UW News

June 24, 2022

‘Folks on the ground have been activated and ready’: UW expert on reproductive justice and the U.S. Supreme Court

UW News

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Friday that overturned the federal guarantee of the right to an abortion fuels an ongoing movement for reproductive justice, says the University of Washington’s Bettina Judd.

Judd, a UW associate professor of gender, women and sexuality studies, notes that while the overturning of Roe v. Wade is the latest in continual government efforts to control reproduction, there is a legacy of resistance to those efforts. Reproductive justice addresses not just the choice to end a pregnancy, but also the choice to raise a child, and to be able to do so in communities that are safe, with access to basic needs like food, water, shelter and health care.

This ruling comes on the heels of tragedies that exemplify these very issues, she said.

Bettina Judd

“We are in a moment where we’re kind of reeling from the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and that’s a reproductive justice issue: to be able to raise your children and not be in fear of a mass shooter while they’re at school, or while you’re at the grocery store, as in the case in Buffalo, or while you’re at church, as in the case of Charleston,” Judd said. “There is an expansive set of ideas of reproductive justice that bends toward justice, and not just toward the legal discourse around rights.”

Judd, who has focused much of her research on the history of gynecology and of medical racism more broadly, spoke with UW News about the significance of the Supreme Court ruling and its potential impacts.


Where, and to whom, will this ruling have the most serious impacts?

There are states that have trigger laws to, in effect, not only ban but criminalize abortion and the assisting of someone seeking an abortion. A lot of those states are predominantly in the Midwest and the South, but they’re also in this part of the country, where states like Washington, which border states with such laws, will be affected. We will be needing to offer this form of health care for folks essentially fleeing and crossing borders to get it. There are regions of the country that are already impacted, where people have to take a trip to another county or state very far from home in order to get this care, and that’s before this ruling landed. Then we’ll also see pressure on the resources that are available. In states that have laws on the books to ensure the right to an abortion, there will be funding issues, and clinics that provide this form of health care will be laden with a lot of work to do.

To contact Judd and other reproductive rights experts at the UW, see this list.

Laws like this affect poor women, women of color, women who are immigrants or who are under surveillance by the carceral state — those who are, in general, just a little more vulnerable to the state. These are folks who are in rural communities and urban communities alike. And we’ve known this, because these are precisely the folks who have had problems accessing reproductive health care before this ruling was brought down.


How does this ruling relate to some of the issues you study, namely medical racism and violence?

I think that there is a through line, and I talk about them as legacies because they still impact health care and reproductive care today. I’m thinking about the recent comments by Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, who said that if you don’t count Black women, then maternal mortality rates are actually not a problem. The fact that we have much higher maternal and infant mortality death rates in this country is astounding; it shows us that we, in fact, do not have the best health care system. What we know about maternal mortality rates in Black women is that it is largely due to the kind of care they’re provided. And it’s across class. You can have the best insurance, you can have the deepest pockets, and still be at risk of really fatal consequences due to being pregnant. One of the kinds of dystopic, terrible things about this ruling and its relationship to that, is that in a country where Black women are far more likely to die during childbirth, to force folks toward childbirth also seems like a death plan. I don’t think of it as happenstance that that is the idea, because there is this sense that Black reproductive lives matter less, that this nation would somehow be better off if Black women stopped having children.

That is related to this longer legacy of reproduction and the origins of gynecology, because in the era of slavery, Black woman’s reproduction was necessary under a form of capitalism that relied on Black bodies as material possessions, as literal capital. We see after emancipation, during Reconstruction and well into the 20th century, a turn from making sure that Black women have children, to saying Black folks are a problem because they are prone to disease, they are a burden on society. We see this in the legacy of eugenics, and in the infamous Moynihan Report, which blames the Black plight of poverty on Black women. We see this kind of longer history related to an overarching concern with Black reproduction.


What do you think gets overlooked about these issues?

One of the things we know about folks who want access to abortion care is that their decision to do so is because they cannot afford a child, and that most people who access abortion care already have children. Concurrent with stripping access to abortion is also the stripping of what folks on the right are calling entitlements – food stamps, even WIC, the nutrition program for women, infants and children. Without access to the means of supporting and sustaining healthy children, that exacerbates poverty in communities that are already at risk because of a lack of basic resources like food and clean water. These are the communities that are policed heavily, that have schools classified as failing, where there is a link between getting in trouble at school and having your behavior marked as troublesome, and then being put into a pipeline toward juvenile delinquency and into prisons. The pipeline itself, the failing schools, the access to food and clean water, are reproductive justice issues. Knowing that one is not ready to have a child is not only a deeply personal decision, but also political in that we have created a society that makes it a Herculean feat to be ready, if you are poor and of color.

At the beginning of all this is a person who says, I am not ready to have a child. To exacerbate that condition by forcing that person to have children is to bloat a system that’s already very much interested in putting more poor Black and brown children in its maw.


What comes next for people who support reproductive justice?

States where abortions are legal will have to carry the load. Abortion funds help those who need access to care, who need to be able to travel to get an abortion, who need a place to stay while they’re getting health care. Marching and protesting is also wonderful because it allows you to recognize that you are not alone in feeling disgruntled and helpless, but helplessness is not the end of this. There are people who have been doing this work, who continue to do this work, so you can join up with them.

These people have been preparing for this moment for decades, since just a few years after Roe v. Wade with the Hyde Amendment. Folks on the ground have been activated and ready. It’s going to take a lot of folks to get on board and understand the kind of long game that’s been played, and what folks who have been active are continuing to do now. We’re not just thinking about what the Supreme Court might deem our rights and what local courts might deem our rights, but what is just. The folks who I know who are doing this work are committed to doing what’s just.


For more information, contact Judd at bjudd@uw.edu.