abortion bans, without concern for the other circumstances of a person’s life that has led them to seek abortion care in the first place, the abortion rights movement can, at times, get stuck. We can get fixated on the legal right to have an abortion and lose sight of the larger picture of ensuring that all women, and especially vulnerable women of color, have the ability to thrive—which includes the power to be able to determine for themselves if, when and how they parent.

What’s worse, leaning in to the framework of Roe may actually further stigmatize abortion access. Continuing to zero in on privacy reinforces the notion that abortion is something no one should talk about, thus making it difficult to normalize. It’s true that everyone should have the right to privacy in terms of deciding what they will do with their body, but reproductive rights should go beyond that right. The theories underlying privacy also continue to frame abortion as a “hush hush” topic that is not fit for polite society—but abortion isn’t treated this way in many other countries where it is legal and accessible. The legal framework for the right to privacy is not how communities of color necessarily see or understand abortion.

What if we expanded beyond the privacy framework as the sole method of protecting abortion access and fought boldly for each person’s fundamental right for to be able to make their own choices about their lives and their families?

I spent my college years at a conservative private liberal arts college where shame was normalized as a way to coerce women into conforming to social norms. It is common in many Christian communities for individuals to utilize both shame and guilt to demonize people who seek abortion care, counter to the actual teachings of Jesus, and we were no exception. Women on my campus were made to think that we were worthless if we acted and behaved in ways that were shameful, despite the fact that men were engaging in same activities.

It was, of course, women in this environment who found themselves pregnant and then shamed—but the men involved in these situations were rarely mentioned, and were almost never made to suffer the same consequences. The anti-choice rhetoric at my college was centered around the logic that if women behaved in “godly” ways, they would not find themselves pregnant, so abortion should never have to be an option.

I hope there comes a day when we can move beyond the fight for our privacy rights and the legality of abortion—and engage wholeheartedly in the fight for a society in which all people have self-determination and are able to make choices about their lives without shame or guilt. I hope that my daughter, and the future generations after hers, grow up in communities that believe everyone should have agency over their own bodies, their lives and their families.


Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the nation’s only organization dedicated to building power with Asian American Pacific Islander women and girls. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. You can follow her @schoimorrow.