The 2014 session of the Rhode Island General Assembly is underway, and Rhode Islanders are anxious to see if our elected officials will act with courage to address the very real and vexing problems facing our state. Among the issues that need to be addressed are those impacting the health and economic well-being of women and families.
It is important to understand that the ability of women to control their reproductive lives is inextricably linked to their health and well-being as well as the health and well-being of their families. While people on the political left and right have historically framed these issues as “pro-choice” vs. “anti-choice,” the reality is that the issue of reproductive justice is much broader than this conversation ever seems to allow.
Over the course of history, there has been a consistent struggle for women to have autonomy. Women’s rights have been hotly contested since women fought for the right to own property and to vote.
The struggle for women’s autonomy is a long and ongoing battle. The term “reproductive justice” emerged from the Black Women’s Caucus of 1994. Reproductive justice combines the principles of social justice and reproductive rights. At its core, reproductive justice is the right for women to have or not have children and the ability to parent those children in a healthy and safe environment (see www.sistersong.net). Reproductive justice gets to the heart of what women have been struggling to obtain for centuries: the ability to have control over their lives and bodies, and the ability to protect and raise their families as they see fit. Reproductive justice looks to solve health inequalities, end domestic violence, encourage responsible use and protections of the environment, keep abortion safe, legal and accessible, end racial discrimination, and find reasonable solutions to economic disparities, among other things.
In Rhode Island there is a real need for reproductive justice. Rhode Island has the highest teen pregnancy rate in New England, and half of all pregnancies in Rhode Island are unintended. Researchers estimate that nearly 63,000 women in Rhode Island are in need of publicly supported contraceptive services and supplies (www.guttmacher.org). Women’s earnings continue to lag behind those of their male counterparts (www.dlt.ri.gov), particularly among women of color (www.nationalpartnership.org), thus compromising their ability to achieve economic autonomy for themselves and their families.
And, while the RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence and its six member agencies throughout the state provided services to more than 9,700 victims of domestic violence in 2013, our state invests zero dollars in domestic violence prevention programs that would work to stop the violence before it starts. (www.ricadv.org).
It is the goal of the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Justice (RICRJ) to reframe the discussion regarding reproductive justice so that we can increase everyone’s understanding of what’s at risk as well as what the opportunities are to truly improve the lives of women and families. The Coalition will host a State House event on Tuesday, January 21 at 3:30pm to advance the issue of reproductive justice during this legislative session.
Some of the issues that the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Justice will advocate for include: 1) access to comprehensive reproductive health services and insurance, 2)the elimination of gender discrimination in health insurance, 3) access to affordable child care, 4) dedicated funding for domestic violence prevention and 5) commonsense accommodations for pregnant women.
It is only through understanding the complexity of the issues facing the ability of women to achieve autonomy that we can make strategic policy decisions that will actually make women and families better off, not worse off, when we get to the end of the session.