Julián Castro broke out from the pack at the first Democratic presidential candidate debate Wednesday, distinguishing himself in part because of the way he spoke about abortion.
“I don’t believe in only reproductive freedom; I believe in reproductive justice,” the former San Antonio mayor and Obama Cabinet member said in response to a question on abortion. “What that means is that just because a woman — or, let’s not forget someone in the trans community ... is poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose.”
Castro’s use of the term “reproductive justice,” in particular, sent a powerful message. Since Roe v. Wade, the abortion debate has traditionally centered on a woman’s “right to choose.” When abortion is debated in government or the media, the conversation often revolves around the notion of “choice”: Leaders identify as “pro-choice” and advocate for women to have the “freedom” to make their own decision on the issue.
But many abortion advocates say this language is limiting.
“The narrative has been that people just need the choice,” said Wula Dawson, communications director at the Feminist Women’s Health Center, an abortion clinic in Atlanta. “But a choice is meaningless if you don’t have the transportation, the means to pay for it.” A woman might also be unable to access legal abortion because of an abusive husband or unsupportive parents. Whatever the reason, Dawson said, it’s important to recognize that the legal availability of an abortion doesn’t necessarily mean that a woman will be able to access the service.
“When we talk about ‘choice,’ it’s as though all other things are equal. It’s as if you have an apple in front of you and an orange in front of you, and everyone is telling you that you have the ability to make a choice. But it doesn’t consider that you have an allergy to the apple, so really the orange is the only option,” said Kwajelyn Jackson, the executive director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center.
The Feminist Women’s Health Center (FWHC), founded in 1976, made the decision in the early 2000s to explicitly distance itself from pro-choice language, said Jackson. “Over the years,” the center says on its website, “we recognized the need to adopt an intersectional approach and move away from a pro-choice centered framework.”
Instead, FWHC — along with many other clinics and abortion-rights organizations — has adopted the term “reproductive justice.” The term, coined by a group of black female activists who gathered in Chicago in 1994, is generally defined as the human right to maintain “bodily autonomy:” to have access to safe and legal abortion, as well as a host of other services related to reproductive health, including birth control, pregnancy care, domestic violence services and sex education.
When Castro defined the term “reproductive justice,” still relatively uncommon in the national conversation on the issue, particularly among male officials, he made it clear that he recognizes the difference between “choice” and “access.”
The feminist writers and activists of the Twitterverse noticed.
Immediately after Castro’s answer on abortion, Rebecca Traister, writer-at-large for New York Magazine and author of “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” tweeted, “Castro is excellent.” Jessica Valenti, author of several feminist books including “Sex Object” and “The Purity Myth,” tweeted Castro’s quote, “I don’t only believe in reproductive freedom, I believe in reproductive justice,” along with a GIF of Jennifer Lopez standing up from her seat, clapping.