Alternate histories of feminism arrive all the time. I don’t remember when I started inventing my own. In one, it’s 1987 and young women are taking the streets to end HIV (here, I’m borrowing from lived history, because they did, under the banner of ACT UP). Joining them is a generation brought up fighting the medical establishment in the 1960s and '70s, demanding they believe women about their bodies. Together, they challenge the official neglect that created an epidemic, and AIDS becomes a central feminist cause. (That front: to be determined, and maybe too late.)
Or imagine another 2016. Planned Parenthood now operates a highly visible national network of syringe exchanges, challenging laws that criminalize getting clean needles to women who use drugs. Ending punitive drug policy becomes a central women’s rights issue. (This one: very, very TBD, if ever.)
The real-life story of feminists struggling and coming together (and struggling, always, with one another) is bigger than anything I could invent. I was taught this again when my attention drifted from what passes for political talk about reproductive rights during a presidential campaign just in time to be caught by the premiere of the documentary No Más Bebés (“No More Babies”). It’s the true story of what else is involved in the fight we’re so used to hearing shorthanded as “a woman’s right to choose,” of the things we don’t see, or have forgotten.
In the story of reproductive rights most often told, the struggle involves three characters: a woman, her medical provider, a legislator or a judge.
In the years immediately after Roe v. Wade, 10 immigrant mothers from Los Angeles represented by 26-year-old Chicana lawyer Antonia Hernández brought a class-action suit against county doctors, the state, and the United States government, seeking responsibility for a coercive sterilization program. The women were all sterilized at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center after giving birth, and without meaningful consent. They didn’t request it. There was no medical reason for it. It was, as their attorney discovered along with them, a standard practice at the county hospital poor and immigrant women relied on for maternity care.
In the story of reproductive rights most often told (and especially in a year like this, through cable news clips, behind bright podiums), the struggle involves three characters: a woman, her medical provider, a legislator or a judge. Sometimes there’s a background cast: the protesters whipping up shame and threats outside a clinic, the volunteers putting their bodies between hideous signs and the people just trying to get to their appointments. But the villains in this story are clear and even predictable. They have legislative records you can track, or they follow you to your car and they call you a whore.
For the immigrant mothers—Dolores Madrigal, the lead plaintiff, and the nine others named in the suit, and countless others whose names we will not know—the story was more complex, the culpable more numerous. First, there were the doctors and hospital staff, collecting the mothers’ signatures as they labored, rushing them through paperwork and into surgery. (Their suit began with evidence collected by one of these doctors, a whistleblower.)
The state of California and the U.S. government bore responsibility too, for advancing “population control” programs meant to keep poor women, immigrant women, and women of color from having children. Sterilization laws and practices, like those in California, had roots in eugenics, in notions of “fitness” and racial purity.
It was 1978 when the women lost their suit. But their fight inspired Chicana feminists, who pushed the white-dominated reproductive rights movement to understand forced sterilization as their fight.
It is 38 years later. The fights women of color face for reproductive rights remain sidelined (and sometimes, made invisible) in what is now the establishment story: There is Roe, and everything after.
Director Renee Tajima-Peña told Christina Cauterucci at Slate last week:
Since the beginning, the narrative of reproductive rights has focused so much on abortion.... More and more today, the conversation around reproductive freedom does focus on the full spectrum of a woman’s reproductive rights—to have a child or not have a child. But it’s taken many decades, and a lot of work, especially [by] organizations led by women of color, to change that conversation.
The stakes for reproductive rights, as the filmmakers show, aren’t just about who says the right things. They are high, measurable, and determined by the state where we live, what care we can afford, and who stands up for us. It is also clear that by the time fights over “a woman’s right to choose” make it to Washington, real and irreparable damage has been done.
Our “right to choose” also goes far beyond choice—it’s a struggle to be seen with dignity and autonomy. Advocates for reproductive justice take this more expansive view, and they win. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, young women of color in coalition with immigrants’ rights and pro-choice faith groups organized under the banner “Respect ABQ Women,” and influenced voters to reject a 20-week abortion ban.
In their campaign, Latina and Chicana activists talked about abortion not as an “ideological struggle,” but as an alignment with their values that “women and their families” make decisions for themselves. They worked alongside groups who might typically overlook reproductive rights to educate voters about the stakes behind the ban: taking power away from them and their communities. Echoes of the alliances made by the women in the Madrigal case against their doctors remain in these fights today.
Fighting for reproductive justice goes beyond holding onto the legal right to an abortion, a right that has been under fire almost from the moment Roe was decided. Advocates face multiple challenges, like so-called “race and sex selection” abortion bans, which criminalize providers who perform abortions on the basis of the race or sex of the fetus. Advocates are concerned these bans would lead providers to profile people seeking abortion based on race, ethnicity, or immigration status, and in turn prevent people of color and immigrants from getting reproductive and sexual health care. They are taking on questionable “fetal assault laws,” used to threaten pregnant people with jail if drug use is suspected, separating children from their families. They are fighting for the rights of pregnant people in prisons, where abortion is delayed or discouraged, and where those incarcerated may labor in shackles.
These fights live in states, not in Washington. With abortion, these campaigns are especially targeted. Ten states are responsible for 60 percent of the 288 new abortion restrictions adopted between 2011 and 2015, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Those restrictions amount to just over a quarter of all anti-abortion laws enacted since Roe, 43 years ago.
What this 2016 looks like is Florida lawmakers, on the week of Roe’s anniversary, who want to make performing an abortion a felony. They might not explicitly criminalize having an abortion, but no one pretends the point is anything but controlling the lives and bodies of those seeking an abortion, to make any “choice” but forced birth a criminal one.
Coercion is the fight, as it has always been. “The women these sterilizations happened to were robbed,” producer Virginia Espino told Tina Vasquez at RH Reality Check. “They were robbed of what they wanted for their future.” Despite that, these are the women who saw ours.