Voices from the Frontlines: Loretta Ross Unveils the Roots and Calls in the Future of Reproductive Justice

February 03, 2024

Voices from the Frontlines: Loretta Ross Unveils the Roots and Calls in the Future of Reproductive Justice

Interview and transcript by Anna Hindman, AMSA Reproductive Health Project Fellow
and 4th year medical student at Touro University California College of Osteopathic Medicine


We are so excited to be joined for our first interview of our new AMSA Reproductive Health Project eNews by one of the founding mothers of Reproductive Justice,  Loretta Ross.  

Loretta J. Ross is a Professor at Smith College in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender where she teaches courses on white supremacy, human rights, and Calling In the Call Out culture. Loretta also is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellow, Class of 2022, for her work as an advocate of Reproductive Justice and Human Rights.

Loretta was the National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective (2005-2012) and co-created the theory of Reproductive Justice. Loretta was National Co-Director on April 25, 2004, March for Women’s Lives in Washington D.C., the largest protest march in U.S. history at that time. She founded the National Center for Human Rights Education (NCHRE) in Atlanta, Georgia,  launched the Women of Color Program for the National Organization for Women (NOW), and was the national program director of the National Black Women’s Health Project. One of the first African American women to direct a rape crisis center, Loretta was the third Executive Director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.

Question: To start off, I just want to say what an honor it is to have you in this space. As one of the founding mothers of Reproductive Justice, can you talk about what this framework means to you.

Loretta: Well, what it means to me is it connects all the dots in my life. I had a baby at 15 through incest, so I couldn’t determine if or when I had sex, so my only choice was whether or not to keep my son that I had once he was born since abortion was not legal in 1968. Then, I wanted to use birth control but my mother wouldn’t sign the permission slip to get birth control since I was only 16. And then at age 23, I was sterilized by Dalkon Shield, a defective IUD [intrauterine device]. So Reproductive Justice connects all the dots on those issues. The right to have a child. The right to not have a child. And the right to parent your children in safe and healthy environments. I’m convinced that what I’ve been through is why we came up with the framework. It wasn’t just mere theory for us.  

Question: Reproductive Justice challenges us to believe that full liberation is achievable. Therefore, this entails that when we center the most marginalized, we do not accept “compromises.” How does this framework inspire you and challenge you?

Loretta: I like that phrase in theory but in practice it doesn’t make sense because the “no compromise” stance is only an indulgence that people with privilege can have. People compromise all the “damn” time. Yes, we should end mass incarceration but at the same time we need to give supplies to the prisons. So this full “liberation or bust” analysis is not realistic for me. Of course we want full liberation but we have to make what’s called” transitional demands” and victories on the way to that full liberation. And a transitional demand is short of an optimal demand but is still on the pathway to what you want. 

Question: Intersectionality is crucial to the RJ framework. Can you talk about what intersectionality is and some examples of intersectional oppression that we see in the medical field?

Loretta: Intersectionality is not a statement of identities so much of a statement of how your identities create vulnerabilities. So a lot of people mistakenly believe that you just bring all of your identities along like beads on a necklace, you know? I’m black, I’m rural and all of that, you know, they just bring it together and that necklace represents who they are. But the question becomes, what about your identities make you vulnerable to oppression? So that’s the purpose of intersectionality. You can be a Scottish Bagpipe Player, that’s your identity, but unless you’re surrounded by people who hate bagpipes, that’s not a source of your oppression. {laughs} So people tend to see intersectionality in a reduced way. The best way I can explain intersectionality is that if you believe that every child has the right to an education, then you might agree that a blind child might need their books in braille, because she has the same human rights of all other sighted children, but you have to pay attention to her vulnerabilities for her to get to those same human rights. That’s how you use intersectionality. 

Question: Can you talk about Reproductive justice as a human rights framework?

Loretta: We created the framework in June of 1994, and then in September 1994, the International Conference of Population and Development was held in Cairo, Egypt. When I went there, I discovered that the same rights we were claiming easily under the constitution, people were using the human rights framework for and that seemed to be much more capacious, sturdier, legal and regimed than what we have. I mean women in the global south were very clear that fighting for bodily autonomy is a human rights struggle but we weren’t at all clear here in the U.S. because we weren’t using human rights language. I came home from Egypt determined to bring human rights home so I attached it to our emerging Reproductive Justice Framework which connected us to the global struggle for human rights which has been nothing but wonderful to be connected that way. 

Question: How has language in the medical community been used to intentionally oppress folks and how can future providers use language to intentionally dismantle these injustices?

Loretta: Ooh God I have a million examples, let me just choose one or two. I was on a panel one time with a guy who was head of Population Council, I think that was his organization, and he said that we are going to have to take extraordinary steps because “too many people are bad ‘contraceptors’.” It took me a minute to process what he said. Bad “contraceptors?” Wasn’t a term I have ever heard. Basically, this jerk was saying that people didn’t know how to use birth control  which is why they needed provider dependent methods vs women friendly methods because they’re bad “contraceptors.” 

Anna: Right, because everyone else isn’t smart enough to understand…. {eye roll}.  

Loretta: Right, well we understand. Well of course you know I tore him a new “asshole” because I understood what he was saying. And so if you count that, there’s crazy language everywhere. I was at MIT once on a Reproductive Justice Panel and one of my fellow panelists was talking about minimal caloric intake necessary to sustain life.

Anna: Ok…..doesn’t seem like what we should be focusing on….

Loretta: That’s what I said. If a woman only receives minimal caloric intake to sustain life, it would not be a good idea for her to get pregnant! And so the clinical abstract ways people discuss humans in the medical and science communities is just jarring. Those are just two examples that I can come up with. I could come up with many more, but I should also say that I am deeply critical of how people are trained to become physicians and other healthcare providers in this country because there is an unnecessary brutalization that takes place that then basically dehumanizes students and then they’re supposed to magically rehumanize themselves once they finish residency.  And I’m like “hell no” after you’ve violated their human rights all you’ve done is increase the likelihood of them being a human rights violator themselves.  

Anna: Absolutely! This is also a huge reason that led me to this project. Thinking about the language and culture in medical education and how that translates into the clinic. There is a lot of pressure and stigma to “do what you’re told” and not question what you’re told. 

Loretta: Right.

Anna: There’s a lot of damage. 

Loretta: The University of Michigan Medical School hired me to do a Reproductive Justice training for them. They didn’t hire me again though {laughs} because I went too far upstream on ‘em. They thought I was just going to talk about, you know, cultural competency when you get to the clinic setting and I was like no I’m going to talk about human rights violations in your training methods. 

Anna: We’re talking about the real world, not talking about buzzwords just so you can check off whatever is on your list. This is real life. 

Loretta: Right. Everyone who I know who has gone into healthcare training, doctor or nurse or whatever, y’all are having their human rights violated in how you train them!  And then suddenly they’re supposed to be able to rehumanize themselves after this ordeal you’ve put them through!? They didn’t invite me back {laughs} 

Anna: Well, I’m sure those words really resonated with the new generation of future providers. 

Loretta: Well some of them, the women that I work with who invited me, continue to work on that. So I’m glad to see that. The University of Michigan is trying to really talk about putting human rights back into medical training. 

Anna: I really like that. Putting Human Rights back into Medical Training. 

Question: Well speaking of collaborations with Universities and students, can you share examples of successful collaborations between healthcare professionals and reproductive justice advocates that have led to positive outcomes for patients?

Loretta: In the abortion field, there are all kinds of successful collaborations because these are the bravest doctors in the world, abortion providers. So that’s the easy answer. I know physicians that jet set across the country intentionally providing services to places with the least access. They can easily be in New York or Washington DC or a place where they can easily make money, but when you choose to go to Arkansas or Alabama or Mississippi that means you are choosing to put yourself on the front line. So I think they are remarkably brave for that. 

Anna: I couldn’t agree more. And with the confusion of legality, that is getting even more confusing

Loretta: On purpose! They want people to be intimidated. 

Anna: Exactly. And we are starting to see some of those real life consequences actually coming to life and it’s scary. 

Loretta: As we predicted. 

Anna: Absolutely. 

Loretta: Well I think we should all be chanting, “Y’all lie, y’all don’t care if women die” because that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s never about the woman. It ain’t even about the fetuses!

Anna: I was gonna say, it’s about power, it’s about control.

Loretta: Yup. I maintain that all these anti-abortionists are damn lucky that we respect patient confidentiality so much because many of them are bringing their wives, daughters and mistresses to the clinics they’re trying to shut down. And yet we can’t out them because of who we all are. 

Anna: Yup. And it’s always the privileged that are going to be able to access this care as well. It doesn’t even affect their lives. They’re just buzzwords to them. It’s just unfathomable to understand that people would just completely disregard women and peoples lived experiences. 

Loretta: I think that they have a secret hatred of women. 

Anna: I think you’re right

Loretta: I mean the same men who are trying to regulate abortion can’t find the hole. I mean what the fuck!? You can’t even find the fucking vaginal hole when you want to have sex yet you’re trying to regulate it!? 

Anna: Listening to men in congress discuss reproductive health and women’s bodies is a bad joke that unfortunately is not a joke at all. 

Loretta: Unfortunately it is. 

Question: What strategies do you recommend for medical students to engage in community-based advocacy and activism related to reproductive justice and human rights?

Loretta: I would say to connect with the community because in every community, there are people, usually people in the lay fields, who are trying to see to the improvement of the health of their community. You know, “town and gown” partnerships would be the best way so you are not re-inventing the wheel and you’re not neglecting the assets that are in the community and that you are validating the organic knowledge that people have in those communities. So “town and gown” partnerships is what I call them. 

Anna: Yes!! I love that. 

Question: Is there anything you would like to highlight, either something you are working on or others in the movement, that we should be looking out for?

Loretta: Well, first of all, I hope that every medical student in your field becomes a member of Physicians for Reproductive Health because that’s your trade association for what you’re trying to do. Also I think increased partnership with midwives and doulas with physicians is a good thing and would like to see more of that. It has been proven, I think, when women have these types of assistance during pregnancy and delivery, they have better birth outcomes so that just makes sense. What else would I like to see? I would like to see more work done in defensive providers. There was a story in Ms. Magazine last week that I recommend you get, that all these health care workers, particularly abortion providers, around the world, are under assault, you know by vigilantes and stuff like that. So there should be a whole human rights defenders mechanism established for health care providers, the same way we would do it for political prisoners or something like that.

Anna: Absolutely. The large house of medicine does not speak up for these attacks on providers! Providers of evidence based care!    

Loretta: Exactly. So I would like to see more of that. 

Question: As we wrap up here, I want to say, we are so excited that you will be the keynote speaker at our upcoming FP4Change

Loretta: Right, I’m looking forward to that!

Question: Can you give us a preview of what we might hear?

Loretta:  I’m sure I’ll be talking about human rights, one way or another, because that’s what I do! 

Anna: Wonderful. We love it! Thank you so much for being here. 

Loretta: Thanks for interviewing me

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