Toward Reproductive Freedom: If Women of Color Can Frame Reproductive Rights as Both Health and Social Justice Issues, That Would Be One of the Most Significant Outcomes of the Historic March for Women's Lives

Article excerpt

To hear some women tell it, the March for Women's Lives was the largest, most diverse reproductive rights gathering in history. More than a million women and their supporters turned out April 25, 2004 in Washington, D.C., including a strong contingent of the young and a respectable number of women of color. For an event taking place just five months after President Bush signed the ban on so-called "partial birth" abortions, it represented an extraordinary grassroots groundswell in opposition to years of steady attacks on women's reproductive freedoms.

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But beneath the surface of solidarity were long-simmering tensions within the women's movement--tensions between women of color who often feel marginalized and the major pro-choice organizations that have historically viewed reproductive rights through a white, middle-class lens. The story behind the march reveals conflicts that have divided women of diverse backgrounds for as long as women have struggled for their autonomy and freedom. As successful as the mobilization was in bringing women's groups together under one broad theme, those conflicts are far from resolved. However, women of color leaders point to some shifts in reproductive rights politics--shifts that strengthen their campaign for reproductive justice as well as the larger women's movement.

Calling All Women

When Loretta Ross first heard about the march--originally dubbed the "March for Freedom of Choice"--she had no intention of going. As an organizer of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective annual conference and a longtime women's health advocate, she says, "I didn't want our discussion derailed talking about white women again." But there was a buzz about the march, and SisterSong members wanted to consider it. After deliberations at their 2003 conference, the members of SisterSong decided to participate but only if certain conditions were met. "If the focus of the march went beyond abortion, if they included women of color on the steering committee and if they gave money to women of color to organize, then we'd be willing to participate," Ross explains. Representatives from the mainstream pro-choice organizations that initiated the march--the National Organization for Women, NARAL ProChoice America, Planned Parenthood and the Feminist Majority--agreed, and the newly named "March for Women's Lives" was underway.

The name change was critical. "'Choice' is a problematic term in communities of color," says Ross. Faced with a lack of health insurance and health care access; immigration restrictions; and population control policies such as welfare reform "family caps" and sterilization abuse, many women of color health advocates don't see their communities as having choices. "To frame it as a liberal, individualistic choice message doesn't speak to the [lack of] control in communities of color," she notes. Historically, Ross adds, the word "choice" was associated with opposition to federal intrusion on states' rights--a term that harkens back to segregation and a politics of racial division that oppressed people of color.

Also key was the inclusion of two major women of color health organizations on the march steering committee: the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the Black Women's Health Imperative. Before the Latina Institute joined the steering committee, the organization had already strategized how to draw young women as well as women of color to the event, says Executive Director Silvia Henriquez. "Our goal was to bring a more diverse youth presence to the march. Two, was to change the message of the march and be more inclusive." For Latina marchers, the key reproductive health and rights issues include the lack of access to health care, comprehensive services and Spanish-speaking providers. Many Latinas support abortion rights--if not for themselves as individuals, then at least for other women who might want the option. …