Loretta Ross: Reproductive Justice Pioneer, Co-Founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective

The following article is based on a phone conversation with Loretta Ross in December and quotes, ideas, and information from the two most recent books that Ross co-authored: Reproductive Justice: An Introduction (March 2017) and Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundation, Theory, Practice, Critique (November 2017).

To understand the life and work of Loretta Ross you need first know this: She was brutally raped by a stranger when she was eleven years old. Just three years later, a distant cousin raped her and she became pregnant. It was 1969, so abortion was not yet a legal — or safe — option. The son she birthed at age fifteen would be her only child, because at 23 she had a hysterectomy due to an infection from the infamous Dalkon Shield.[1]

Ross was the sixth of eight children, born in small-town Texas. She was a star student, who earned a scholarship to Radcliffe College. The scholarship was revoked, however, when the school learned of her pregnancy, and she ended up going to the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., instead. She started college young, at only 16. She soon found herself pregnant again, this time from consensual sex with her first boyfriend. Fortunately, abortion was legal in D.C. by then, and she had a safe procedure without issue.

After her abortion, Ross got the Dalkon Shield inserted, at no charge, at the health clinic at Howard University. She soon developed pelvic inflammatory disease — caused, she believes, by the IUD — which she lived with for six months. She had been told dismissively during those six months that she had a rare STD from having sex with GI soldiers who had been in Vietnam (she didn’t know any GIs). She finally fell into a coma brought on by the severe infection, and when she woke up in the hospital, she had “no plumbing” anymore — the doctor had performed a total hysterectomy, removing even her ovaries.

She says, “By the time the sterilization happened, I was pissed off. The fact that the Dalkon Shield was freely distributed at Howard University — years after it had been proven dangerous — made me feel that it was a strategy of population control.”

Ross was the victim of horrific crimes with roots in the monstrosity of slavery, along with greed, arrogance, and willful stupidity. It’s not surprising that she is wary of population control. From the late nineteenth century well into the second half of the twentieth century, it was a gathering point for the pseudoscientific eugenics movement populated by nativists, racists, and xenophobes. The decades that shortly followed the eugenics craze were a turning point, however; a new generation emerged, dedicated to upholding reproductive rights while recognizing the critical connection to population issues.

After many years of involvement in feminist causes, Ross, along with others, started advocating for a more holistic approach to reproductive rights that included social justice and human rights: the right not to have children, the right to have children under the conditions parents choose, and the right to parent the children one has in a safe and healthy environment.

These organizing principles became what she and eleven other women of color — they called their alliance Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice — coined “reproductive justice” in 1994 at the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance Conference in Chicago. The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, a few months later, emphasized the importance of prioritizing human rights and of understanding the development situations of countries participating in population programs. No longer would targets, quotas, or coercion be tolerated — the new narrative demanded a focus on individuals and the choices they had a right to make for themselves.

Ross says, “The previous population conferences had all talked about fertility management and reduction. The Cairo conference, by adding the term ‘development,’ pointed out that the ability of any individuals to control their fertility was directly related to what was going on in their community. It wasn’t just an individual woman’s problem whether she had access to birth control or not. Making that connection between an individual’s decision-making options and the systematic underdevelopment of the communities that we were talking about — that’s the paradigm shift that needed to happen. There’s no way to address with any ethics the question of managing people’s fertility if you’re not addressing the reasons that fertility is not already being managed.”

A generation has elapsed since the Cairo conference. It was, without question, a major turning point. The euphoria that accompanied the groundbreaking agreement was, however, short-lived. Within a month, Republicans — a party that had become bound by a shared hostility to reproductive freedom — won control of the U.S. House for the first time in more than 40 years. The funding promised to meet the Cairo agenda didn’t materialize, and family planning efforts stagnated.

Three years after the Chicago and Cairo conferences, Ross co-founded SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective[2], whose mission is “to strengthen and amplify the collective voices of indigenous women and women of color to achieve reproductive justice by eradicating reproductive oppression and securing human rights.”

Rights, Race, and Poverty

The feminist movement, according to Ross, has been led by white women with a single-issue agenda: reproductive choice in the form of abortion rights. (White feminists also placed strong emphasis on voting rights, equal pay, educational opportunity, and access to birth control, among other things.) Ross insists that social issues — such as the mass incarceration of reproductive-aged people, pressure to accept long-acting contraceptive methods, and pervasive poverty — are components of reproductive choice as well. She argues that these issues, which disproportionately affect minorities, are examples of the racism embedded in our country’s culture.

Some of the racisms Ross describes are overt (e.g. Trump’s outrageous comment, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”). Others are subtler, often in the form of condemnation for safety net programs. “Every social program that is seen through a white lens as benefitting people of color comes under assault,” Ross says. This happens, she explains, through “dog whistling” — using language that’s not explicitly racist but seeks to subtly play on racial stereotypes. Many advocates point to a recent comment by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) about the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) as an example of this. “I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves — won’t lift a finger — and expect the federal government to do everything.”

The Hyde Amendment[3] is another implicitly racist policy, according to Ross, because people of color experience poverty at higher rates than white people and therefore must rely on government forms of health insurance at higher rates than whites. Ross says, “White people think they do all the hard work and they think people of color are the unfair beneficiaries. So you can’t isolate Hyde from that overall narrative.”

America’s history, Ross argues, is full of examples of the racialization of “every pregnant woman and every baby born,” from the genocide of Native Americans, to the breeding of African slaves, to the suppression of African American fertility once there was no profit to be made from Black offspring, to the use of Puerto Rican women as guinea pigs in early trials of the birth control pill. She points out that abortion was a legal and acceptable practice up to the point of “quickening” in early America — and that its prohibition in every state by the end of the nineteenth century was due to early leaders’ concerns with “populating the white nation.” She argues that poor people have just as much right to “sexual citizenship” as anyone, and that wealth should have nothing to do with sexual autonomy or fulfillment. People who make comments about women needing to “control themselves” or “close their legs” if they’re not prepared to raise a child are saying that poor people shouldn’t have the right to enjoy sex — even with their spouses.

When asked how she stays optimistic in the face of all this, she says, “As an African American woman, I know that ‘at times like these it’s always been times like these.’[4] The difference is more white people are waking up. I think November 9 was a big alarm clock. Everyone thought we had reached this post-racial moment and then on November 9 the sky fell.”

Sound Science

Ross and her co-author, Rickie Solinger, write in Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, “There’s never been a situation where women — if offered educational and economic opportunities — have not done everything in their power to control their fertility.” On the phone, Ross expanded on this point, saying that programs to slow population growth are unnecessary because with the right programs and policies (girls education, female employment opportunities, adequate healthcare, and an end to the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and IMF that have often been so damaging to countries’ self-sufficiency and sustainable development) in place, lower fertility and slower population growth would result naturally. Population Connection fully supports greater investments in these areas, but not at the expense of meeting the unmet need for contraception.

Ross is also wary of connecting population growth to environmental challenges, since it’s the wealthy who have done the most damage to wildlife habitats, consumed the most natural resources, and put the most carbon into the atmosphere. But we believe — and the data supports our view — that the enormous impact we humans have on our living Earth grows with every thousand, million, or billion people we add to the planet.

We certainly agree that those of us in the developed world, who tend to have smaller families, have an outsized ecological footprint due to our much higher rates of consumption. But that’s not the whole story. People need to eat, and food is grown and raised on land. That land is often former wildlife habitat, native forest, or coastal flood barrier. The water needed for irrigation is diverted to crops regardless of whether it leaves enough for individual consumption. Deforestation (land-clearing for agriculture or wood removal for biofuels) is responsible for nearly one-third of global carbon emissions. To ignore the impact of rapid population growth is to ignore sound science.

There are an estimated 214 million women in developing countries who don’t want to be pregnant, yet face any number of barriers to using modern contraception. Eliminating those barriers will dramatically improve their lives while also reducing the short term and long term impacts of population growth on the environment. The willful failure to provide access to the family planning services women need is the defining reproductive coercion of today. It is being driven by some craven political leaders in countries around the world, including our own. Nobody should be denied the power to determine her own reproductive future. And it is in defending human rights that we will ultimately address the very real challenges that population growth still poses.

As we continue to do good work with SisterSong and the collective’s associated organizations, we urge them not to write off those who work to address population challenges because of the movement’s troubled past. We are committed to reproductive rights, social justice, and, yes, reproductive justice. And we recognize the inextricable link to voluntary population stabilization of all three movements.

Ross is a visiting associate professor this year at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she’s teaching a course called “White Supremacy in the Age of Trump.” In her free time, she plays competitive pinochle, joining tournaments around the country. She enjoys watching tennis, football (a Cowboys fan), and college basketball (“Georgetown Hoyas all the way”).


[1] The earliest intrauterine device (IUD); available in the early 1970s, the Dalkon Shield caused injury, infection, and/or infertility in 200,000 American women, and death in 18.

[2] See the story about SisterSong’s conference where our field staff presented a session on advocacy in the Trump era.

[3] A policy, in place since 1977, that prohibits federal funding of abortion. It excludes Medicaid recipients, government employees, people with disabilities on Medicare, and Indian Health Service recipients from insurance coverage of abortion services — care that, if they weren’t poor, or employed by the government, might be covered by their private health plans. This is especially problematic as people of color and people living in poverty experience unintended pregnancy at higher rates than the general population.

[4] A phrase that Dr. Willie Parker, author of Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, is known to say

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