Naming It: Reproductive Justice

Lilith’s coverage has noted that Jewish women, historically at the forefront of the battles for women’s reproductive health, including abortion rights and access to contraception, have not been as visible as once we were.

Perhaps that’s because for many Jewish women in their reproductive years the biggest worry is whether they will be able to get pregnant, not (as it was in the pre-Roe era) the fear of an unwanted pregnancy. Yet Jewish women’s organizations, even those who were once shy about taking a stance in favor of a woman’s right to choose when and how she would bear children, still march shoulder to shoulder with other groups in favor of protecting this hard-won legal right to reproductive choice.

Now, National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), arguably the most progressive of the panoply of Jewish women’s organizations that once defined North American Jewish women’s identity, is looking beyond the matter of ensuring that laws on the books are defended. NCJW’s C.E.O. Nancy Kaufman puts forth the energizing notion that, 40 years after the passage of the landmark legislation intended to make abortion safe and legal, we need to reframe reproductive rights as a matter of reproductive justice.

“The 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January 2013 is a time when we rightly celebrate the survival of the U.S. Supreme Court court decision that affirmed the right of every woman to control her own body. The ruling came in an era when great strides in advancing the civil rights of African Americans, women, and ethnic and religious minorities set the tone for political discourse.”

“But subsequent court decisions have whittled away at the ruling in Roe characterized by Justice Blackmun as ‘a step that had to be taken as we go down the road toward the full emancipation of women’. It is clear now that the struggle for reproductive rights is hardly over. An onslaught of state laws has made access to abortion ever more difficult. Restrictions on federal insurance coverage excluded abortion from the range of health care to which every woman should be entitled. And the fact that women’s religious liberty and freedom of conscience are also at stake gets lost in the debates over whether fetuses should be made legal persons and how wide the corridor of an abortion clinic needs to be.

“As we watch abortion opponents move on to attack even access to contraception, saving Roe means moving from the idea of reproductive freedom to the broader concept of reproductive justice. The way to save Roe and what it signifies is not to simply take our stand behind an edifice of mere legal rights, laboriously argued case by case, but to assert a vision of freedom for all women that encompasses true autonomy and equality. Many factors complicate a woman’s access to abortion or birth control: geographic isolation, age, lack of information and education, and discrimination based on color, national origin, language, immigration status, and religion. These complicating factors cannot be separated from a woman’s legal right to reproductive health.

“The Roe anniversary offers an opportunity to rededicate Jewish women to an approach to abortion rights that places it firmly in the context of the needs of all women, however disadvantaged they may be by laws, policies, programs, prejudice, and circumstances.”