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Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Zakiya Luna: "Reproductive justice wants all families to be seen as equal"

27 Apr 2023
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Zakiya Luna, professor in the Department of Sociology of the University of Washington, specialises in social movements, reproduction, human rights and intersectionality. She is currently doing a stay at the UAB, where she is collaborating with the AFIN research group, which focuses on issues such as gender, human reproduction and family. Luna also gave a conference as part of the seminar organised by the group Research in Sociology of Religion (ISOR-UAB) on 13 April, in which she spoke on subject of her latest book Reproductive Rights as Human Rights. Women of Color and the Fight for Reproductive Justice (NYU Press).

Zakiya Luna

In your introduction, you wrote: "Early women of color activists had long been dissatisfied with the mainstream women's movement". Why did that happen? 

The feminist movement in the United States has made many historic progresses, but from a middle and upper class perspective, and without taking into account terms of race. Minority women have also fought for work and reproductive rights, have made it clear that there are intersections between these issues and those of race, religion and class, and therefore a more innovative thinking with a view on the future is need to weave a movement that englobes all women. Decades, even centuries, have passed trying to create spaces for the feminist movement, and this has caused frustration among many.

What are the main claims of the reproductive justice movement?

The main claim is for women, and all people, to not have children, to have children and to take care of their children. To be able to create the type of family they want with the structure that makes sense to them. The reason why these three ideas are important is the need to have autonomy over your body and make the decisions you want. All families are important, not only the ones that fit the perfect image that is often portrayed in the United States. There are programmes that promote marriage for example, and there are more benefits and you have more access to resources if you are married. The movement for reproductive justice demands that all families, however they are structured, be seen as equal.

Why do minority women have specific problems in this reproductive justice field?

Families must have access to healthcare, which is based on employers, unlike many other countries such as Spain. And that makes a big difference because reproductive healthcare is connected to healthcare in general. If you do not have a good job, it is difficult to have access to basic healthcare or even be visited by a doctor; many times people only go to the emergency room. So, many women experience problems with healthcare, but then they are also affected because they are part of a minority group or due to disabilities. Therefore, solutions also have to take into consideration these intersections, what works for one group of women may not work for another group.

I guess this fight is related to the fight for LGTBI rights as well, or am I wrong?

Yes, many people from the LGTBIQ+ community have problems being acknowledged as a family. In the United States, many children are waiting to be adopted and many families are eager to adopt children, but in some states, LGTBIQ+ people cannot adopt. This is an example of an intersection of rights.

What is SisterSong?

SisterSong is a coalition of organisations which started in 1997 in the US, interested in reproductive issues, and particularly in considering minority perspectives and demanding policies that reflect this complexity and our movements must be more diverse and more innovative in order to bring about change. Some of the early founders had been to international conferences such as the Beijing Conference for Women (1995) and were inspired by the women's movements internationally in talking about the Universal Decleration of Human Rights and the inclusion of healthcare as a human right. There is a lot of activism in the United States, and lots of lessons learned from earlier movements such as the American Indian movement, the Black Panther moviment, the Chicano-Latino movement, which all have strong histories with figures such as Angela Davis, Dolores Huerta, César Chávez... and there are other examples all over the world. SisterSong was unique in looking towards other spaces to see what could be done to improve reproductive issues.

What do you mean when you talk about “US exceptionalism” in the human rights field?

Historically, the US government was involved in the creation of important human rights institutions such as the United Nations and documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, at the same time it is hostile to the full range of human rights. Typically, government programmes under many different presidents look at other countries they consider needing human rights, and this is the justification, with Afghanistan for exemple, to force these rights upon them. The exceptionalism is to demand rights that the US does not guarantee: other countries must follow the model of the US although we have seen that many people in the US do not the right to vote. And these are simply ignored: after almost a decade, there are still challenges to the healthcare laws President Obama put in place.

Did Obamacare have a positive effect on reproductive rights?

Yes. Healthcare improved for people who are poor, but even for people with good jobs and good healthcare. One of the differences was the cost: under Obamacare, there had to be preventive coverage for women’s health exams, for example, so that means your doctor is not charged as much by the insurance company and you do not pay as much. It has improved healthcare at a very basic level for many people. Part of the controversy with Obamacare was that contraception had to be covered and there were religious employers who did not believe in covering contraception, but in most states it is mandatory to cover this health aspect as well.

Will the right to abortion be severely affected because of last year's Supreme Court sentence?

It is already affecting people. There are challenges for the specific types of medications used for abortions. Now they are trying to make it illegal to send medications through the mail, which means that in many places people have to travel long distances to find an abortion clínic in another state. It is as if I had to travel from Barcelona all the way to Paris, because distances can be very large sometimes. This does not only affect the poor, it also affects people with good health coverage but who live in a state in which it is illegal to provide medication abortions. We are also seeing resistance and activism, people coming together to find ways to overcome this and learn from how others in different countries have overcome similar circumstances.

In this country, we are now talking a lot about surrogacy. What is your opinion on that issue?

Many researchers working on reproductive justice observe reproductive technology from the viewpoint of the right to form a family. There are people who biologically cannot have children, due to certain relationships or health issues, and reproductive technology is a way to do this. People can be scared because the science and new tecnologies are problematic, but it is important to discuss the responsibilities of each person and the conditions in which the experience can be beneficial for all parts involved. And making it illegal is not the solution because people travel to places where it is allowed, as they do in the case of abortion. It is better to admit that it exists and think of ways in making it a safe practice.

The UAB, with Sustainable Development Goals

  • Good health and well-being
  • Reduced inequalities
  • Gender equality
  • No poverty