“Know Your Herstory”: Planned Parenthood and Reproductive Justice

This summer at a local Planned Parenthood affiliate, I was one of a few interns working to help organize political and social momentum around women’s health issues for this year’s election cycle. Over and over again, through orientation trainings, webinars, videos, and published handouts, it was explained to us that “pro-choice” was no longer a label that we should use when talking about reproductive rights. These instructions were part of a larger shift in messaging currently taking place organization-wide.

The rationale is that “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are very discrete, uncompromising categories that don’t always fit with the way people actually think about abortion. For example, a person might consider themselves personally pro-life, meaning that they themselves would not choose to have an abortion, but politically pro-reproductive rights in that they still believe other people should be able to make their own decisions. In case anyone is interested, this brief video provides some additional information about the semantic shift:

The reasoning behind this change makes sense to me based on my own conversations with people about abortion access, and is backed up by plenty of survey data collected by Planned Parenthood and other organizations about how people react to different ways of talking and thinking about these issues. But what you don’t often hear, whether in that video, in the trainings and webinars I watched as an intern, or in a recent New York Times article on the subject, is that Planned Parenthood did not come up with the idea. The push to expand the rhetoric of reproductive rights from one of “choice” to one of “justice” is not new, and it expands far beyond just thinking differently about abortion. It is a framework and movement for far-reaching social change that has been created, developed, refined, implemented, and fought for primarily by women of color for the last 20 years.

Last week, Monica Simpson of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective published an open letter to Planned Parenthood calling the organization out for its failure to give credit where credit is due to the women and groups who have been working for reproductive justice all this time, often without the support of Planned Parenthood. I was glad to see such a letter had been written, even as I was simultaneously disappointed in myself for not having said something sooner in my own work environment, where the same problems had been under my nose all summer. I am grateful to Monica and all the other individuals and organizations who contributed to her letter for shedding light on this problem not just for Planned Parenthood as an organization, but also for me as an individual. No one enjoys being called out, but it provides a valuable opportunity to become a better activist and ally in the future.

I know from experience that Planned Parenthood is aware and appreciative of the important contributions to reproductive justice made by other organizations and by women of color. It is evident in this essay written by Dawn Laguens in response to the Times piece, was ever-present at a recent Planned Parenthood-sponsored training for college activists I attended in New York City, and is further underscored by Planned Parenthood Federation of America CEO Cecile Richards’s response to the open letter. Rather than malicious intent, the issue appears to be a lack of consistency (and perhaps thoughtfulness) when it comes to honoring the legacy of reproductive justice throughout the organization and its messaging. Still, even with the best of intentions this is unacceptable and even detrimental to the movement-building efforts to which Planned Parenthood is and has been so committed.

As Cecile says in her response to Monique and the many other individuals and organizations that endorsed her letter: “We appreciate that you push us to [give credit] more, and to do it better. And we hear you when you say that we are not doing enough.” Now the challenge is to truly follow through on doing better.

As I’ve been thinking about Monica’s letter and its implications over the last several days, I’ve been reminded of an experience I had several months ago. In April of this year I was fortunate enough to attend the Civil Liberties and Public Policy (CLPP) conference at Hampshire College. At that event, Loretta Ross, co-founder of SisterSong and one of the originators of the term reproductive justice, was asked a question by one of the conference participants about the best way to go about becoming part of the movement while being an ally to those already entrenched in the fight. Loretta’s response? “Know your herstory.”

Those words have echoed in my brain fairly frequently since then. It is a simple but underrated truth that to be an effective member of any movement, you need to know and respect where it started. It is not acceptable to jump in at one moment in time and claim the work from that point on as your own, even with the best of intentions. The groundwork that anchors a movement, the force that got it moving, and the hard work of building and maintaining momentum was all done by people who came before you, and that shouldn’t be devalued or forgotten. Unintentionally or otherwise, Planned Parenthood’s departure from “choice” rhetoric has so far failed to properly respect those who walked this path before them, clearing the way for more mainstream organizations to follow.

If not for women like Loretta Ross and others who recognized the limitations of the pro-choice label and devised an alternative framework, the movement for reproductive rights and freedom would not be where it is today. Their names and the contributions they made should be in the hearts and minds of all of us who consider ourselves activists moving forward. Many (if not most) of us, from individual activists like myself to large and powerful organizations like Planned Parenthood, could stand to do a better job of knowing and honoring our herstory. It’s certainly not an answer for everything, but I think it’s an important and significant step toward avoiding situations like this in the future.

Kaylee Wolfe
Portland, ME-based sex educator, birth doula, and reproductive rights activist. Domestic violence advocate by day, happy hour aficionado by night. Enjoys cake, Netflix, and sweater weather.

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