The abortion rights movement has become an important milestone in the fight for women’s rights. Similar to the feminist wave to achieve equal voting access, the abortion rights movement uses catchy slogans, press coverage and generalized messaging to achieve mass support and understanding. Unfortunately, at the expense of being easily recognizable, the movement fails to achieve the intersectionality it intends.
The abortion rights movement, although well-intentioned in nature and important, generalizes the experiences of women to rally the masses. This is at the cost of a comprehensive understanding of how race, class, sexuality, religion and more play a role in reproductive rights. In fact, many Black and Indigenous women, women of color, low income and queer women find that the mainstream abortion rights movement does not resonate with them because it neglects to explain how reproductive education, health and rights affect them differently.
Reproductive health refers to the medical side of women’s needs. Yes, this includes abortion access. However, it also encompasses the access to doctors without a need to worry about medical expenses, access to Plan B, access to testing such as mammograms, STD/HIV testing and even access to doctors for women who decide to have a child. These health factors are different for women who come from low-income communities since access to medicine is often expensive and, in some cases, not covered by insurance. There are also clear differences in how these factors impact religious women who support access to reproductive medical support and for women of color and queer women who may not need an abortion but still need support.
This is also the case for reproductive education, in particular reproductive rights, which refers to the legal protection of the right to access and decision-making. In regards to education, not many women receive sexual education that is inclusive for their individual identity such as sexuality. Black and Latina women are also more likely than white women to obtain an abortion, which may be a result of unintended pregnancy due to lack of sex education access.
Reproductive rights go far beyond a right to an abortion. This idea seems to be the point of disconnect between the goals of the movement and what women actually need.
The abortion rights movement forgets there are still barriers to access that are necessary to respond to for all women to fully have a choice. These barriers and recognition of women’s needs do not currently fit into the notion of abortion rights. This comes at the expense of women who may need reproductive protections the most. This disconnect has not gone unrecognized by some human rights movements, many of which have amplified the need for reproductive justice — which encompasses the intersectional aspect of women’s rights — over simply amplifying the abortion-rights message.
The importance of the abortion rights movement is undeniable. Yet if women don’t see themselves in this mainstream movement that continues to sacrifice intersectionality for the sake of popularity, then this fight for choice becomes divided. Ultimately, this contributes to similar outcomes as the first feminist wave, where white women’s rights came at the expense of those of women of color. Such a division widens the gap of the movement and misses key players in effective reproductive policy making.
The abortion rights movement cannot continue to dismiss the necessity for nuance and intersectionality and generalize the experiences of all women without accounting for how reproductive health varies as a function of race and income, among other factors. It is crucial that these distinctions are highlighted, rather than relegated to the margins of the movement, if there is any hope of substantive, meaningful change.