Polished Lenses and Focused Targets: Defending Reproductive Justice

By Pam Chamberlain

Our Original Kit

Opponents of women’s reproductive freedom have been active on a number of fronts since the first edition of Defending Reproductive Rights was published in 2000.

At that time, we highlighted the motives behind the Right’s campaigns: a fear that modern values are usurping “traditional,” Christian ones; misogyny; anxiety about women’s power; and an assertion of moral superiority over pro-choice attitudes. Reproductive freedom is closely intertwined with the provision of health care, in which  gender, race and class are important factors. The result is that we are a country that continues to hold to one standard of care for White and middle class women and another for low-income women and women of color.

The first edition of the kit described the kinds of barriers the Right has constructed against women’s access to reproductive services. We examined the idea that “abortion is violence” and how effective that lens has been, a perspective unfortunately still held as illustrated by the murder of abortion provider George Tiller.  The kit reviewed how abortion has been portrayed as a medical hazard and how certain sectors of the Right continue to support coerced sterilization and other reproductive abuses. We published a set of summaries of representative antichoice documents (PDF), examples of conservative direct mail appeals (PDF), and an anthology of analytical articles (PDF) from the liberal and progressive media. The kit had resource lists (PDF) and a short bibliography (PDF).

We have distributed thousands of our kits to activists across the country and abroad with an extra effort to reach young organizers, partially in response to the Right’s organizing efforts with that age group.

Nine years later, the Right employs many of the same themes and tactics. Repeating the same messages over and over has sustained their support and increased their visibility. What has motivated such unwavering opposition to women’s reproductive freedoms? Whether around health reform or sexuality education, the Right’s antichoice campaigns repeatedly draw deeply on their supporters’ beliefs and fears. The health care campaign also illustrates the antiabortion Right’s favorite tactic: the patient erection of barrier after barrier in locality after locality against women’s access to reproductive services. This approach evolved over time following a 20-year failure to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade that decriminalized abortion. Opposing abortion continues to be a favorite activity of the Right, in part because it carries such salient symbolic power.

However, there have been significant strategic and tactical developments over the past decade that warrant an examination. Tracking and analyzing these changes is crucial to: 1) better understanding the forces opposing reproductive justice and 2) designing more effective campaigns that support reproductive freedom, quality health care, and self-actualized lives.

Our original kit focused on attacks on abortion. But abortion is by no means the only reproductive issue that the Right targets. They oppose using tax dollars for a wide range of additional services, from contraception and sexuality education to tolerance for diverse family structures and parenting styles. Challenges to patriarchal values invoke fear, not just about women’s issues but also around any threat to the political or economic status quo. And opposition to public funding of such services, which appeals to “small government” supporters, affects poor women and women of color the most, exacerbating race and class inequities. In fact, arguing for small government can often be a veil hiding oppressive attitudes.

Reframing the Debate: Conservative Activism since 2000 (and the need for a kit update)

While abortion remains legal, the Right’s incremental strategy means abortion services are increasingly difficult to obtain. Both inside the United States and internationally incremental obstacles to abortion access function like glass shards on a road, making it harder for women to reach their reproductive goals. Some of these obstacles are obvious: state laws that require waiting periods or counseling sessions that include ultrasound images, “education” about the alleged harm of abortion, or parental notification requirements for minors.

Some are less in the public eye, like the administrative trivia heaped on abortion clinics through so-called “TRAP” laws, Targeted Regulations for Abortion Providers. Designed to harass clinics and their employees, these mostly local policies add unnecessary hurdles to abortion access. An example is the South Dakota informed consent law, one of several dozen similar state laws that require abortion providers to inform women that abortion takes the life of a human being and carries with it health risks. [1] Another is designed to regulate the width of hallways in clinic buildings.

More directly, multiple state and federal laws passed since 2000 limit access to abortion. For instance, as of the summer of 2009 all but ten states have passed laws requiring some form of parental notification before a minor’s abortion, the result of dogged local organizing. Another popular tactic: state and federal “conscience clause” regulations allowing medical personnel to opt out of providing reproductive services. At the federal level, the Supreme Court in 2007 upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. In 2004, after five years of lobbying, Congress passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act establishing that a fetus can be a victim of violent crime.

On the other hand, opponents failed to block the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from approving Plan B, popularly known as the morning after pill, which can prevent pregnancy if taken within 120 hours of having unprotected sex. Just this April, bowing to a court order, the FDA made it available without restriction to 17 year olds. [2]  After twelve years of successful delay, conservative activists were ultimately unable to stop the Clinton Administration from approving “RU 486,” now referred to by its brand name Mifeprex, a medication used to induce abortion in the first two months of pregnancy. In combination with Misoprostol, a companion drug, it is now a widely used alternative to surgical abortions.

Within days of taking office in 2009, President Obama also lifted the “global gag rule” preventing U.S. foreign aid funds from going to organizations that support or provide abortion. Despite that setback, the antichoice forces continue their two-decades long campaign to end abortion globally. The Helms Amendment, in effect since 1973, still prohibits U.S. funds from being used to support abortions through foreign aid. Starting in the 1990s, the U.S. Christian Right has invested resources at the United Nations to bring an anti-abortion position to non-governmental organizations (NGOs), official U.S. government delegations, and sympathetic governments in this important international diplomatic venue. The Right has defined the “right to life” as a human right, bringing a new, “friendlier” frame to the international reproductive rights debate. At the same time they have cultivated a growing distrust of the U.N. among prolife activists. Despite strong advocacy from progressive NGOs, they continue trying to assert a prolife, pro-abstinence position on funding and policy development at the international level.

While these conservative projects were emerging, reproductive freedom activists, primarily women of color and their allies, were sharpening an analysis (PDF) of how women are affected differently by state policies on abortion, social supports, and healthcare, based on their age, race, and class.  These activists recognized that a movement focusing on abortion rights to the exclusion of the range of issues affecting women’s reproductive freedom could not adequately address their concerns. Asians for Reproductive Justice has articulated these groups’ vision of reproductive justice as:

The complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic, and social well-being of women and girls, [which] will be achieved when women and girls have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality and reproduction for ourselves, our families and our communities in all areas of our lives. [3]

This broad vision not only incorporates issues such as abortion, but how and when to have children, access to information about women’s health and sexuality, and the guarantee of social and economic supports to realize women’s decisions about their lives. The reproductive justice vision has the potential to support a political movement that can successfully respond to diverse attacks by the Right on women’s reproductive freedom.

As a result of all this ferment, we at PRA decided it would be a good idea to update our activist resource kit about the Right’s attacks on reproductive freedoms and to make it more easily accessible. We have shifted to an online format and have republished the 2000 edition of Defending Reproductive Rights as free pdf files. In addition to this overview article, the 2009 edition contains examples of the Right’s key arguments and claims through links to a variety of articles on the web. We include examples of progressive analysis of these arguments, and we have updated the list of organizations and bibliography for those who would like to explore these matters further.

The movement for reproductive justice can only be strengthened by a careful, sober analysis of the strategies and infrastructure arrayed against our reproductive freedoms. Indeed, it is with the intent of fortifying women’s freedoms that we offer this 2009 Defending Reproductive Justice activist kit.  By making the kit an e-publication, we hope to broaden access to information previously restricted to visitors to our library or readers of our print publications.

Polished Lenses: Viewing Abortion in Different Lights

Despite the range of attacks on multiple reproductive issues, opposition to abortion remains a lynchpin of conservative organizing. Whittling away at abortion rights from multiple angles provides continuous opportunities for movement supporters to stay active; there is always another campaign that needs their help. To maintain high public interest and mobilization, antichoice forces deploy carefully crafted claims asserting both moral superiority and an obligation to act. Their main arguments can be summarized by the following three phrases: 1) The Culture of Life Must Resist the Culture of Death; 2) Women Must be Protected from Harm, and 3) the Fetus is a Person.

"The Culture of Life Requires Us to Oppose Abortion"

Drawing on Roman Catholicism’s idea of the culture of life, conservative strategists have managed to unite campaigns against abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research by characterizing them as part of a “Culture of Death.” [drj culture of death must be challenged] Their own position, then, is portrayed as a “Culture of Life.” For them, the so-called Culture of Death could include any barrier or chemical contraceptive device, and it is embodied in incidents like the 2005 Terri Schiavo case, in which the husband and parents of a severely injured woman fought over her end of life rights for seven years. Even a secular worldview analyzing events not as acts of God but as the interplay of human relationships is seen as cheapening the sacred idea of life and must be challenged as part of the culture of death. This frame is effective in its simplicity, using an absolute polarization of positions that says, “Either you are for life, or against it.” Devout Christians who accept the frame of a Culture of Life feel a moral imperative to act against abortion and other actions that run contrary to their beliefs.

This stark moralism nurtures a return to the shame about having an abortion, an emotion stirred by its past illegality and the opposition of conservative religious groups. In recent years both conservative Roman Catholic and Protestant anti-abortion activists have sought to restigmatize the procedure. [4] The shaming of women has become so commonplace that public figures including such stalwart prochoice politicians as Hillary Clinton have described abortion as a “tragic” choice. In a challenge to this stigmatization, Reverend Katherine H. Ragsdale, Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, presents an alternative view when she calls abortion a “blessing,” much to the consternation of her conservative critics. [5]

One arena where antiabortion activists have found growing success is in popularizing, as a matter of conscience, the right of pharmacists, nurses, doctors and others to refuse to dispense care related to abortion and birth control. In the 1980s and ’90s activists organized “prolife” physicians to state publicly that they would refuse to perform or assist in abortions. Activists successfully limited the number of medical students who were trained in basic abortion techniques. They organized pharmacists to refuse to dispense the morning after pill as violating their moral objection to abortion.  And they have lobbied for “conscience clauses” to be enacted as state laws, protecting health care providers and even facility employees who refuse to treat or dispense despite their duty to do so. As of the summer of 2009, 46 states (PDF) allow some health care providers to refuse to provide abortion services, and 13 states have some form of refusal clause around providing contraceptive services.

Fathers of “unborn children” are another growing constituency. An early tactic to challenge Roe, organizing fathers (PDF) has again become popular. Influenced by the fathers’ rights movement, which lobbies for divorce and custody laws that favor men, groups of anti-abortion fathers now identify as a class of individuals whose rights have been violated by women they say did not involve them in the decision to have an abortion. Antichoice groups like the National Right to Life Committee have begun to assert that men are victims of abortion, claiming another class of people injured by the procedure.

"Women Must be Protected from Harm"

Despite the reality that an abortion is safer than childbirth, anti-abortion organizers increasingly characterize the procedure as harmful to women. Various spokespeople claim that they are sympathetic to a woman who faces an unintended pregnancy and are only concerned for her health and wellbeing. Upon scrutiny, it becomes clear that concerns about the alleged physical and mental health risks of abortion are most insistently expressed by those with personal moral objections to the procedure. Nevertheless, the faulty notions that abortion necessarily causes depression, complications in later pregnancies, and that it increases the risk for breast cancer and even suicide are dangerous and misleading narratives that have been asserted often enough to have the ring of common sense to them.
This “woman-centered” posture has attracted those who are sympathetic to a pro-woman argument, including prolife feminists who feel women deserve better treatment. Such reasoning is similar to arguments that seek to protect youth from unintended pregnancies, disease, and even death by discouraging premarital sexual activity. In both cases the underlying motivations for such apparent compassion are the same: social control of sexuality that threatens the status quo and the cultivation of a mass political movement to support such conservative ideas.

A more recent trend in this “woman-centered” agenda is to assert that since abortions are harmful to women, they must be made rare. The phrase “abortion reduction” resonates for groups representing a spectrum of political beliefs about abortion, including key figures in the Obama administration. This debate, however, was initiated and driven by conservative strategists from groups such as Third Way who have called for ways to seek “common ground” with prochoice advocates. Despite an appearance of compromise, the consistent long-term goal of the anti-abortion movement has remained steady: ending legal abortion altogether. However attractive the issue of common ground is to those weary of the culture wars, it should be examined carefully for its historical roots, current tactics, and ultimate impact.

By focusing only on cutting the number of abortions performed, some conservative advocates of abortion reduction hope to appeal to moderates, including some communities of faith, while studiously avoiding consideration of the factors that contribute to the need for abortions. Such factors include inadequate sexuality education or health care, economic distress, lack of a supportive partner, and the dismissal of the ability of a woman to make her own decisions. Not addressing these factors through better family planning and more economic support, while accepting the logic of “abortion reduction,” could strengthen the argument for further limiting access to the procedure – a clear antichoice strategy.
In fact, some conservatives have floated the idea that there is no such thing as a need for abortion, which they argue can always be circumvented by carrying an unplanned pregnancy to term or by adoption. Deirdre McQuaid, spokesperson for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has claimed:

The phrase "reducing the need for abortion" is not a common-ground phrase. We would say that there is no need for abortion, that abortions are signs that we have not met the needs of women. There is no authentic need for abortion. [6]

Rather than the vague concept of “abortion reduction” which strengthens the hand of abortion opponents, prochoice groups have suggested using “reducing unwanted pregnancies” instead, a phrase that unambiguously describes the real issue as it relates to women’s issues.

A well-developed means by which anti-choice activists claim to demonstrate “care” for women is by running crisis pregnancy centers, which they often represent as counseling centers for pregnant women who need advice about their options. By locating near abortion clinics or schools, they can attract women who may mistake them for a medical facility that provides abortion services. Once inside, women are presented with arguments designed to dissuade them from undergoing an abortion.  The ultrasound image has become a powerful tool to interrupt some women’s plans for abortion; seeing an image of one’s fetus can surface moral uncertainties about the procedure, especially when the counselors on hand are decidedly anti-abortion. Beginning in 2001, some of the centers received public funding, including support for abstinence education through the Community Based Abstinence Education Act (CBAE), although that strand of funding has ended under the Obama administration. Nevertheless, the antichoice movement continues to fundraise for the placement of ultrasound machines in their clinics, a tactic which also successfully maintains ties with their donors.

Using a similar line of reasoning, opponents of comprehensive sexuality education in schools argue that youth, who need protection in the face of modern moral decay, must practice sexual abstinence until marriage in the face of overwhelming social pressures not to do so. Abstinence is repeatedly described as the only 100% effective protection from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, STIs. Abstinence-until-marriage education gained traction, largely thanks to an infusion of federal funds successfully put in place by the Christian Right during the Bush administration. [7] The content of this curriculum omits information [drj looking at claims of ab only] about contraception and HIV/AIDS prevention, which rely on discussions of sexual activity deemed inappropriate for young people, instead focusing on the virtues of abstaining from sexual activity until marriage. Such programs profess concern about teen pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but their underlying preoccupation appears to be with promoting a conservative sexual morality. The programs  build on society’s fear of youth sexuality as well as the recognition that modern cultural attitudes towards premarital sex clash with traditional religious values. They commonly employ the misleading narrative that condoms are unreliable.

"Fetal Personhood"

Another core conservative frame about abortion focuses not on the woman but on the fetus, which is increasingly defined as a human being from the moment of conception. Accepting “fetal personhood” [drj every fetus has civil rights] as a valid idea repositions the debate about abortion away from a woman’s right to self determination and onto the alleged human rights of the fetus. Campaigns to support the civil rights of fetuses have sprung up, promoting legislation like Colorado’s unsuccessful Amendment 48 in 2008 and the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act enacted in 2004.  In an era of expanding use of human rights as a frame for progressive organizing, this emphasis on fetal rights represents a selective, opportunistic use of a human rights framework for conservative ends that challenge women’s rights.

Opposition to human embryonic stem cell research peaked during the first years after 2000 when work on embryonic stem cells was prohibited by then-President Bush and has declined as adult stem cell research begins to look like a promising alternative. When President Obama lifted the restrictions on stem cell research in March 2009, the debate reopened with conservatives arguing that research on embryonic stem cells constituted the killing of a human. Another take on the fetus as a person is opposition to egg harvesting, or the practice of women receiving payment for donating their eggs to infertile couples Anti-cloning activists object on the grounds that such harvesting makes eggs available for morally objectionable cloning and stem cell research. Focus on the Family attempted to capitalize on liberal objections to egg donations by appropriating feminist rhetoric about the harmful effects of egg harvesting, in their campaign, Women’s Voices against Cloning.

Other Arguments

In the last decade, some African-American anti-abortion spokespeople have reinvigorated the Black Nationalist message that widespread use of abortion in their communities is a form of Black genocide. This approach has been influenced by strategists like White theologian Francis Schaeffer, who began to use a racially charged message to talk about abortion in the 1970s. Without abortion, many more African-American babies would have been born in the United States, they say. According to pundits like Alveda King and Bishop Harry Jackson, the current rate of abortion among African-American women is a tragedy of mammoth proportions. Jackson calls abortion “a major crime,” while King asserts that supporting abortion is a deliberate racist attempt to diminish the power of African Americans in this country.
Access to contraception and abortion became easier with other reproductive options like emergency contraception and medication (non-surgical) abortion. These products have challenged anti-abortion activists to come up with an approach that disparages the pills themselves as dangerous and encouraging of immoral behavior. Years of effort to prevent their manufacture and distribution have so far not been able to stop their widespread use. Recently, some opponents of abortion have argued that Plan B (emergency contraception) does indeed trigger an abortion, an argument that involves defining the beginning of life at the moment of fertilization rather than at implantation, which occurs afterwards.

Another tactic is to generalize that all contraception is wrong because it violates church teachings, as with the renewed interest in the Roman Catholic Church’s 1968 encyclical on the matter, Humanae Vitae. In the summer of 2008 the federal Department of Health and Human Services issued draft regulations that would protect employees of federal grant recipients who oppose the use of contraception based on one’s conscience. The argument would allow those health care workers who define the beginning of life at fertilization to deny women access to any intervention that interferes with the development of a fertilized egg without fear of losing their jobs. In essence, it defines contraception as a form of abortion

Widening the Lens: Opposing More than Abortion and Contraception

Energizing the antichoice movement further are efforts to limit government support for other reproductive services such as fertility treatments and certain prenatal and children’s health programs. By limiting publicly-funded coverage, they directly target low-income women’s reproductive rights.

In this campaign, conservative activists capitalize on existing prejudices against vulnerable groups to further their own political goals. For instance, anti-immigrant feelings have been channeled into resentment about health care for undocumented residents. Critics rail against “anchor babies,” children of immigrants whom critics say were born in the United States in order to secure the parents’ legal immigration status. Persistent homophobic attitudes allow “pro-family” groups to criticize access to reproductive technologies for LGBT people who want children. This dovetails with the campaign against gay rights-- a financial “cash cow” for the Christian Right.

These opportunistic projects capitalize on negative societal attitudes about anyone who does not conform to narrow definition of “true” Americans, including immigrants, low-income women, prisoners, and LGBT people. Examples of how such groups are targeted appear in the updated kit.

The last decade has been a turning point for progressive activists in understanding how the Right functions around reproductive issues. As social conservatives sharpened their attacks on women, abortion, and other reproductive issues, awareness has grown that the Right links its opposition to reproductive rights with a broader agenda of conservative resistance to social change. The Christian Right has used the issue of reproductive rights, along with same sex marriage and other LGBT equality issues, as the foundation on which to build and sustain its political power.

The growth of the Reproductive Justice movement since 2000 offers real hope for a more effective  response to the Right’s attacks on women,  because it connects the dots showing how women actually go about making and sustaining a family whether in rural Idaho, inner city Atlanta, or anywhere in between.  Progressive women of color and their allies have coalesced into a movement that considers how women are differently affected by policies on abortion, health care, and social supports as a result of their class, age, sexual orientation, and race. Activists from the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (PDF), and others focus attention on access to abortion and contraception along with the freedom to decide how and when to have children, readily available and accurate information about women’s health and sexuality, and the guarantee of social and economic supports to realize women’s decisions about their lives. Because social conservatives have challenged all these areas as part of their agenda, such a comprehensive program by progressives holds the potential for an effective response.

The undeniable impact of the Right is revealed in impoverished families struggling to stay together when wages are low and child care inaccessible. It also is apparent when a woman feels forced to have a child because there is no affordable abortion facility anywhere nearby. Reproductive Justice addresses the realities of women’s lived experience, but it also exposes the undeniable outcomes of the Right’s attacks.

The Reproductive Justice framework offers a blueprint for how to rmove forward, a vital resource since there is no indication that antichoice forces will slacken off in pursuit of their goals. On the contrary, Obama’s election has propelled the Right into a frenzy of state and federal politicking. The health care debate is just one example of renewed opposition. Abortion remains legal, but the Right’s combination of skillfully refined rhetoric and carefully chosen tactics have prevented many women, especially targeted and marginalized ones, from gaining access not only to abortion services but to a wider range of reproductive services and rights. Challenging such attacks requires an untangling of the interrelationships of the various parts of its agenda and an awareness of how and why they function as they do. It is our hope that this kit will contribute to such an understanding and help activists craft effective campaigns to secure reproductive justice.


1. Chinué Turner Richardson and Elizabeth Nash, “Misinformed Consent: The Medical Accuracy of State-Developed Abortion Counseling Materials,” Guttmacher Policy Review, 9, 4, Fall 2006.

2. “FDA Approves Plan B Over-the-Counter Access for 17-Year-Olds,” Guttmacher Institute, April 24, 2009.

3. Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, “A New Vision for advancing our movement for reproductive health, reproductive rights, and reproductive justice”. (PDF)

4. Fred Barnes, “Safe, Legal, and Stigmatized,” Human Life Review Winter, 2003.

5. Patrick Healy, “Clinton Seeking Shared Ground Over Abortions,” New York Times, January 25, 2005. Katherine Ragsdale, “Remarks,” Birmingham, AL July 21, 2005.

6. Dan Gilgoff, “White House Discerns ‘Need for Abortion,’ But Some Disagree,” U.S. News and World Report, June 30, 2009.

7. Pam Chamberlain, “Abstaining From the Truth: Sex Education as Ideology,” Public Eye,  23, 3, Fall 2008.