Considering Privilege in the Reproductive Rights Movement

“The reproductive rights movement frames the issues around individual “choice” – does the woman have the choice to have or not to have an abortion. This analysis obscures all the social conditions that prevent women from having and making real choices – lack of health care, poverty, lack of social services, etc…In the Native context, where women often find the only contraceptives available to them are dangerous… where they live in communities in which unemployment rates can run as high as 80 percent, and where their life expectancy can be as low as 47 years, reproductive “choice” defined so narrowly is a meaningless concept. Instead, Native women and men must fight for community self-determination and sovereignty over their health care.” –Justine Smith, Native activist*

Before I begin, I would like to state that I am not Native American and have no affiliation to any tribe; I, myself, am a white, middle-class woman and experience privileges related to my class and racial identities. However, after learning about just how limited the “right to choose” is, I felt it necessary to write to and inform the majority that is as unaware, like as I was. I want to use this platform to bring awareness to the supporters of the “right to choose” so that they may expand their agendas to address the intersections of gender, race, and class (as well as the number of other identities that experience marginalization) in our fight for reproductive rights.


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The reproductive rights movement is a popular point of interest in Western feminism, which became evident by the backlash that came from the right wing’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood among many other attacks on women’s reproductive rights. The idea that all women deserve the right to choose is a common value among pro-choice activists, but what many fail to understand is that the right to choose is a privilege to which many do not have access. It is a privilege primarily available to white, middle-class women and largely excludes women in poverty and women of color.

Pro-choice organizations usually aren’t trying to exclude women of color on purpose, and will restate over and over that they are fighting for “all women,” but will then fail to mention race or include voices of color in their activism. This makes white women the default subject in their efforts, which is extremely problematic as it devalues women of color in a number of ways and excludes them from the phrase “all women.”

Not only are women of color excluded by the reproductive rights movement’s rhetoric but by U.S. policy as well. The Hyde Amendment was passed in 1976 – three years after the legalization of abortion – and banned federal spending for abortion procedures. This means that federally-funded insurance plans will not cover the cost of abortion, which makes it inaccessible to low-income women. Because women of color are more likely to live in poverty and rely on government insurance plans, this creates a huge problem. The Hyde Amendment is not only a sexist and classist amendment but a racist one, and the lack of addressing this by mainstream pro-choice organizations is perpetuating racism, especially racism against Native American women.

Most Native American women rely almost entirely on Indian Health Services (IHS), a government-funded insurance plan. Because of the Hyde Amendment, these Native women consequently only have access to abortion in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment to the mother’s health. However, 85% of IHS service centers have been found to be noncompliant with this abortion policy and only 5% even have abortion procedures available at their centers. Further, there have been several cases of Native women receiving abortions in which they were denied anesthesia and counseling following the procedure as punishment for seeking abortion. Native women are already barred from abortion because of the Hyde Amendment and, on top of that, are shamed when seeking medically necessary abortions. Even worse, this isn’t even mentioned in the mainstream struggle for reproductive rights. And the problem doesn’t stop there. Lack of access to abortion then leads Native women to resort to sterilization or dangerous contraceptives such as Depo-Provera, which has several harmful side effects and may even increase the risk of cancer. This begs the question, is having the “right to choose” really all that beneficial when most of your options are dangerous? And isn’t this kind of treatment an embodiment of colonialism? By barring Native women’s right to abortion, and then by giving them options such as sterilization and life-threatening contraceptives, it seems that we are repeating this long-term effort to “cleanse” the country of those who have been devastatingly deemed “unclean people.”

Now, this is not at all to say that the reproductive rights movement is bad and should be stopped. The reproductive rights movement needs to continue but also needs to understand the fact that Native American women (and women of color as a whole) are disproportionately affected and place this concern at the center of their framework. This shouldn’t be a single-faceted movement, and we shouldn’t be content with efforts that exclude a large amount of the female population. In order to make the “right to choose” a true, inalienable right, we must first view it as a privilege and attend to the intersecting factors that prevent women from having this privilege. Lastly, during Native American Heritage month, I think it’s especially important that we become informed about the injustices Native people face in this realm and others, and I hope that this post contributes to the conversation and helps extend it beyond just one month.

*Justine Smith, along with her sister Andrea Smith, has been accused of falsely claiming Cherokee identity. This has been a highly controversial topic and makes these scholars’ inclusions of “personal experiences” debatable. However,  these women do present true facts about the injustices that Native Americans face throughout their lives, so I believed, and still believe, that including their strictly factual evidence in this piece was and is appropriate.