Issue 10.1-10.2 | Fall 2011/Spring 2012 / Guest edited by Joseph N. DeFilippis, Lisa Duggan, Kenyon Farrow, and Richard Kim

Reproductive and Genetic Justice

This article is adapted from a keynote speech delivered at the national conference of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women in January 2007.

Longing is a powerful feeling. It aches. It pangs. It rolls. It roils. It changes us.

This longing is where I want to start because all of us have felt longing for something; longing that feels deeply personal. Some longing that we feel is for intangibles like love, freedom, justice, and safety. Many of us experience more concrete and specific longing, including the powerful desire for a child.

Historically, many queer people have longed for, birthed, and raised children. These children were usually created within previously existing heterosexual relationships. But in the last 20 years, we have seen a sea change in queer communities as advances in reproductive technology have made it increasingly possible for queer people to have children together. Though there are no comprehensive statistics about how many queer people are raising children, the 2000 US Census (the first to include “unmarried partner” as a category) shows that one out of three households headed by female couples, and one in five households headed by male couples, reported having children under the age of eighteen in their homes. The census doesn’t identify single-parent lesbian and gay households, nor does it specify bisexual and transgender individuals. But it does show that US households are more diverse than just the one man, one woman, and 2.1 child model.[1] The National Health and Social Life Survey data supplement the census, showing that anywhere between 1 and 9 million children are raised in lesbian and gay households.[2]

The shift toward support for queer child rearing is reflected in the halls of our LGBT community centers. Twenty years ago, queer people rarely believed they could have children, and more rarely expected social support for their families if they did. Today, queer young people often include children in their life plans as a matter of course. Their longing and planning for children is now harnessed and amplified by the many family programs that began springing up twenty years ago. In the beginning, these programs provided sites for sharing stories of lesbian and gay people who were miraculously able to overcome all the barriers to create families of their own, through pregnancy or adoption. The family programs facilitated collective conversations about connecting sperm donors with women, navigating homophobic medical providers, or passing a home study. In the early days many lesbians took a do-it-yourself approach, asking gay male friends to be sperm donors, and deploying turkey basters at home. AIDS changed all that. With AIDS, sperm became dangerous, so the “above board” fertility industries that could guarantee HIV-negative gametes became more important and LGBT people worked at breaking down those doors, educating providers, and eventually offering themselves up as a marketable community.

Though the “gayby” phenomenon is booming today, there are still many barriers to, misconceptions about, and just plain mean-spiritedness toward queer parenting. As documented in the ACLU publication, Too High A Price: The Case Against Restricting Gay Parenting, queer folks in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia have recently been denied parental custody because of sexual orientation. There are also numerous cases of limited visitation for gay or lesbian parents, based on fear of exposing children to the “lifestyle.” The right to foster or adopt is also restricted in some states. Most infamously, Florida has the distinction of being the only state with an outright ban on all LGBT adults adopting children.[3]

In addition to political messages that repeatedly tell queers that we aren’t legitimate parents, I think we can all also learn a lesson from Mary Cheney. Yes—Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter and tireless campaigner for the Republican Party who became a mom. She carried the child she was having with her partner Heather Poe. What did her friends say about it when she was pregnant?

Focus on the Family said: “Mary Cheney’s pregnancy raises the question of what’s best for children. Just because it’s possible to conceive a child outside of the relationship of a married mother and father doesn’t mean it’s the best for the child.”[4]

Concerned Women for America, called Cheney’s pregnancy “wrong:” “They’re deliberately bringing a child into the world without a father, leaving a great gaping hole. Father absence is the biggest problem we’re facing in this country and the root cause of all sorts of negative outcomes such as drug use, juvenile delinquency. You name it.”[5] And, “Mary and Heather can believe what they want, but what they’re seeking is to force others to bless their nonmarital relationship as marriage and to create a culture that is based on sexual anarchy instead of marriage and family values. Mary’s pregnancy is an “in-your-face” action countering the Bush Administration’s pro-family, pro-marriage and pro-life policies. She continues to repudiate the work to which her father has devoted his life”.[6]

Mary’s political allies have consensus: queer people are not legitimate reproducers. So what do we do when our longings get thrown back in our faces in these hostile terms? At this point in time, any rejection of queers as parents stirs up very raw feelings. It is certainly understandable that our knee-jerk reaction would be defiance: to follow our longings and make babies without further thought about how we do it. But it would be a mistake to do this without grappling with the full set of reproductive justice issues in coalition with the other progressive groups that we need to build and maintain effective alliances.

Reproductive Justice

The reproductive rights movement in the United States, in the years leading up to and following the pivotal Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, has focused primarily on protecting women’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. The enshrining of the right of access to abortion within the context of women’s right to make medical decisions privately is a negative right, that is, a right we have as individuals that the government can’t intrude upon. However, there is no right that says the state should provide the resources needed to make significant reproductive choices. For many, this narrow right to choose in private is simply not enough. What good is the right to choose when a woman cannot afford either abortion services or child care? In addition, the pro and con framing of the abortion debate pushes us into a corner from which it is very difficult to speak to the ambivalence many women who have abortions experience. Some women absolutely feel relief, but others feel regret, or sadness, or anger, or guilt. On a parallel track, the reproductive health movement has focused on protecting women’s access to reproductive care, especially contraception, rather than on the social and economic conditions within which reproductive decisions are made, and made possible.

Poor women of color, progressive queers, and our allies have developed another framework that goes beyond protecting the right to choose whether to become or remain pregnant to address the longing to have and care for children as well. Reproductive justice provides a broader movement agenda than the reproductive rights and reproductive health movements have offered in the decades since Roe v. Wade. As the Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice’s seminal statement (PDF) explains: “Reproductive justice exists when all people have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our gender, bodies and sexuality for ourselves, our families and our communities.”[7]

Why should queers in particular care about reproductive justice and adopt the larger framework of reproductive justice? There are clearly longstanding legal, policy, and moral connections between the LGBT movement and the reproductive rights movement (reflected in the reliance on Roe v. Wade within Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court ruling that struck down sodomy laws7).[8] These connections become clear when we understand the framework of reproductive justice. The reproductive justice framework shifts the conversation from an exclusive focus on the right to choose not to have children, to advocating for the access to the resources that can make it truly possible to have children and raise them with dignity. It also provides a framework for analyzing the complex and controversial question: Who is a legitimate reproducer?

Happily, there are exciting developments in the field of cross-movement progressive organizing. One organization, Generations Ahead, works with groups around the country to expand the public debate on reproductive and genetic technologies, and to examine the benefits and consequences of different options for different communities. Generations Ahead brings together different movements—disability rights, reproductive rights, reproductive justice, LGBTQ rights, and racial justice—to build the capacity of all our organizations to develop informed positions and advocate for socially just policies. Through organizations such as Generations Ahead, movements are grappling with some big questions about “choice” and choices, about social justice principles, about politics, about frameworks, and indeed, about parenting. There are a lot of questions we need to ask that fundamentally impact queer communities.

Assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) help people have children. They include turkey basters, sperm banks, alternative insemination, fertility drugs, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and many other techniques or varieties of techniques that can be used alone or in combination with one another. All of these technologies help women (and one known trans man!) become pregnant. They help women who wish to delay pregnancy beyond the prime childbearing years. They are also critically important to LGBT people who choose to have biological children.

But there are a lot of questions about ARTs, particularly when they intersect with genetic technologies. Just because we can choose the race, height, weight, IQ, schooling, disposition, hair color, and disease history from a sperm bank or an egg donor, should we? How do the choices involved in ARTs differ from those we make when we choose partners to reproduce with the “old fashioned” way? How do we process and handle continuing advances in genetic technology, medicine, and science? We can test for the sex of a child earlier than ever; some companies will send you a home kit that will allow you to check the sex of a fetus in time for you to abort if you have the “wrong” one. Should we allow this kind of practice? Now that we can test for a wide range of chromosomal and genetic irregularities, should we?[9] What do we think about preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), the combination of genetic testing and IVF? Parents might create dozens of zygotes, test them, and select some over others. What if parents could choose a lighter skin child? What if scientists pinpoint a “gay gene”? Who will make these decisions?

The trick is to find answers to the questions that don’t create wedges between communities, or expect people to choose one identity over another. Right now, we have the chance to get ahead of the curve on the new biotech booms, to understand them before we get used by them. We also have an opportunity to work together toward truly inclusive, democratic policies that support all kinds of kinship formations. We need policies that acknowledge that most of our families do not look like the Cleavers. We are making revolutionary families every day—sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice. We are creating new policies and politics to address these realities. If we don’t create what we need together, we will be isolated from one another and can be manipulated or used as wedges against each other. It is time for the LGBT community, the reproductive justice movement, birthing advocates, disability activists, indigenous women, people of color, and other interested constituencies to come together to create a common future.

  1. Married-Couple and Unmarried-Partner Households: 2000 (PDF). US Census Bureau, Special Report. Accessed April 9, 2012. [Return to text]
  2. Ellen Perrin, “Coparent or Second Parent Adoption by Same-Sex Parents,” Pediatrics 109.2 (2002): 341. [Return to text]
  3. Leslie Cooper and Paul Cates, Too High A Price: The Case Against Restricting Gay Parenting, 2nd ed. (New York: American Civil Liberties Union, 2006). [Return to text]
  4. Jim Reutenberg, “Cheney Pregnancy Stirs Debate on Gay Rights,” The New York Times 7 Dec. 2006. Accessed April 6, 2012. [Return to text]
  5. Jake Tapper, “Cheney’s Grandchild Will Have Two Mommies,” ABC News 6 Dec. 2006. [Return to text]
  6. Janice Shaw Crouse, “Mary Cheney’s Pregnancy Affects Us All,” 7 Dec. 2006. Accessed July 6, 2009. [Return to text]
  7. See Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, A New Vision for Reproductive Justice (PDF), (2005). [Return to text]
  8. For a full explanation of the linkages between the reproductive rights and LGBT movement, visit Causes in Common. [Return to text]
  9. Roni Rabin, “Screen All Pregnancies for Down Syndrome, Doctors Say,” The New York Times 9 Jan. 2007. Accessed April 6, 2012. [Return to text]