Over the past several years, we have experienced an assault on reproductive rights like no other. The Bush Administration and the anti-choice majority Congress have loosed a focused and consistent strategy that strikes from all sides. From the outright reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule, to clever, back-door legislation like the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, Abortion Non-Discrimination Act, and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act that mask anti-choice positions with progressive values, it is clear that our reproductive rights are unraveling in ways small and large, both boldly and under the radar.
More than a response, these attacks require a complete reframing of the issue of reproductive choice and the development of a new and effective strategy that speaks to all women, creating a movement stronger in numbers, passion, and voice. Yet, in spite of this awareness, the stories and experiences of young women of color remain on the outskirts of the reproductive rights agenda. While the HIV/AIDS epidemic, cuts in Title X and Medicaid, and discriminatory welfare reform policies pose significant reproductive health barriers that disproportionately affect poor women and women of color, the debate continues to exist within the narrow scope of legal abortion rights pushing broader reproductive health and justice issues to the margins of the debate and alienating young women of color.
Different life experiences driven by the dynamics of race and class have created a historic juxtaposition between the meaning of reproductive freedom for white women and women of color. While white women have had to demand freedom from compulsory motherhood, women of color have had to fight for the right to bear children and raise them out of poverty. Thus, there has been an inherent opposition by women of color to the views held by many middle and upper class white women that the campaign for legal abortion is the most important goal in the struggle for women’s reproductive autonomy. While women of color have historically challenged this narrow position, it remains today as the cornerstone of the modern reproductive rights movement, overshadowing equally important broader reproductive health and justice issues, thereby crippling efforts to reach communities of color and attract and sustain women of color advocates and activists.
In order to reframe and redefine the issue of reproductive rights to build a movement that is more proactive, savvy and strong, we must genuinely address this history. We must accept the unique perspective of women of color not as a deficit that will dilute the effort to maintain the right to legal abortion, but as a rich view that if incorporated in a non-tokenized way, can unleash new voices, messages, leaders and creative strategies to win the fight for reproductive rights in the 21st century.
Driven by these values and a mission to grow a new generation of diverse young women leaders, the Pro-Choice Public Education Project (PEP) created a research project aimed at filling the void of young women of color voices within the reproductive rights movement. Between January and June of 2004, PEP conducted focus groups across the country with young Latino and African-American women between the ages of 16 and 25.
While many grassroots groups have the skills, expertise, and committed activists required to carry out their work, they often lack culturally appropriate research, messages and organizing tools needed to round out their campaigns and target young women of color who are becoming an increasingly greater percentage of the entire population of young women.
In recognition of this, PEP embarked on a qualitative research project with a two-pronged strategy of documenting how reproductive health and rights plays into the daily realities of young women of color, and elevating these experiences to demonstrate a sense of their strength, capacity to act and the centrality of their perspective to achieving a vision of reproductive autonomy for all women.
Recognizing the history of women of color and reproductive rights, we looked to the work of Paulo Freire and the popular education movement to direct our research and ensure a non-tokenized space. Guided by the principle that the experiences of “everyday” people constitute a rich, valid knowledge source that is crucial to the creation of positive social change, we conducted listening sessions designed to give voice to the actual experiences of young women of color so that we may use their knowledge and expertise to develop strategies for change.
Our primary goal in conducting these focus groups was to listen to young women of color. To listen to their thoughts, opinions, feelings, struggles, and experiences as it related to their reproductive rights and health. We wanted to understand what they were feeling, thinking, and talking about when it came to their reproductive health and rights. We wanted to understand who they sought out for information about their bodies and sex and how they spoke about these issues. Most of all, we wanted to understand the unique challenges and experiences that young women of color have and elevate these positions into a forum where their voices would be heard.
We intend to use the findings to develop and generate new culturally appropriate activist tools and messages that speak to the reproductive health needs of women of color and work to attract new and diverse leadership. These tools will be created for the specific purpose of strengthening national and grassroots public education efforts targeting young women of color about reproductive health and rights. Ultimately, we hope this effort, along with additional research, and tool development will increase outreach to young women of color leaders, broaden the overall reproductive rights agenda to include the crucial perspective of women of color, and lead to innovative ideas to build a more proactive, strategic movement.
This research is our first attempt to capture the unique and essential reproductive rights perspectives of Latino and African-American women. Our ultimate goal is to give voice to the reproductive health needs of young women of color in order to honor their experiences as a critical missing link toward a truly powerful reproductive rights movement. We hope that this work will enforce the notion that when we make the needs of women of color a priority, we embody one of the most crucial tenets of the reproductive rights movement—to gain reproductive independence for all women.