Global Reproductive Justice Is What We Need Right Now

Around the globe, the thread of white supremacy runs through reproductive policies, maternal health programs, marriage and family law. The reproductive justice framework can help people everywhere access the care they need.

Protesters during the Global Day of Action for access to safe and legal abortion on Sept. 28, 2022, in Mexico City, Mexico. As of June 2022, abortion is available in Mexico during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. (Carlos Tischler / Eyepix Group / Future Publishing via Getty Images)

The reproductive rights movement has made significant progress expanding the rights of people around the world: In the last 30 years, only four countries have tightened abortion laws—Poland, El Salvador, Nicaragua and the United States. The majority of others have expanded these rights. 

But what we know from our work around the world is that protecting bodily autonomy requires more than simply passing laws, particularly for Black and brown people. In places like India and South Africa, abortion has been legal for decades but laws haven’t guaranteed access. The U.S. is now learning this painful lesson, with the end of Roe v. Wade.

If someone has a legal right to an abortion, but doesn’t have a car to drive the long distance to the clinic, or can’t afford to take the time off work or hire childcare, or fears how their family or neighbors might react, they don’t truly have reproductive autonomy. For everyone everywhere to be able to determine their own sexual and reproductive health, we must address the social, economic and political barriers to accessing care. 

The reproductive justice framework, developed by Black women in the U.S., takes an inclusive and intersectional approach to advancing bodily autonomy. If adopted by global reproductive health groups, it could transform lives all over the globe. 

Millions around the world, especially women of color and those living in poverty, are still facing little to no access to reproductive care—even though it’s been been proven to transform families, communities and economies. At a time of heightened violence perpetrated against Black and brown people, a reproductive justice framework centers the needs and perspectives of those who have been historically marginalized and left out of this conversation. 

In its simplest form, reproductive justice is the right to have basic autonomy over your body and sexuality, and how these decisions are affected by the context in which they are made. It is not an identity-based framework but a criteria-based one. The reproductive justice framework demands that marginalized communities are at center of the conversation, and an understanding that reproductive health is connected to broader issues like climate justice, gender violence, militarism and poverty.

Reproductive justice, therefore, requires intersectionality—which is a description of vulnerabilities, not simply identities, and includes all forms of oppression: race, poverty, sexuality, religion, age, ethnicity, caste. Indigenous people of Bolivia, lower-caste women in India and trans people in the United States all deserve reproductive justice. The transnational and inclusive nature of the reproductive justice framework invites solidarity and invites us to be part of a struggle that is united by a political goal, and not solely based on biological, identity or cultural markers.

A reproductive justice framework also demands that we view policies and practices through a multifocal lens.

  • Sterilization, a popular method of birth control, can be seen as attractive to some, and a tool of oppression for others (namely, Black and brown people).
  • Abortion laws that restrict access may have limited impact on the wealthy, but pose a serious impediment to people struggling to make ends meet.
  • Immigration policies become a strategy for both defining who is allowed to become citizens, and engineering the make-up of a nation.
  • State violence is defined by, “Who is allowed to live and thrive?” versus, “Who is defined as disposable and allowed to be violated with impunity?”

From Ghana, to India, to enslaved and Native women in the U.S., white supremacy is a thread that runs through reproductive policies, maternal health programs, marriage and family law. 

And now, 27 years after the term was first coined, it is time for those of us who work on reproductive health in low- and middle-income countries to strive to become reproductive justice organizations.

An activist holds up a placard in Nairobi, Kenya, on April 24, 2019, to demand the removal of advertisements with misleading information on the constitutional right to abortion. Experts fear the U.S. ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson will embolden the anti-reproductive justice movement in Kenya and other countries. (Simon Maina / AFP via Getty Images)

This is not merely a rhetorical shift. It means understanding that all issues—from climate justice and voting rights, to gender-based violence, to contraception and childbirth—are interconnected. We must therefore support everything—all while centering Black, Brown and other marginalized perspectives.

Where could this lead us? A reproductive justice framework could take us to a confrontation with white power, both within institutions and in our own experiences and histories. It could lead us to reimagine organizations, policies, personal interactions and our politics.

As we continue to advance sexual and reproductive rights around the world, the reproductive justice framework provides us a roadmap for addressing disparities in health and education, while pushing us to resist and challenge accepted norms including the most basic aspects of what it means to be human, our ability to reproduce and build a world with dignity for all. It does this because reproductive justice situates individual action within larger social, economic and political processes, and includes all people in the struggle for justice. 

Following decades of progress expanding the legal right to reproductive health for tens of millions of people, we now have an opportunity to go further to truly advance bodily autonomy by adopting the reproductive justice framework and working in an inclusive and intersectional way to make sure that people everywhere can access the care they need.

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About and

Anu Kumar is the president and CEO of Ipas, an international nonprofit working with partners around the world to advance reproductive justice by expanding access to abortion and contraception.
Loretta J. Ross is an activist, educator, author, and is a co-founder of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and the co-creator of the theory of reproductive justice. Ross has traveled the world at the invitation of leaders and activists to speak about reproductive justice. Ross is a MacArthur Genius award winner.