Women’s Rights

[bhr-blurb-gen-top] Women’s Rights

Guest Essay:



Loretta J. Ross, National Coordinator
SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective
March 2006

© 2006-2017, Loretta J. Ross

Reproductive rights activists in the United States underutilize the global human rights framework. This is largely because many are unfamiliar with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the international treaties that protect women’s reproductive rights.

But it is also because of fierce opposition to applying United Nations’ human rights treaties to the United States. Thanks to a well-orchestrated 50-year anti-UN campaign by the right, many people wrongly believing that the U.S. is above such matters of international scrutiny, a view often called American Exceptionalism. They also incorrectly claim that the rights and protections spelled out in the U.S. Constitution are superior to those embodied in human rights instruments. They are wrong.

To address this situation, reproductive rights activists must expand their vision beyond individualized arguments for privacy and choice inferred from the Constitution, to embrace the more comprehensive and universal human rights framework. Recognizing the moral and political value of human rights provides a pro-active strategy for advancing the movement as well as a defensive response to the attacks the right are making on women’s lives.

To begin, let’s examine the human rights framework through a reproductive health lens.

Women have a basic human right to control their own fertility, to have self-determination over their own bodies. Through a human rights lens, these rights go far beyond a limited focus on abortion to include the right to have and not to have children, basic health care, and treatments for reproductive tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases, and infertility. Women have the right to challenge disabling conditions like poverty, environmental pollution, government policies, and corporate practices that violate their human rights. This holistic approach also recognizes that the movement has to oppose race- and class-based population control strategies, and other human rights violations.

The articulation of these rights begins in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed by the United States in 1948:

Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude….

Article 12: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home…

Article 25: (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

These articles are important because they touch on major reproductive rights concerns of all women, but particularly women of color. Despite the unfortunately sexist language used back in 1948, women’s reproductive rights are implicated in all of the above articles.

Article 3 is perhaps the most comprehensive. Security of a woman’s person cannot be guaranteed if a women is not free, empowered, and enabled to make her own decisions about her reproductive health and sexual rights. This is a holistic approach that considers not only the immediate aspects of reproductive health and rights, such as sterilization, abortion, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and reproductive tract infections, but also considers the surrounding issues such as family and community violence, substance abuse, HIV and AIDS, health issues of women in prison, welfare reform, homophobia, access to quality education, and links with women internationally.

Article 4 speaks directly to decisions about abortion and contraception. Reproductive rights activists have always defined forced pregnancies as a form of slavery and servitude in which parties other than the woman concerned decide the outcome of a pregnancy, forcing the woman to become a human vessel for a fetus. Involuntarily subordinating one human being to another human being’s need is one of the essential definitions of slavery. While our society would never force a man to donate an organ to a child, we believe that it is acceptable to force a woman to give herself over to protection of a fetus. It is not only discriminatory, but it violates the fundamental human right to be free of involuntary slavery.

Article 12 reinforces the concept of self-determination. Government regulations and laws that prohibit a woman from accessing reproductive health care, whether in the form of anti-abortion legislation, welfare reform, or other restrictions arbitrarily violate a woman’s right to privacy and interferes with her family.

Article 25 explicitly states the enabling conditions and supports a woman needs to exercise her reproductive options in the most optimal conditions possible. A woman must have her basic human needs met, including access to health care, in order for her human rights to be protected. The article is inherently anti-essentialist: we all have the same human rights but we each need different things to protect them. It specifies that women and children are entitled to special care and assistance.

Because the UDHR is not binding law, member states in the United Nations system spent the next 20 years turning the promises of the UDHR into treaties which were legally binding upon the signatory countries. Of particular interest to the reproductive rights struggle are two treaties relatively unknown in the United States, both of which the U.S. government has ratified, popularly called the Genocide Treaty and the Race Treaty.

The term genocide was coined by Jewish lawyer Rafael Lemkin in 1943 in response to the horrific Nazi Holocaust against Jews and other victims during World War II. Recognizing that the world lacked international laws and standards that would prohibit a government’s aggression against its own people, the United Nations developed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which states in part:

Article 2: Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

A reproductive rights violation of the Genocide treaty is current government funding for reproductive health services for poor women. The government refuses to fund abortion services for poor women while ensuring that funding is amply available for permanent sterilization services for the same population of women. Because of structural racism and institutionalized poverty, women of color are more often directly affected by these policies, which brings into discussion the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, more commonly known as the CERD or Race Treaty which states:

Article 4(c): States shall not permit public authorities or public institutions, national or local to promote or incite racial discrimination.

Article 5(b): [Everyone shall enjoy] The right to security of person and protection by the State against violence or bodily harm, whether inflicted by government officials or by any individual group or institution.

Another important set of treaties the United States has failed to ratify include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (better known as the Women’s Human Rights Treaty or CEDAW), and the Treaty on Violence Against Women. Since the United States has not ratified either of these treaties, it is an important goal of the reproductive rights movement to pressure Congress to ratify these treaties, bringing the United States into compliance with the rest of the industrialized world.

One might ask, what does it mean that the United States has signed and ratified these international treaties? A partial answer is in the U.S. Constitution, Article 6, Section II that deals with treaties. The Constitution equates treaty ratification with federal law. In other words, when Congress ratifies an international treaty, it is the same as passing a new federal law. Because of the legal strength afforded to treaties, the federal government is extremely reluctant to allow treaty ratifications that provide protections beyond those offered by the Constitution. This resistance has provided an opportunity for many on the right to delay getting the United States to ratify crucial treaties that protect and extend reproductive rights.

While there are many legal problems associated with getting the United States to implement the treaties it has signed (too numerous to mention here), it is still clear that the reproductive rights movement can strengthen itself by incorporating the global human rights framework into its work. Human rights are important for their moral and political dimensions, even if legal applicability of the various treaties is blocked by opponents. The global human rights framework gives the movement the power of making global connections and the power of building a united human rights movement that uses a shared framework that builds a movement for undivided justice. Advocates for reproductive rights can broaden their base of allies and make connections with a variety of movements that work on economic justice, racial discrimination, environmental justice, immigrant rights, lgbt issues, youth, and a range of movements that also work to the protect the human rights of their constituents. Leadership in using the human rights framework has been demonstrated by women of color organizations, in particular, the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, organized in 1997 as a membership network of women of color reproductive health and sexual rights organizations.

In women of color organizations, we see forward-looking strategies for connecting single-issue groups to build an inclusive and representative movement for reproductive health and sexual rights for all women. Bringing new frames for reproductive justice is a critical piece since it opens the space for more women to be included. Therefore, it seems that their broader agenda is a powerful tool for revitalizing the reproductive rights movement. We have seen that strategies based primarily on defending choice/abortion through legislation and the judicial systems are not totally successful. The successes of the Right in mobilizing a vocal and active constituency to threaten reproductive rights calls for a broad grassroots strategy capable of reaching across social movements and linking health and reproductive rights to other social justice issues.

In envisioning a frame that encompasses all the priorities and concerns of women of color, many reproductive rights activists find the human rights framework to be one of the best ways of articulating and advancing their rights. Linking civil, political, economic and social rights bridges the gap between legal rights and economic access that characterize the inequalities of women’s experience in the U.S. Groups challenging white supremacist movements in the U.S. and anti-fascist movements abroad have used it.

However, social justice advocates in the U.S have underutilized this framework. Many people are unfamiliar with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and international treaties that protect women’s reproductive rights. The Conservative movement fiercely opposes the U.S. signing international treaties such as CEDAW – The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women — that would make the United States accountable to international norms and standards.

Some activist women of color recommend that the mainstream movement abandon the problematic framework of individual choice and instead embrace the existing global human rights framework to make connections about the importance of reproductive freedom as one element of a broad movement for human rights. SisterSong, along with many other organizations, recognizes that the United States lacks a sufficient legal framework to guarantee women of color safe and reliable access to health care.[1] The emphasis of the mainstream white movement on individualism and civil and political rights neglects economic, social, sexual and cultural rights that address group or collective needs, which are increasingly emphasized in human rights discourse. In order to ensure appropriate treatment and access to health care and to address the issues of class, race and gender that affect women of color, a comprehensive human rights-based approach to organizing that accounts for difference is necessary.[2]

The Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies in New Orleans made this point in their Reproductive Health Bill of Rights (2000):

All people are born free and equal with dignity and rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Historically, women of color across nations, cultures and different religious and ethnic groups have been subject to racist exploitation, discrimination and abuse. Manipulative, coercive and punitive health policies and practices deprive women of color of their fundamental human rights and dignity.[3]

Other groups, such as the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective insist on using the global human rights framework in their activism reframed as Reproductive Justice. Reproductive justice is an intersectional theory emerging from the experiences of women of color. The concept of Intersectionality has a long history, beginning with the writings of Fran Beale and Toni Cade Bambara in the 1970s, and re-articulated by Kimberle Crenshaw in the 1990s. They argue that the experiences of women of color vis-à-vis race, class and gender are not additive but integrative, producing a different paradigm called Intersectionality. What is fresh about SisterSong’s approach is that we have applied theories of Intersectionality to the human rights framework, made a strong connection between individual and group rights, and built a growing movement for reproductive justice. Reproductive justice is a positive approach that links sexuality, health, and human rights to social justice movements by placing abortion and reproductive health issues in the larger context of the well-being and health of women, families and communities. Reproductive justice stresses both individuality and group rights. We all have the same human rights, but may need different things to achieve them. The emphasis is on individuality without sacrificing collective or group identity. As with the human rights framework, it does not grant privileges to some at the expense of others. But it does draw attention to what was omitted from the Cairo and Beijing agreements.

Because reproductive oppression affects women’s lives in multiple ways, a multi-pronged approach is needed to fight this exploitation and advance the well-being of women and girls. There are three main frameworks for fighting reproductive oppression: 1) Reproductive Health which deals with service delivery, 2) Reproductive Rights which address the legal regime, and 3) Reproductive Justice which focuses on movement building. Although the frameworks are distinct in their approach, they work in tandem with each other to provide a complementary and comprehensive solution. Ultimately, as in any movement, all three components of service, advocacy and organizing are crucial to advancing the movement. (See Reproductive Justice briefing paper from Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice available at www.reproductivejustice.org).

This global direction is where the movement of women of color (and others) is going worldwide as expressed in the agreements from Cairo and Beijing, but the mainstream movement in the U.S. – except for its more progressive wing – has yet to embrace the significance of this new direction. Perhaps it may be parallel to the Civil Rights movement in this country, which has been painfully stuck in the constitutional rights and civil liberties paradigm, instead of pursuing the more comprehensive application of the human rights framework to the U.S. This promising strategy offers more hope of undivided justice for women of color in pursuit of Reproductive Justice.

[1] SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, “A Reproductive Health Agenda for Women of Color,” (Casa Atabex Ache, 2001). SisterSong, P.O. Box 329, New York, NY 10031.

[2] Loretta J. Ross et al.,“The SisterSong Collective: Women of Color, Reproductive Health and Human Rights,” American Journal of Health (Special Issue on the Health of Women of Color) 17 (2001)  85-100.

[3]Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, Reproductive Health Bill of Rights. 2nd ed., 2000, 1. Women of Color and the Emerging Reproductive Health Technologies Project, IWES, 1600 Canal Street, Suite 706, New Orleans, LA 70112, (504) 539-9350.

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