Why We Need Reproductive Justice in Tech

I’m advocating for you to incorporate reproductive justice as a lens through which to view your work in the tech industry.

by Shelly [Schell] Carpenter on November 2nd, 2015

What general failings of the tech industry and startup culture are most important to you, either philosophically or because you bear the direct brunt of them?

Do you want paid parental leave? Trans-inclusive healthcare? The end of unpaid emotional labor? Private lactation rooms? Exercise leave? Pay equity? Hiring that recognizes diversity in tech isn’t just about gender? Leaders that reflect your own identity? Reasonable working hours? De-stigmatization of mental illness? Employees valued as people rather than as resources? A work environment with fewer microaggressions? Maybe all you want is a workplace that isn’t a driver of gentrification in your community?

After I had started medical and social transition, and decided to come out at work and publicly, it was powerfully reassuring to find that my company’s non-discrimination policy explicitly protected gender identity and gender expression. I was confident that I would be safe talking to HR about my plans, and privileged to feel this way. Imagine if all LGBTQ+ people had access to this kind of workplace.

Rainbow flag waving in the sky.

Photo CC-BY torbakhopper, cropped and filtered.

If any of these issues matter to you, then I want you to think of reproductive justice (oftentimes simply referred to as RJ) as a critical issue for you too, personally, whether you care about abortion rights or not — because we all need reproductive justice.

Origin of the Movement

I’ve been noticing the term “reproductive justice” gain more traction in social justice circles online and offline, which is exciting yet worrying for this activist. It seems to me that many people view reproductive justice as simply the latest way of talking about reproductive rights and the pro-choice movement. For that reason, I’ve been wanting to talk about the origin of the movement, and how that origin has led to an intentionally different approach from what you’ll usually see with the most prevalent rhetoric around abortion.

In 1994, there was a UN-led International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, Egypt. The US was one of many countries to send a delegation. The conference covered a number of important topics, and access to reproductive health services was one of them. It also generated a good amount of controversy and media coverage at the time, with reproductive rights advocates using the moment to talk about an international human right to abortion, and US politicians falling all over themselves to avoid even saying the word abortion in public. (NB: if you’d like to amuse yourself with some Illuminati and other conspiracy theory shenanigans, researching the Cairo conferences is a great entry point).

Once the conference was over, Black women who had been part of the US delegation returned home to their communities and began the iterations of organizing and discussing and analyzing that led to the creation of Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice:

“…as black women in the US, they could relate to the lived experiences of communities that were historically unable to access healthcare services and left out of discussions on healthcare. They also understood the inability of the mainstream women’s rights movement to fully access and advocate for the needs of marginalized communities. They identified a need to craft a national response that would summarize what was at stake for black women, and that would hold legislators accountable for making the right decisions on behalf of black women, their families, and their communities. After much organizing, these women collectively named themselves Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, and the term Reproductive Justice was born. The RJ framework from its beginnings merged social justice and reproductive rights, rooting itself in the internationally-accepted human rights framework. The collective developed a statement of their values and goals, which became a full-page signature ad with over 800 signatures. Entitled ‘Black Women on Healthcare Reform,’ it was published in the Washington Post and Roll Call. This now-historic action was the start of the Reproductive Justice (RJ) movement.”

This is important: the movement originated through the leadership of Black women organizing.

As usual with the feminist mainstream, there has been a history of appropriation and erasure around reproductive justice that furthers the interests of just white women. Stories of women of color dying from unsafe abortion procedures have been used to galvanize support and fundraising for keeping abortion safe and legal, but much of the pro-choice movement has largely ignored that people without a means to access abortion or other reproductive healthcare view “the right to choose” as an empty slogan. As Supreme Court Justice/superhero Ruth Bader Ginsberg said, “There’s a sorry situation in the United States, which is essentially that poor women don’t have choice. Women of means do. They will, always.”

Center Women of Color, Include ALL

Banner from the SisterSong website, reading: We Mobilize Women of Color Around Our Lived Experiences: Bringing Women of Color Together. Includes a photo of young girls and women of color sitting together and talking.

Banner from the SisterSong website. SisterSong’s mission is to strengthen and amplify the collective voices of Indigenous women and women of color to achieve reproductive justice by eradicating reproductive oppression and securing human rights.

The core tenets of Reproductive Justice, are few and powerful. Reproductive health is a fundamental human right. There’s no choice without access. Centering the needs of the most marginalized benefits us all. We must address the intersections of many kinds of oppression in our work.

I came to have a place within this movement because I was invited in. I had been a donor to pro-choice organizations for many years, and after hearing about The Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity during the Wendy Davis and People’s filibusters in the Texas Legislature in 2013, I started discovering and listening to perspectives informed by the RJ framework. I had felt that being a pro-choice ally was the best I could do, since deciding between being a gestational mother or having an abortion is not a choice I’ll ever be able to make. But as I listened to people speaking on RJ, I came to understand why I personally need reproductive justice, and I started to feel welcome to add my own voice. When Lilith sought new members for its very hard-working board of directors in the fall of 2014, I sheepishly applied — and to my surprise was not just accepted, but welcomed and celebrated.

Photo of the Lilith Fund team.

The author pictured with members of the Lilith Fund team.

RJ work has been some of the most nourishing, life-giving work I’ve ever undertaken. And my understanding of our message is: all people deserve the social, political, and economic power and resources to live self-determined lives, and deserve to make their best decisions for themselves, their bodies, their genders, their sexualities, and their families in all respects.

In practical terms, I mean that all people deserve to have as many children as they want. I mean that regardless of whether an individual abortion is a moment of celebration of one’s bodily autonomy, or a source of grief as a person of a faith, it may still be the best decision for oneself and family and should be accessible to all. I mean that when Black people are forced to make decisions on their families’ safety that are informed by the reality of police violence, they haven’t been given the chance at making the decisions they deserve as a human right. I mean that trans people deserve access to healthcare driven by our own agency and not in reaction to fitting a narrative created by gatekeepers. I mean that pregnant people who are not women seeking reproductive healthcare deserve to feel welcomed by their care providers. I mean that all people who desire sexual pleasure and fulfillment deserve to feel it, with access to factual education, contraception, STI testing, and yes, abortion as needed to support this.

This statement also enables me to see that there truly cannot be LGBTQ+ justice without reproductive justice; and there cannot be reproductive justice without racial and economic justice.

Better Technology through Living

Photo of a chrysalis, viewed through a microscope.

Photo CC-BY internets_dairy, filtered.

Since the reality in the US is that we live under capitalism, and the professional area that I have the most ability to convert my labor into currency is tech, I obviously struggle with trying to find a way to make the things I do at my day job in furtherance of RJ.

That struggle has led to my use of RJ as a touchstone to refer back to, and a lens to look through, when making decisions within my professional life — both because the issues that the movement is fighting for directly affect me as a tech worker, and because the principles can help me make better decisions as a tech manager.

Diversity and inclusivity are somewhat akin to the pro-choice and abortion rights-focused movements in that they are necessary tools to get where we need to go, but insufficient in themselves — and capable of furthering tokenization, assimilation and other implements of structural oppression. Diversity and inclusivity are tools that are already being used callously within corporations to achieve more profits through making companies better perceived in the labor and product marketplaces as one of the Good Guys, and to obtain simple competitive advantage through the increases in collaboration, performance, and reduced turnover achieved by diverse and inclusive teams.

But if we take diversity and inclusion further, they become tools to further representation and empowerment. They yield access to resources that directly contribute to the ability to live self-determined lives. And if you saw or participated in the Twitter conversation started by @EricaJoy about #RealDiversityNumbers — which helped provide much of the list of questions I began this article with — then perhaps you already know that you need RJ in your workplace. Maybe you just didn’t have a name for it yet.

I hope what this article helps with is not just some extra education of like-minded folks as they hop into supporting reproductive justice as the social justice bandwagon rolls on. I’m advocating for you to incorporate it as a lens through which to view your work within the tech industry and elsewhere.

And if you’re wondering where all the queer, intersectional, sex-work-positive, racial anti-oppression, trans inclusionary, pro-family, pro-abortion radfems are to be found? Well, a lot of us are working in the reproductive justice movement.

Further reading/get involved: SisterSong, Black Women For Wellness, URGE (Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity), National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Forward Together