Loretta J. Ross stands behind a podium giving a speech at the Women's Media Awards. She has one arm raised and is speaking animatedly.
Loretta Ross speaks at the WMC 2022 Women's Media Awards at Mandarin Oriental Hotel on November 17, 2022 in New York City. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for The Women's Media Center)
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Loretta J. Ross is a human rights advocate and founding member of the organization SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective.

Since its founding in 1997, the group has become a leading voice for the concept of reproductive justice as an alternative framework to pro-choice and anti-abortion arguments. The three tenets of the concept are: the right to have a child; the right not to have a child; and the right to raise a child in a safe and healthy environment. 

Much of it is reflected in Ross’s life experience. Ross became pregnant at age 14, but could not have a legal abortion. She carried the child to term, declined to place him up for adoption and raised him with the help and support of her parents. 

She became pregnant again two years later while in college and was able to have an abortion. But later on, a defective contraceptive device left her sterile.

A longtime activist and former director of the DC Rape Crisis Center, Ross is an associate professor of women and gender studies at Smith College. She is a 2022 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” awarded to outstanding scholars, artists and activists.

*Excerpts of this conversation have been edited for length and clarity. 

In a recent conversation, Ross began with a description of the difficulty of being a parent to a child born of rape whom she would have chosen not to bear and making the decision not to place him for adoption.

I never stayed actively in contact with my cousin, who was my son’s father, but [my son] was desperate to do so. I think all children have an idealized version of their parents, and so it was very difficult for me to permit him to have a relationship with his father when I wanted nothing to do with him… 

My mother and father co-parented with me. Keep in mind I was 14, so I was a baby raising a baby. That would have been an impossible situation for both me and my son if my parents hadn’t agreed to raise him with me.

I didn’t realize, until many, many years later, that I was involuntarily extending my mother’s parenting obligations, because she had had and raised eight kids. That was a tremendous sacrifice on her part… 

Mom was still actively parenting my disabled sister, who was bedridden with polio and spinal meningitis and epilepsy. At the same time, she was taking care of an infant, my son, while I went off to college. We would have never made it if it hadn’t been for my parents.

Two phrases in the contemporary public discourse around abortion are similar but not the same. I asked Ross to explain the difference between reproductive justice and reproductive rights. 

One of the critiques reproductive justice offers is that both the pro-life and pro-choice movements only focus on the pregnancy. They never focus on what is happening in the person’s life before the pregnancy occurs because if the pregnant person doesn’t have economic security, a life free from domestic violence, or the right to stay in school or a bedroom to put a child in, or a whole lot of other human rights issues, all of those issues affect their reproductive decision making.

So when facing an unplanned pregnancy, if you have good answers to those human rights concerns like job security, educational opportunities, a decent place to raise your child, to house your child, to feed your child, then many people dealing with an unplanned pregnancy may turn that unplanned pregnancy into a child. But if you have bad answers to those human rights concerns, then that increases the likelihood of turning that unplanned pregnancy into an abortion.

So starting with the pregnancy is too late. You have to go upstream to examine what human rights violations predate the pregnancy in order to be fully supportive of the person as they make their decisions; … neither the pro-choice movement, nor the pro-life movement concerns itself sufficiently with what happens after the child is born.

What do you make of some of the differences between the way some political analysts tend to talk about the Dobbs decision as opposed to the differences between Black women and white women on a lot of social and political issues? 

We have an atavistic position of not being in control of our bodies as Black people. And so, when we express pro-life sentiments, we tend to say from the perspective that I wouldn’t have an abortion. But I wouldn’t want to keep someone else from controlling their life because we understand what the lack of control over your body and your life feels like because of the enslaved.

We have a tendency to even define the pro-life position quite differently than the harsh anti-abortion position. And that’s how I distinguish between the two phrases. I use pro-life out of respect for people who still allow reproductive autonomy for people to make the decisions for themselves. I use anti-abortion to describe people who are trying to make decisions for others.

Your life’s work has obviously shaped the reproductive justice movement; how we approach and communicate with people we disagree with; how to deprogram people in the hate movement. What’s the glue that holds all these things together? 

I’ve always had a passion for justice, largely because I was treated so unjustly myself, not only dealing with the childhood sexual abuse, but my parents had to sue my school system for my right to return to school. It was very common to expel girls for being pregnant in the 1960s and deny us a right to an education. Even though they weren’t feminists, they recognized discrimination. The boys who made us pregnant never got expelled. It was only the girls.

That’s the through-line that I think I have. I inherited it from my parents; that you don’t take injustices quietly. You fight them. 

I read that you plan to use your MacArthur award to self-finance a long-term care plan. And it reminded me that there is this broader crisis among African Americans who are unable to afford elder care largely due to racial and economic inequalities. How are you thinking about your decision and your life story in relation to this broader crisis?

I’m fortunate enough to still be working as an elder, and to get paid rather handsomely by Smith, and that’s a very privileged position to be in as a Black single woman… But that makes me part of a very small minority who is financially secure among Black women. 

At the same time because I’m diabetic like a third of the American public, I kept getting denied insurance coverage for long-term care because the insurers only want to insure healthy people, not people with pre-existing conditions.

I was worried about what would happen if I required long-term care, particularly since my child had died. If you have children or grandchildren, you somehow hope that they’ll participate in helping provide long-term care. But there’s no guarantee of that; and even if they would, most people don’t want to be a burden on their children or grandchildren. 

And so, rather than use the $800,000 from MacArthur to fund a new project which I don’t need because I’ve got a lot of projects, and I think I have a pretty good legacy already, I decided to be very practical and relieved myself of the worry of being able to finance my long-term care needs. It’s not sexy to talk about long-term care, but it is very urgent for an aging population without universal health care and a pay-to-play system.

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April Simpson joined the Center for Public Integrity in October 2020 as a senior reporter covering racial...