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10 Essential Essays About Women’s Reproductive Rights

“Reproductive rights” let a person decide whether they want to have children, use contraception, or terminate a pregnancy. Reproductive rights also include access to sex education and reproductive health services. Throughout history, the reproductive rights of women in particular have been restricted. Girls and women today still face significant challenges. In places that have seen reproductive rights expand, protections are rolling back. Here are ten essential essays about reproductive rights:

“Our Bodies, Ourselves: Reproductive Rights”

bell hooks
Published in Feminism Is For Everyone (2014)

This essay opens strong: when the modern feminism movement started, the most important issues were the ones linked to highly-educated and privileged white women. The sexual revolution led the way, with “free love” as shorthand for having as much sex as someone wanted with whoever they wanted. This naturally led to the issue of unwanted pregnancies. Birth control and abortions were needed.

Sexual freedom isn’t possible without access to safe, effective birth control and the right to safe, legal abortion. However, other reproductive rights like prenatal care and sex education were not as promoted due to class bias. Including these other rights more prominently might have, in hooks’ words, “galvanized the masses.” The right to abortion in particular drew the focus of mass media. Including other reproductive issues would mean a full reckoning about gender and women’s bodies. The media wasn’t (and arguably still isn’t) ready for that.

“Racism, Birth Control, and Reproductive Rights”

Angela Davis
Published in Women, Race, & Class (1981)

Davis’ essay covers the birth control movement in detail, including its race-based history. Davis argues that birth control always included racism due to the belief that poor women (specifically poor Black and immigrant women) had a “moral obligation” to birth fewer children. Race was also part of the movement from the beginning because only wealthy white women could achieve the goals (like more economic and political freedom) driving access to birth control.

In light of this history, Davis emphasizes that the fight for reproductive freedom hasn’t led to equal victories. In fact, the movements driving the gains women achieved actively neglected racial inequality. One clear example is how reproductive rights groups ignored forced sterilization within communities of color. Davis ends her essay with a call to end sterilization abuse.

“Reproductive Justice, Not Just Rights”

Dorothy Roberts
Published in Dissent Magazine (2015)

Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body and Fatal Invention, describes attending the March for Women’s Lives. She was especially happy to be there because co-sponsor SisterSong (a collective founded by 16 organizations led by women of color) shifted the focus from “choice” to “social justice.” Why does this matter? Roberts argues that the rhetoric of “choice” favors women who have options that aren’t available to low-income women, especially women of color. Conservatives face criticism for their stance on reproductive rights, but liberals also cause harm when they frame birth control as the solution to global “overpopulation” or lean on fetal anomalies as an argument for abortion choice.

Instead of “the right to choose,” a reproductive justice framework is necessary. This requires a living wage, universal healthcare, and prison abolition. Reproductive justice goes beyond the current pro-choice/anti-choice rhetoric that still favors the privileged.

“The Color of Choice: White Supremacy and Reproductive Justice”

Loretta J. Ross, SisterSong
Published in Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology (2016)

White supremacy in the United States has always created different outcomes for its ethnic populations. The method? Population control. Ross points out that even a glance at reproductive politics in the headlines makes it clear that some women are encouraged to have more children while others are discouraged. Ross defines “reproductive justice,” which goes beyond the concept of “rights.” Reproductive justice is when reproductive rights are “embedded in a human rights and social justice framework.”

In the essay, Ross explores topics like white supremacy and population control on both the right and left sides of politics. She acknowledges that while the right is often blunter in restricting women of color and their fertility, white supremacy is embedded in both political aisles. The essay closes with a section on mobilizing for reproductive justice, describing SisterSong (where Ross is a founding member) and the March for Women’s Lives in 2004.

“Abortion Care Is Not Just For Cis Women”

Sachiko Ragosta
Published in Ms. Magazine (2021)

Cisgender women are the focus of abortion and reproductive health services even though nonbinary and trans people access these services all the time. In their essay, Ragosta describes the criticism Ibis Reproductive Health received when it used the term “pregnant people.” The term alienates women, the critics said, but acting as if only cis women need reproductive care is simply inaccurate. As Ragosta writes, no one is denying that cis women experience pregnancy. The reaction to more inclusive language around pregnancy and abortion reveals a clear bias against trans people.

Normalizing terms like “pregnant people” help spaces become more inclusive, whether it’s in research, medical offices, or in day-to-day life. Inclusiveness leads to better health outcomes, which is essential considering the barriers nonbinary and gender-expansive people face in general and sexual/reproductive care.

“We Cannot Leave Black Women, Trans People, and Gender Expansive People Behind: Why We Need Reproductive Justice”

Karla Mendez
Published in Black Women Radicals

Mendez, a freelance writer and (and the time of the essay’s publication) a student studying Interdisciplinary Studies, Political Science, and Women’s and Gender Studies, responds to the Texas abortion ban. Terms like “reproductive rights” and “abortion rights” are part of the mainstream white feminist movement, but the benefits of birth control and abortions are not equal. Also, as the Texas ban shows, these benefits are not secure. In the face of this reality, it’s essential to center Black people of all genders.

In her essay, Mendez describes recent restrictive legislation and the failure of the reproductive rights movement to address anti-Blackness, transphobia, food insecurity, and more. Groups like SisterSong have led the way on reproductive justice. As reproductive rights are eroded in the United States, the reproductive rights movement needs to focus on justice.

“Gee’s Bend: A Reproductive Justice Quilt Story From the South”

Mary Lee Bendolph
Published in Radical Reproductive Justice (2017)

One of Mary Lee Bendolph’s quilt designs appears as the cover of Radical Reproductive Justice. She was one of the most important strip quilters associated with Gee’s Bend, Alabama. During the Civil Rights era, the 700 residents of Gee’s Bend were isolated and found it hard to vote or gain educational and economic power outside the village. Bendolph’s work didn’t become well-known outside her town until the mid-1990s.

Through an interview by the Souls Grown Foundation, we learn that Bendolph didn’t receive any sex education as a girl. When she became pregnant in sixth grade, she had to stop attending school. “They say it was against the law for a lady to go to school and be pregnant,” she said, because it would influence the other kids. “Soon as you have a baby, you couldn’t never go to school again.”

“Underground Activists in Brazil Fight for Women’s Reproductive Rights”

Alejandra Marks
Published in The North American Congress on Latin America (2021)

While short, this essay provides a good introduction to abortion activism in Brazil, where abortion is legal only in the case of rape, fetal anencephaly, or when a woman’s life is at risk. The reader meets “Taís,” a single mother faced with an unwanted pregnancy. With no legal options, she researched methods online, including teas and pills. She eventually connected with a lawyer and activist who walked her through using Cytotec, a medication she got online. The activist stayed on the phone while Taís completed her abortion at home.

For decades, Latin American activists have helped pregnant people get abortion medications while wealthy Brazilians enter private clinics or travel to other countries. Government intimidation makes activism risky, but the stakes are high. Hundreds of Brazilians die each year from dangerous abortion methods. In the past decade, religious conservatives in Congress have blocked even mild reform. Even if a new president is elected, Brazil’s abortion rights movement will fight an uphill battle.

“The Ambivalent Activist”

Lauren Groff
Published in Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 years of Landmark ACLU Cases (2020)

Before Roe v. Wade, abortion regulation around the country was spotty. 37 states still had near-bans on the procedure while only four states had repealed anti-abortion laws completely. In her essay, Groff summarizes the case in accessible, engaging prose. The “Jane Roe” of the case was Norma McCorvey. When she got pregnant, she’d already had two children, one of whom she’d given up for adoption. McCorvey couldn’t access an abortion provider because the pregnancy didn’t endanger her life. She eventually connected with two attorneys: Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee. In 1973 on January 2, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that abortion was a fundamental right.

Norma McCorvey was a complicated woman. She later became an anti-choice activist (in an interview released after her death, she said Evangelical anti-choice groups paid her to switch her position), but as Groff writes, McCorvey had once been proud that it was her case that gave women bodily autonomy.

“The Abortion I Didn’t Want”

Caitlin McDonnell
Published in Salon (2015) and Choice Words: Writers on Abortion (2020)

While talking about abortion is less demonized than in the past, it’s still fairly unusual to hear directly from people who’ve experienced it. It’s certainly unusual to hear more complicated stories. Caitlin McDonnell, a poet and teacher from Brooklyn, shares her experience. In clear, raw prose, this piece brings home what can be an abstract “issue” for people who haven’t experienced it or been close to someone who has.

In debates about abortion rights, those who carry the physical and emotional effects are often neglected. Their complicated feelings are weaponized to serve agendas or make judgments about others. It’s important to read essays like McDonnell’s and hear stories as nuanced and multi-faceted as humans themselves.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.