The term “reproductive rights” has sparked arguably one of the biggest political controversies of the last few years. Yes, I’m talking about the a-word: abortion. There are plenty of articles and opinions going around about this specific right — whether it is one, whether it isn’t — but there’s not nearly enough discussion of the other reproductive rights you are entitled to.
Those able to bear children are entitled to certain reproductive rights and, like any other kind of right, they should know them and exercise them. While I will mostly direct my language towards “women,” as these rights are socially associated with “women’s” rights, note that these rights extend toward anyone who might be or is carrying a child, regardless of their gender identity. I encourage you to take a look at the full list of rights, which can be found here.
Many of these reproductive rights are variations of human rights declarations and bills that have been applied to the context of motherhood. One I find particularly important, which stems from human rights arguments, is that “everyone is their own person from the moment of birth.” This means that both mother and baby should be treated with dignity and respect.
On a related note, everyone has the right to equitable health care free from discrimination, a right that is ensured by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One hundred ninety-three countries have agreed to abide by these rights, including the United States. This means that everyone in the United States is guaranteed these human rights, and the rights derived from them. Prioritization of this particular right is especially important for Black mothers, as they experience medical racism that significantly harms their health, as well as the health of their babies. For women of Color, the risks this causes at each stage of childbirth, including labor, delivery and postpartum, are elevated. This right also means that women have the same protections under the law while pregnant as they do when not. In other words, you cannot be discriminated against for the listed reasons, including for being pregnant.
According to the Maternal Health Task Force at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, “(e)very woman has the right to information, informed consent and refusal and respect for her choices and preferences.” This applies to all reproductive health choices, including childbirth. Education on these rights could directly impact the health of both mothers and their children. Currently, the statistics surrounding childbirth are not encouraging. The United States’s maternal mortality rate is almost double that of other developed countries, such as Canada, with 17 in 100,000 American mothers dying from childbirth — a distressingly high number. The infant mortality rate is worse, with over 500 in 100,000 infants dying, and this rate is even higher among Southern states.
Childbearing women are often unaware of their rights surrounding health care, which may be partially contributing to the numbers above. Risky or unnecessary procedures may be performed without the knowledge or consent of the mother, as she may not know that she is entitled to both. Informing women of these rights, and better education surrounding their options in general, could empower mothers to make informed decisions for themselves and their children, thus improving their health and survival rates.
Every woman has the right to choose their maternity care provider, with options like physicians or midwives. Both maternal and infant mortality rates are even higher among Black Americans. This may be due to a greater gap in knowledge surrounding childbirth rights and resources, such as the utilization of midwives. It is important that an increased effort is made to inform these women of their rights and empower them. Prenatal care visits should also include a discussion of the available birthing resources in order to allow the best choices to be made.
The last right I will highlight is applicable to many different situations, and that is the right to “liberty, autonomy, self-determination and freedom from coercion.” This right is not only a positive right, which is a government’s obligation to ensure something, but also a negative right in its obligation to refrain from or protect against something. At all times, full movement must be granted, if able, one should be able to make their own decisions, at no time at any point should coercion be used.
This again applies to all reproductive situations. Women are often pressured one way or another by doctors or people closely involved with the pregnancy, so it is important to know that your decision remains yours at all times. Women of Color, especially Black, Latina and Native American women, have disproportionately faced medical staff who have failed to ensure this right; reports of coerced sterilization through denial of welfare benefits for women of Color have been seen throughout the history of America’s healthcare system. Knowledge of your entitled protection against such actions is incredibly important, as we see cases of this even today.
While many of these rights may seem self-evident, to some they are not, or the applications of them are not. It is important to know your rights so that you are able to exercise them freely. Self-advocacy is incredibly important to guarantee that your needs are being met in the way you want them to be. Knowledge surrounding your reproductive rights empowers you to help yourself and others make the best decisions possible.
Amy Edmunds is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com