Abortion Rights and Reproductive Justice

by Marlene Fried and Susan YanowCivil Liberties and Public Policy Program, Hamshire College

"Access to safe abortion is both a fundamental human right and central to women's health. Where abortion is illegal or inaccessible, the search for abortion humiliates women and undermines their self-respect and dignity."

Advocating for Abortion Access, The Johannesburg Initiative, Preface, Zanele Hlatshwayo and Barbara Klugman, Women's Health Project, Johannesburg, South Africa, p.X


Because a woman's ability to control her reproduction is fundamental to her ability to control her life, reproductive autonomy is a core aspect of reproductive justice. Achieving this goal requires access to safe abortion, comprehensive sex education, freedom from coerced sex, and birth control appropriate to each woman's health and life. It also requires that women have all that they need to have and raise children.


The political Right in the U.S. has made opposition to abortion the centerpiece of a broad conservative agenda. As a result, the abortion issue dominates reproductive and sexual politics worldwide. Threats to abortion access - legal, illegal, and sometimes violent - have been persistent. There have been highly visible attacks: in the U.S., seven people involved in abortion care have been murdered since 1994, and over 80% of clinics which offer abortion services have experienced violence, threats and serious harassment. Innumerable legal and economic barriers have been established to limit women's ability to obtain an abortion.


For example:

  • 28 states mandate that, before an abortion, women receive scripted counseling that includes misinformation/unwanted information..
  • 24 states require a woman seeking an abortion to wait a specified period of time, usually 24 hours, between counseling and the abortion.
  • 34 states require some type of parental involvement in a minor's decision to have an abortion.
  • The Hyde Amendment of 1977 cut off all Federal Medicaid funds for abortions. As a result, women without economic resources are forced to forgo other basic necessities in order to pay for their abortion, or they must carry their unplanned pregnancy to term.
  • Women who are Federal employees, covered by Indian Health Service, in the military or on disability insurance do not have coverage for abortion care.
  • Many private insurers exclude coverage of abortion in their policies.
  • Many states have laws that regulate the medical practices or facilities of doctors who provide abortions by imposing burdensome requirements that are different and more stringent than regulations applied to comparable medical practices.


Although one out of every 3 women in the U. S. will have an abortion before the age of 45, 87% of all US counties and 97% of all rural US counties have no abortion provider. The burden of needing to travel, and costs associated with this travel, add to the obstacles many women face when needing an abortion.


The impact of these restrictions is experienced most heavily by young, rural, undocumented, and low-income women, who are disproportionately, women of color.


U.S. policies also have a devastating impact on women around the world. The global gag rule remains in place, undermining services and the health of millions of people worldwide.


While abortion rights are central to women's freedom, they are only part of the picture.

Within the reproductive rights movement, there has been frustration over the mainstream pro-choice movement's singular focus on abortion, and its use of the framework of individual choice. The inadequacy of "choice," the failure to disassociate abortion politics from population control, and reducing reproductive rights to the issue of abortion, alone, have divided feminists for decades. In contrast, the framework of reproductive justice is rejuvenating the meaning and practice of reproductive rights with an expansive multi-issue perspective and agenda for action. This provides an opportunity to create new alliances internationally and joins the abortion rights struggle to other health and social justice movements.