Reproductive Justice and Our Classrooms
Illustrator: Sawsan Chalabi
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in late June with its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. This will trigger abortion bans in roughly half the country. The impact is dangerous, devastating, and unequal. Already-marginalized groups — women of color, nonbinary and transgender people — will suffer disproportionately.
Educators must be part of an all-hands-on-deck response to ensure abortion for those who want and need it, and to defend those who are criminalized for accessing care or performing abortions. We should donate to abortion funds and independent clinics, volunteer with support organizations (who help abortion seekers with travel, childcare, and other logistics), and join defense campaigns as the legal harassment of abortion seekers ramps up. (Efforts to support people unjustly criminalized have been prominent in many social movements — think about the organizing to save the Scottsboro Boys or to free Leonard Peltier.)
But educators’ most critical role is to combat the silence, shame, and misinformation around abortion that enables the Right’s war on reproductive justice.
There is no doubt that talking about abortion in our classrooms is difficult. Families can have deeply held beliefs about sex and reproduction that students bring to school. Some school districts require teachers to teach abstinence and restrict them from offering comprehensive sex education. It is impossible to examine abortion without talking about bodies, sex, pregnancy, and, yes, sexual violence, topics many of us feel ill-equipped to confront with adults, much less with young people. And yet, if we are to fight the criminalization of abortion, we also must fight its stigmatization. And that means teaching about it.
Unfortunately, Rethinking Schools has no Teaching Abortion 101 primer. In fact, we have published no articles on abortion — not even in our book Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality. Below are some ideas and resources to bring this struggle into our classrooms. And we invite you to join us by sharing your stories of teaching about abortion, the resources you’ve used, and how your practice is evolving to meet this moment (we encourage you to email our submissions editor, Elizabeth Barbian, with your ideas at email@example.com).
Broaden the Frame to Reproductive Justice
If we are to find places in our curricula to address abortion, we need to start with an analysis so we know what to look for. Abortion is often framed too narrowly — legalistically (a right, a law) or medically (a procedure). Instead, we should heed Black feminists who understand abortion to be part of a larger movement for reproductive justice. SisterSong, a coalition of reproductive health organizations founded in 1997, defines reproductive justice as built on three pillars:
- The right to not have a child, using birth control, abortion, and/or abstinence.
- The right to have a child by resisting strategies of population control, including the right to use midwives and doulas.
- The right to raise children in safe and healthy environments.
This framework challenges the depiction of the struggle for abortion access as an individual “choice” and recasts it as part of a larger movement for gender, racial, environmental, and economic justice. Indeed, rights to birth or abortion or birth control cannot be enjoyed without universal health care; a right to abstinence can be upheld only if there is an end to coercive sex and rape; a right to raise children in safe and healthy environments requires everything from beautiful and generously resourced schools to an end to burning fossil fuels. Abortion’s foes seek to remove pregnancy and abortion from the complicated context of people’s actual lives; reproductive justice demands we see the broader reality that shapes — and limits — people’s choices and actions.
Avoid Oversimplification by Centering Stories
One in four women will have an abortion by the age of 45. A number of storytelling efforts bring what is an incredibly common experience out of the shadows. Young people in Chicago wrote and performed a critically acclaimed play called This Boat Called My Body about the difficulties faced by teenagers seeking abortions. Advocates for Youth, an organization that fights for “honest sexual health information,” started the 1 in 3 Campaign to harness the power of stories to “strengthen support for young people’s access to abortion.” The founder of Shout Your Abortion, a platform to share abortion stories, explained that a “shout is not a celebration or a value judgment,” but is “the opposite of a whisper, of silence.”
Reading even a handful of the stories collected at Shout Your Abortion can provide students a glimpse of the varied motivations behind and feelings about abortion as told by the people who have sought them. Bonnie finds herself pregnant at 16. Though on birth control pills, a course of antibiotics for strep throat had weakened the pill’s efficacy, “although no one told me that was possible.” She wrote, “I felt relief and I felt certain in my choice to end my pregnancy.” For Audrey, “the pregnancy itself made me feel powerful and brought a whole new perspective on life for me.” Ultimately, though, she decided to seek an abortion because her ex-partner was unwilling to offer financial support and she had “some emotional trauma” to work through. “I know I made the right choice. For myself and for my unborn. The powerful feeling the pregnancy made me feel, I now use for myself to grow and to one day be prepared for when I become pregnant again.” (See the film, When Abortion Was Illegal.)
Building the critical capacities of young people involves asking them to think about categories like “crime,” that can seem as natural as the air we breathe, but are in fact historical, social inventions created by people. Who decides what is a crime? Who is and is not a criminal? What makes a law legitimate? What do our students think about a criminal “justice” system that sentences 19-year-old Brittney Poolaw to four years in prison for suffering a miscarriage but allows Exxon to freely pollute our air, water, and future?
Emphasize Themes of Reproductive Justice in What We Already Teach
Many of us teach about enslavement, but might fail to emphasize the degree to which it involved not just coerced physical labor, but coerced reproductive labor. As historian Peggy Cooper Davis recently wrote in the Washington Post, many enslaved people responded to forced pregnancy by seeking out abortion and abortifacients. “There is little doubt that these actions were enslaved women’s efforts to exert control over their bodies and their progeny,” wrote Cooper Davis. These acts of reproductive resistance should be included in our lessons on the myriad methods — running away, breaking tools, faking illness, revolts — enslaved people used to defy their captivity. When we look for examples of reproductive justice, we will begin to see them throughout the curriculum. Luther Standing Bear’s memoir recounting his time at Carlisle Indian Industrial School can teach about reproductive justice — illustrating the denial of “the right to raise children in safe and healthy environments.” The history of U.S. imperialism in Puerto Rico involves reproductive justice. United States “public health” campaigns sterilized roughly one-third of Puerto Rican women between 1903 and 1970 — an obvious abrogation of “the right to have a child by resisting strategies of population control.”
Teach Comprehensive Sex Education — and Not Just in Health Class
In “Elbow Is Not a Sexy Word” (Winter 2015–16 issue of Rethinking Schools), Jody Sokolower vividly describes how she gets her students talking — and writing — about sex, sexuality, and reproductive health in her Identity and Ethnic Studies class. All of us should look for teachable novels, short stories, memoirs, and poetry that reveal the complicated and commonplace experiences about sex, sexual violence, pregnancy, forced pregnancy, sterilization, abortion, and miscarriage. Split This Rock, an online social justice poetry organization, has hosted an Abortion Rights Poetry Contest for 10 years, featuring poems like “judgment call,” by Amber Flame:
the day after the _____________, you are
sure you are a stupid girl. that this is
all the proof. you are sure that some
thing huge is over. the ground shook.
the wave crashed. you had an _____________.
you are sure you are the damages.
Rethinking Schools editor Linda Christensen has written that poetry like this — and books like The Color Purple — are often dismissed as “inappropriate” for classroom use (see “#MeToo and The Color Purple” in the Spring 2018 issue of Rethinking Schools). But we do students a disservice when we deny them the wisdom of writers and poets whose stories can help clarify, validate, and guide students’ own complicated experiences and that can be an antidote to isolation.
Teach About the Role of Social Movements in Transforming Society
The current attack on abortion rights must be understood as part of a broader right-wing project. This includes denying health care to LGBTQ+ people, book bans, the reversal of COVID-19 mitigation, the rolling back of voting rights, and how unelected justices came to wield so much power over our lives. It also includes the dozens of curricular gag rules that seek to bar educators from teaching about these realities. To defy these teaching bans, we need to ask students to analyze how these policies are connected and to share hopeful stories of people organizing against them, past and present.
For several days following the leak of the Supreme Court majority’s draft ruling, the phrase “settled law” was ubiquitous. Many were outraged that Trump appointees Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch lied during their confirmation hearings when they described Roe as “settled law,” while harboring plans to overturn it. But what we know — and what we want our students to understand — is that there is no such thing as “settled law.” Dred Scott v. Sandford concluded that Black people could never be citizens. Plessy v. Ferguson proclaimed “separate but equal” the law of the land. Both were overturned, not just by courts, but by social movements.
There is no end point in the fight for justice and equality, no moment when the argument is finally settled. As Angela Davis has said, “Freedom is a constant struggle.” Although that proposition seems exhausting, it is also hopeful. If our wins are never wholly secure, then neither must our losses be permanent. The struggle for reproductive justice continues, and our curriculum must nurture our students’ capacity to envision and participate in its next stages.
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