Reproductive Justice: Finding Hope in the Wake of Roe

Rosemary Hennessy, CSWGS Faculty Affiliate

No question: life after Roe’s death looks like a dystopian nightmare. 

It has taken me some time to stop cycling through the five stages of grief and seriously begin to consider the work ahead. The civil rights and labor organizer Miles Horton once said that if people don’t have hope they won’t be moved; without hope they won’t do anything. I think that’s right. Most of the struggles I’ve been part of or studied began in the worst of times. Regardless of their outcomes, hope leavened movement for justice. 

OK. Yes, many of these movements succumbed to betrayal, infiltration, corruption, and  disenchantment. But what is the alternative? 

With this in mind, here is my short list of actions we at Rice might pursue in turning the grief, rage, and despair post-Roe into movement toward a better future. Robin Marty’s New Handbook for a Post-Roe America (2021) is a valuable asset for this endeavor. Everyone should get their hands on a copy.

  1. Join the Reproductive Justice Movement and Center Women of Color 

The chapter of Marty’s book entitled “Let’s Talk about Reproductive Justice” speaks to what I see as the most important and most challenging task in a post-Roe world, which is to advance the reproductive justice movement. “Reproductive rights” and “reproductive justice,” she points out, are not the same. Reproductive justice (RJ) extends attention to abortion and contraception to include relations that go beyond rights. These are all of the social relations that affect health and wellbeing: relations of class, gender, race, sexuality, immigration status, and ability that shape peoples’ lives. We can also include here relations that support the life of the planet.

Most people know little about how we got to this post-Roe mess or about reproductive justice organizing efforts in the past. Running through that history is a racial divide that marginalized women of color while putting white women in the leadership of rights struggles. That has to change. The terrible times of post-Roe are an opportunity to share that history and to start over from a different place.

There is much to learn from the collective efforts of women of color, their reproductive justice legacy, current projects, and interventions. The reproductive justice movement founded by Black women and currently led by women and queer people of color aims to dismantle the power structures that have eroded lives, health, and wellbeing across social life. Robin Marty’s book lists scores of these organizations around the country. One standout is the Black Women’s Health Imperative based in Washington, D.C. It was founded as the Black Women’s Health Project in 1984 by the dynamic and formidable Byllye Y. Avery. She gave a Gray-Wawro lecture at Rice a number of years ago. 

Pursuing reproductive justice at Rice would mean a committed effort to center women of color and other marginalized women who have been the most impacted by reproductive injustice. What that “centering” means and how to do it effectively is an open question with no easy answer. It most certainly would require targeted faculty hires, but as obvious and challenging as that may be, it is the easy part. The harder work entails a commitment by white feminists to unlearn deeply implanted habits and to work anew to refine a reflexive awareness of our (whitely) behaviors, priorities, practices, and leadership. 

  1. Use the Resources of the University to Educate and Organize

As workers in the university, faculty are fortunate. At least to date, those of us in tenured positions are protected. We have the training and resources to be effective communicators. We have access to resources and spaces to address the challenges of a post-Roe world. 

Bringing experts to campus shares valuable knowledge and can inspire action. There is also much to do ourselves on campus through rolling events and actions. A campus wide teach-in on reproductive justice might be an effective beginning. It could explain what RJ means, provide a timely forum to address evolving state and federal abortion restrictions, and address what they mean for Rice University policy, health care, teaching, advocacy, and support for students and faculty. 

Jenny Wen, ‘13

A teach-in can also focus on issues within the broad scope of reproductive justice: the maternal death crisis, LGBTQ+ reproductive needs, the racialization of reproductive health care and its impact on Black and lives, immigration status, and more. It can be a hub for information on community resources and organizations that are advancing reproductive justice. A teach-in also can be a catalyst for partnerships and initiatives that will carry on the work. 

The terrifying realities of a post-Roe world can spark the imagination and design of new forms and forums for teaching and research that include outreach on and beyond campus. The work it does can enhance relationships with community organizations beyond the Center’s already extensive community ties. 

In strategizing how to support women in the short term and continue combatting misogyny and racism over the long haul, the tools of our profession are also invaluable assets. I am thinking of the critical knowledge that has shaped the history of radical action. Born in the streets, in classrooms, and kitchens, it was shaped by dissenters and resisters, many of them women or queers who claimed unbelonging as the standpoint for revolution. Schooled by violence to be attuned to lies, good intentions, silence, and the insidious habits of the privileged, they instruct us how to do political work, to channel anger, apprehend otherwise, and seek potent catalysts for change in the muted voices and censored words of outlaws. Indeed, they point the way to justice—and to hope.