What PIC abolition can teach us about reproductive justice

Wednesday, June 17, 2020 - 5:45pm


Illustration by The Repeal Hyde Art Project

The confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and police violence in the U.S. is impossible to ignore. The devaluation of Black life feels especially inescapable in our collective consciousness, as the Black community bears the brunt of the pandemic, and police violence against Black Americans grows increasingly visible thanks to social media. The constant need to remind the world that yes, our Black lives matter, can feel futile at times. The same structural violence that sabotages the health of my people is responsible for the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and the countless other victims of police violence whose names never became hashtags. The acknowledgment of the many ways that structural racism manifests is growing increasingly mainstream as coverage of the uprisings across the country brings the racist foundations of America’s institutions to the consciousness of white America.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended “In Defense of Black Lives Call to Action,” a virtual town hall hosted by Black Lives Matter-Lansing. Community leaders and organizers from the group called for accountability among local government officials for addressing systemic racism in the Lansing area. In response to BLM-Lansing’s demands, the Ingham County Board of Commissioners voted to pass a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis in the county. The resolution, while symbolic in nature, provides the necessary premise for strategically addressing the root cause of health inequity in the United States. Tackling racism as a public health issue will require confronting the violence that leaves the Black community in poor health. It requires a reckoning with the ways that white supremacy is encoded in virtually every institution, including the police and prisons. 

The commissioners’ resolution brought many of the goals of the reproductive justice movement to my mind. Reproductive justice (RJ) emerged as a movement pioneered by women of color, indigenous women, and trans* people to defend the self-determination of marginalized communities. At the heart of RJ is the belief that everyone deserves a “safe and sustainable” environment in which to raise children. According to activist academics Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger in their book “Reproductive Justice: An Introduction”, this becomes tangible in the forms of  high-quality and accessible health care, a living wage, child welfare and freedom from fear of violence. Reproductive Justice importantly asserts that access to these resources constitutes a fundamental human right. Throughout college, I spent a lot of time on the leadership of Students for Reproductive Rights and Justice raising awareness about how racial justice issues are profoundly implicated in reproduction. Police violence intimately impinges on the health and safety of marginalized communities, making it a key reproductive justice issue. 

I began to consider what radical reproductive justice would look like at this moment. 

A reproductive justice framework is crucial to understanding the extent to which the personal is incredibly political. For Black Americans, racism isn’t simply a social or political reality, but a deeply visceral, corporeal experience. Black Americans suffer from higher rates of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, than white Americans. Appallingly, Black infants die at a rate more than twice that of white infants in the United States. Black maternal mortality is similarly disheartening. Pre-eclampsia and eclampsia, leading causes of maternal death, are 60% more common in Black women and more severe. We can point the everyday experiences of being Black in America: things like so-called “microaggressions” (which is just a polite way of saying acts of racism, let’s be real), discrimination, and racial bias in the health care system, all of which contribute to toxic psychological stress that wears on Black people’s bodies and produces poor health outcomes. Systemic racism and inequity become literally embodied.

Additionally, therein lies the psychological and spiritual ramifications of compounded generational trauma due to racial terrorism and state violence. Here emerges an important point about the insidious multiplicity of violence: violence comes in many forms. Violence is by no means confined to the realm of physical force. Violence is imposed on the interpersonal level through everyday racist transgressions. Violence is enacted in the political and administrative realm, through laws and policies that create the circumstances of premature death for a group of people. I recently learned of a petition the Civil Rights Congress of the U.S. submitted to the United Nations in 1951. It charged the U.S. with violating the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in its treatment of Black Americans. Although it was written 60 years ago, the circumstances described remain intact today: the petition cites the pervasiveness of police killings, illness, and poverty as evidence of “genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government.”

So, what might a society free of this violence look like? 

Black feminist theorists and organizers have been working for decades to show us what a world free of police violence could look like. Of course, this new world cannot be realized without “eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance,” all while constructing “lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.”  The other day, I listened to an interview with Mariame Kaba, an organizer and educator whose work focuses on ending violence and dismantling the prison industrial complex. In the interview, Kaba discusses how police abolition involves creating an alternative reality: 

“I believe that we’re practicing abolition on a daily basis when we are thinking about how to address harms, for example, in our family, our communities, without involving the state, which includes policing but also child welfare... When you’re an organizer or an activist or just somebody in the community and you’re pushing against climate change, you’re really doing abolitionist work. If you’re building and pushing for universal education for all, you’re doing abolitionist work. If you’re pushing for living wages, you’re doing abolitionist work. So, I think it’s an expansive vision, and an expansive framework. It’s not a blueprint. That work of making the ‘thing,’ we have to do ourselves.” 

I love this conceptualization because to me, that expansive vision sounds a lot like reproductive justice. Reproductive justice and abolition are very much complementary movements. Working to abolish the prison industrial complex, which involves abolishing the police, is necessary to achieve the goals of RJ. A community that doesn’t need police is one where reproductive justice thrives. Improving life chances through the fundamental alteration of the structures under which marginalized communities live is a project I deeply believe in. 

Over the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed a major shift in public consciousness with respect to the legacy of slavery on the health and safety of Black Americans. This critical moment presents an opportunity to use our radical imaginations to envision a future where Black people can live free from fear of state violence. This moment requires us to build upon the decades-worth of work of activists and intellectuals to create realities where reproductive justice is realized —  to create a world that supports parents, caregivers, and communities in raising strong and healthy children without fear that they’ll lose their lives at the hands of those who claim to protect us. In the words of Dorothy Roberts, author, scholar, and reproductive justice advocate, “(reproductive justice) is a model not just for women of color, nor just for achieving reproductive freedom. RJ is a model for organizing for human equality and well-being. The world needs radical reproductive justice.”  I believe that in embracing the wisdom of the abolitionist movement, a radical reproductive justice vision equips us with the creativity to imagine what liberation could look like, and the tools for doing the work to get there. 


Brianna Wells is a recent graduate from the Ford School of Public Policy with a bachelor's degree in Public Policy. She can be reached at wellsbri@umich.edu.