The issue of reproductive health and control is a core tenet of the feminist movement, thanks in part to birth control activists like Margaret Sanger. Working in the early 20th century, Sanger lobbied for women’s sexual pleasure and empowerment, insisting that regulating fertility would increase in happier and more fulfilling marriages. Sanger established the American Birth Control League; its contemporary incarnation, Planned Parenthood, continues Sanger’s legacy by campaigning on behalf of the pro-choice movement and pushing for comprehensive sexuality education in schools. Despite these admirable achievements, the reproductive rights movement has, in both historical and contemporary times, favoured the agenda of certain women over others’. Sanger’s view of contraception was based on a middle-class model, which many working-class women found unworkable. Today, the reproductive rights movement is primarily focused around the abortion debate, ignoring the ways in which systems of oppression reduce the possibility of reproductive choice for women.
In “Woman and the New Race,” Margaret Sanger attributes the poverty of the American working class to their large families. Sanger advocates the use of contraceptives in order to remedy the burdens a large population places on society as a whole. However, Sanger’s goal was not simply one of population reduction. The popular belief that a woman’s orgasm was necessary for conception led many women to inhibit their own sexual arousal; by popularizing birth control methods, Sanger hoped to encourage sexual pleasure for both men and women within marriage. Yet, despite her good intentions, Sanger’s birth control agenda did not take into account the specific needs of working class women, and was therefore largely ineffective.
Due to her middle-class background, Sanger endorsed the use of the diaphragm over more popular methods of fertility control, such as abstinence, extended nursing, and coitus interruptus. Abstinence was seen as unsatisfactory, because of the belief that a healthy marriage depended upon sexual compatibility. Extended nursing was said to weaken the mother, and coitus interruptus could supposedly lead to nervous disorders. The diaphragm, predominantly used by the middle class, was seen as a superior method of birth control because it could be used by the woman without requiring male co-operation. Despite this feminist rationale, the diaphragm was not a viable option for many working class women, who did not feel comfortable or did not have the means to access the necessary medical care. By dismissing the popular working class methods of birth control, such as abstinence and coitus interruptus, in favour of a middle-class ideal, Sanger’s important reproductive rights activism was not relevant to a large number of women.
Similarly, the contemporary reproductive rights movement often focuses on the political agenda of middle-class white women, positing these needs as the norm for all women. In their publication “Understanding Reproductive Justice,” the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective of Atlanta, Georgia outlines the common issues some women of color face when organizing around reproductive health issues in white-dominated environments. Liberal feminists have typically focused on abortion at the expense of human rights and social justice issues (such as economic justice, immigrant’s rights, disability rights and the environment), thereby limiting the scope of the reproductive health debate, and failing to take into account the multiple community-oriented factors that may affect a woman’s ability to choose. Women do not exist in a vacuum, separate from their communities; if the feminist reproductive rights movement does not address systemic oppression, it will fail to acknowledge the diversity of women’s experiences and the complex links between women, their families and their communities.
The reproductive justice movement, in contrast, is defined by a desire for inclusivity and intersectionality. Reproductive justice, as defined by hip-hop feminist Kimala Price, is “not just about the individualistic right to have an abortion (i.e., the right not to have children) but to include the right to have children and to raise them in healthy and stable families.” The reproductive justice movement does not separate women from their communities, or their social contexts. Instead of assuming that all women should have the right to choose between abortions, adoption or parenting, the reproductive justice movement questions the systemic factors and institutionalized oppression that impact a woman’s ability to make that choice. In a world where many women experience economic hardship and societal marginalization, a reproductive justice movement that enables healthy parenting (by working to improve wages, health care, education and child care, for example) is vitally important.
Margaret Sanger’s work, continued today by Planned Parenthood, has brought the question of birth control and reproductive rights to the forefront of feminist debate. However, the liberal feminist “pro-choice” rhetoric must not be seen as the ultimate authority on the issue of women’s reproductive rights. Choice cannot be separated from context; a woman’s ability to choose is complicated by the social conditions of the community in which she lives. Despite the fact that it does not receive as much media attention as abortion-focused organizing, the reproductive justice movement has the potential to implement more lasting change, because it links individual women’s choices with their communities, and participates in anti-oppression work on a larger scale.