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What Is Reproductive Justice? Exploring the Role of Social Workers

February 2, 2023

Do governments have a responsibility to create safe, healthy environments for raising children? Who should get to decide how many children a person can have — the individual or the state? Should a person face legal punishment for having an abortion?

Reproductive justice is an interdisciplinary framework of principles and values designed to answer these and many other questions related to reproductive issues. Coined by Black women activists, the term “reproductive justice” refers to the fight for the right to control one’s own reproductive decisions.

Many different stakeholders have a role to play in promoting reproductive justice, including social workers. Social workers can promote reproductive justice in many ways, including the following:

  • Expanding comprehensive sex education
  • Promoting safe and healthy sexual activity
  • Removing barriers to reproductive health care
  • Addressing inequities in maternal and infant mortality rates
  • Promoting parental autonomy, including the choice of when to become pregnant, give birth and raise children
  • Developing social programs to foster environments in which to safely become pregnant, give birth and raise children
  • Addressing the roots of reproductive injustice such as misogyny, racism, classism, ableism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination and marginalization

An advanced education in social work, rooted in the principles of social justice and human rights, can help prepare social work professionals for this important work.

What Are Reproductive Rights?

Reproductive rights are human rights related to reproductive health and choice. They describe both what people are entitled to and what they are legally allowed to do.

Reproductive Rights Are Human Rights

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines reproductive rights as the “basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely” how many children they will have and if and when they will have children, with the necessary information and support to do so according to the “highest standard of sexual and reproductive health.” This means that no person should have to seek unsafe or substandard reproductive health services.

Reproductive rights include access to:

  • Sex education
  • Family planning
  • Fertility treatment
  • Contraception
  • Abortion
  • Sterilization, or permanent birth control

Women of color brought the notion of reproductive justice into public consciousness in the 1990s. Before the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, women’s empowerment regarding their own reproductive health was a largely ignored topic in international discussions of human rights. Prior approaches to women’s health often focused on “population control” — attempts to increase or decrease the birth rate, or to reduce the maternal and infant mortality rate of a given population.

In contrast, the concept of reproductive justice recognizes systemic discrimination faced by women of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, immigrants and other vulnerable populations as they navigate bias and barriers to reproductive health care. It involves autonomy and gender equality in health care, legal services and social programs devoted to reproductive health.

As In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda — a national-state partnership devoted to advancing reproductive justice — describes, achieving reproductive justice will require expanding and protecting reproductive rights in many forms. Reproductive justice centers on the “human right to control our sexuality, our gender, our work, and our reproduction,” the group explains. At their core, reproductive rights are about empowering people to make choices about their own bodies, children and families.

Rolling Back the Right to Abortion

As a part of protecting individuals’ rights to autonomy and choice, the WHO includes access to safe and healthy contraception and abortion services as two basic reproductive rights. However, in the U.S., the federally protected right to an abortion ended in 2022 with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Since the Supreme Court’s decision, many states have implemented laws that restrict or expand access to abortion.

While the overturning of Roe v. Wade affects millions of people across the U.S., women of color are disproportionately harmed, according to data collected by health-focused nonprofit KFF. The organization found that women of color are more likely than their white peers to experience:

  • Barriers to health care, including reproductive health care
  • Economic and social inequities that make traveling out of state for abortions more difficult
  • Racial discrimination in health care settings
  • Fears related to immigration issues (for those who are noncitizens or belong to mixed-immigration families)

Social Workers and the Reproductive Justice Framework

In social work, a framework refers to a perspective that can be applied to social work practice. For example, a social justice framework promotes fairness and equity. Reproductive justice frameworks seek to identify and remedy the root causes of reproductive injustice. Social workers have key roles to play in supporting and advocating for reproductive justice.

Reproductive Justice in Social Work

Reproductive justice aligns with the core mission and ethos of social work. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) officially supports reproductive justice. It requires that all licensed social workers support individuals, families and communities in securing reproductive well-being. When it comes to abortion and other potentially controversial procedures, social workers are tasked with promoting justice. The NASW specifically states that social workers should aim to destigmatize abortion — an explicit call to support clients’ bodily autonomy, in alignment with evidence-based practices.

In addition, the NASW says that social workers should do all they can to support their clients in making informed reproductive health decisions. Social workers should strive to empower clients to act in accordance with their own personal beliefs and convictions regarding abortion, contraception and family planning.

How Social Workers Support Reproductive Justice

Given that they often work with underserved or vulnerable populations, social workers are uniquely positioned to advance the cause of reproductive justice. Social workers can promote reproductive justice through direct action with clients in their communities by:

  • Supporting individuals and families who are or may become pregnant by helping them gain access to reproductive health services
  • Assisting clients who have experienced domestic violence, deportation, and other forms of abuse or dislocation
  • Referring clients to medical clinics and social service agencies that affirm and support immigrants, LGBTQ+ individuals and families, and those from racial and ethnic minority groups
  • Referring clients to legal, health and social services (such as reproductive rights advocacy programs, adoption programs and community health programs), according to each client’s specific reproductive health and safety needs
  • Supporting individuals by increasing their personal health literacy, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the “degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others”

Social workers also can be advocates for policies and practices at the local, state and national levels that protect and expand:

  • The right to abortion
  • Contraceptive services
  • Prenatal and postpartum health services
  • Reproductive health services that affirm LGBTQ+ individuals and communities
  • Healthy environments for raising children and growing families
  • Sexual health education programs

Promoting Reproductive Justice Through Social Work

Social workers promote social justice, and that includes reproductive justice. Through direct action with vulnerable clients and political advocacy, social workers can advance reproductive rights for all people.

According to In Our Own Voice, reproductive rights “can only be achieved when all women and girls have the complete economic, social, and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, our families, and our communities in all areas of our lives.” Social workers fight to make this a reality.

Do you want to pursue social work with a focus on social justice, diversity and cultural competence? Explore the Master of Social Work online Program format at Virginia Commonwealth University. The program, designed by social work experts, delivers a diversity of learning experiences that empower individuals to pursue careers focused on improving the lives of individuals, families and communities.