Intersectionality, Reproductive Justice, and the Women’s Movement in Canada

by Alanna Brown

During my time working at Rise Up! and engaging with documents in the archive, the topic of reproductive justice has sparked my interest. Reproductive justice was a concept developed by Black women activists in the United States in the 1990s in order to expand understanding of reproduction and reproductive politics beyond abortion alone, drawing attention to a broader range of issues that affect people’s reproductive lives.

It is centered on three basic principles: the right to have children, the right not to have children and the right to raise children in safe and healthy environments (Ross and Solinger 2017). This framework is particularly powerful for Black, Indigenous, Women of Colour, and women with disabilities whose reproductive freedom has historically been infringed upon by the state. After combing through some material in our archive, I discovered documents that serve as examples of what we might understand—reading backwards into history—as a longer trajectory of reproductive justice organizing in Canada.

This button expresses Lesbian support for the reproductive justice movement.

This undated button expresses Lesbian support for the reproductive justice movement.

The principles of reproductive justice were present in the work of various organizations from the 1970s to the 1990s as seen in documents in our archive. Indeed, as early as 1970 the Abortion Caravan included in their demands an end to sterilization and forced population control which, they acknowledged, disproportionately affected women with disabilities as well as Indigenous women, Black women, and working class women.

This statement explains why the Immigrant Women’s Centre is not joining the May 28th Coalition and challenges the racism of the organizing slogan “Abortion – the Right to Choose.”.

To take a more specific example, in the Immigrant Women’s Centre Statement to May 28th Coalition (1977), the Immigrant Women’s Centre reflects on the limitations of the May 28th Coalition’s slogan “Abortion – the Right to Choose,” explaining that the slogan: “equates ‘the right to choose’ with only abortion, when many of us both immigrant and native-born, are forced to have abortions because we cannot afford to have the children we want.” They explain that many immigrant women have been coerced into having children—either through force or through the denial of birth control information and abortion services—or into not having children through practices like forced and coerced sterilization.

The Centre made several demands of the Canadian government to ensure that women from all communities had agency in their reproductive health. These demands included free abortion and contraception on demand, free access to abortion counselling in various languages, funding for clinics and birth control services in all immigrant communities, fully paid maternity leave without the loss of benefits or seniority, and funding for 24/7 childcare.

Information sheet produced by the DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN) about the reproductive rights of women with disabilities.

Another archival document that explored the principles of reproductive justice is Women with Disabilities and Reproductive Rights by the DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN). It asserts that women with disabilities must have the right to become pregnant and have a child, adopt a child, decide to not have a child, have access to abortion clinics, refuse forced sterilization, receive information on birth control and its side effects, and have access to the health care system. Instead, they have faced a lack of access to sex education, inaccessible health services, and the denial of sexual activity for those living in institutional settings.

The document also exposes the misuse of the contraceptive Depo-Provera in the mid 1990s, when women with disabilities, racialized women, and low-income women were often given the contraceptive without being told of its harmful effects. This archival document provides readers with an example of how women with disabilities have historically fought for a more holistic approach to reproductive rights.

This button supports the right of a woman to make choices about birth control and abortion, and to control whether and when she becomes a mother.

This undated button supports the right of a woman to make choices about birth control and abortion, and to control whether and when she becomes a mother.

As demonstrated in these archival sources, among others, the principles of reproductive justice have been present in the work of a number of feminist organizations for decades. These sources highlight how immigrant women, women with disabilities, and Indigenous women have mobilized for the right to make their own decisions about their reproductive lives often in the wake of constraining circumstances. In the time I have spent working at Rise Up, I’ve gravitated toward these sources because they provided compelling lessons for the use of an intersectional framework in the ongoing fight for reproductive justice.

Rise Up is pleased to share the above article by Alanna Brown, who worked at Rise Up in summer 2023 and has returned to work with us this summer. In it, Alanna reflects on her interest in the theme of reproductive justice in the Rise Up collection. Alanna Brown (she/her) is a researcher and historian who is passionate about the history of intersectional feminist organizing in Canada. Alanna ensures that marginalized voices (such as those from BIPOC & 2SLGBTQIA+ communities, as well as Persons with Disabilities) are included in her research and she hopes to continue this commitment through her work with Rise Up.

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