Health & Environment

Why reproductive justice for immigrant women is about more than Catholic Charities

Lindsay Schubiner • Apr 21, 2015

Recently, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit to learn whether young unaccompanied migrants living in facilities operated by Catholic Charities have access to contraception and abortion. This is a crucial first step toward transparency and accountability for those who hold young women’s lives in their hands.

But even if the ACLU’s fears are correct, Catholic Charities still won’t be the only organization intentionally working against reproductive justice for immigrant women—and supporters of women’s rights will have to do much more than file a lawsuit to guarantee those rights.

Between the anti-immigrant movement on one hand, with its roots in eugenics, and powerful anti-abortion institutions on the other hand, immigrant women are stuck in the middle fighting for their rights.

Young women crossing the U.S. border have often fled unbelievable violence in their home countries only to experience more violence, often including rape and sexual assault, on their journey to the U.S. In fact, girls and women traveling to the U.S. experience sexual violence with such great frequency that many take contraception to prevent pregnancy in case they are among the 80% of women raped en route.

While young migrants are waiting for their immigration cases to wind their way through the courts, the federal government contracts with outside organizations to provide them with housing and essential services. (If they are not minors, they are likely to end up in detention centers instead). While migrants are in these facilities, the contracted organizations—Catholic Charities, for instance—are obligated to provide them with basic health care, including reproductive health care. Withholding this care could be devastating, perhaps even condemning young women to carry to term pregnancies that resulted from rape.

Read: Why the ACLU is suing over Catholic groups and abortions for unauthorized immigrants

The ACLU lawsuit brings together a number of issues—all contentious: abortion, immigration, religion, and the separation of church and state. As Dara Lind at Vox says, it’s a “conservative fever dream.”

Yet stepping back and taking a broader view helps identify the central issue. It’s really all about reproductive justice.

Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (ACRJ) defines reproductive justice as “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic, and social well-being of women and girls,” which will only be achieved “when women and girls have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality and reproduction for ourselves, our families and our communities in all areas of our lives.”

More specifically, SisterSong has defined reproductive justice as the right to have children, the right to not have children, the right to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments, and the right to exercise bodily autonomy.

This framework crystallizes what should be the goal—not only for advocates, but for U.S. policy: ensuring that women have the right to be safe from violence in their home countries, the right to be free from violence on their journey to the U.S., and the protection of all their human rights once they arrive in the U.S. All women should have the right to reproductive health care, and to an abortion if they choose. Women should also have the right to have a child if they want, and raise their child or children in a safe environment—whether in the U.S. or in their home countries.

The U.S. must absolutely ensure that contractors like Catholic Charities provide the young women in their care with access to quality reproductive health care, but the U.S. government’s responsibilities extend far beyond this requirement.

Looking at immigrant women’s (all women’s) rights in this way, it is clear that the potential lack of access to abortion is not the only factor contributing to a climate of reproductive oppression rather than reproductive justice for immigrant women of any age. Denial of reproductive justice is also caused by U.S. policies that foster violence and instability in Central America, restrictive U.S. immigration laws that continue to put migrants in harm’s way, and devastating U.S. policies that detain women and their children once they arrive.

In the same way, it is not only anti-abortion institutions that are interested in controlling young women’s bodies and access to reproductive justice. The organized anti-immigrant movement is just as invested—only from a different angle.

Draconian immigration laws won by the anti-immigrant movement do not deny reproductive justice for immigrant women merely by accident—this denial of rights is a founding principle of the anti-immigrant movement. John Tanton, the founder of the modern anti-immigrant movement, explicitly saw eugenics and low immigration as two sides of the same “population control” coin. His goal, and the goal of the movement he created, has always been the same: preserving the dominance of the white population in the U.S. by limiting the number of people of color who live here-whether by reducing immigration or preventing women of color from having babies.

Between the anti-immigrant movement on one hand, with its roots in eugenics, and powerful anti-abortion institutions on the other hand, immigrant women are stuck in the middle fighting for their rights.

That is why those of us committed to justice must reject right-wing pressures from opposing ends of the spectrum and uplift the needs of immigrant women themselves: to determine what happens to their bodies, to access quality, non-coercive reproductive health care, including abortions, when they want, to have children if they want to, and to raise their children in a healthy and safe environment.

This will require challenging entire systems designed to prevent women from exercising their bodily autonomy, but it is the only way to fight for all of the rights that women deserve.

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