Health & Social Policy

Reproductive Justice Must Include Intersex Justice

Local and national news outlets have covered endless stories on reproductive health care and policy in the past few months. For example, after Justice Brett Kavanaugh was sworn into the United States Supreme Court last October, the nation wondered what implications his conservative voice on the court would have on the future of the historic Roe v. Wade decision, a landmark decision at the center of reproductive justice. In response to these questions and stories, reproductive justice advocates have made their voices heard in defense of bodily autonomy, particularly for people with vaginas and uteruses.

The reproductive justice movement definitively differs from the pro-choice or feminist movements. While choice focuses on abortion access and feminism focuses on issues affecting women and girls, reproductive justice refers more broadly to the ability of people of all identities and backgrounds to have the opportunity to determine the shape or size of their family. The reproductive justice movement is adamantly intersectional; it intends to be inclusive of everyone who needs representation and defense for their reproductive rights and is mindful of the unique challenges of minority subgroups within the movement. For example, people of color and LGBTQIA+ individuals experience different and often uniquely difficult hardships regarding reproductive justice than do white women. However, inclusion efforts made by the reproductive justice movement must be extended further in order to be truly intersectional.

Alicia Roth Weigel, an LGBTQIA+ advocate, has dramatically changed the conversation about reproductive justice. Weigel’s political advocacy in Texas began three years ago after a call with Wendy Davis brought her to Austin to work for Davis’ Deeds Not Words, a newly launched women’s advocacy organization. With Deeds Not Words, Weigel supported survivors of sexual assault as they made their testimonies to legislators and political organizations. Every day she encouraged marginalized voices to make themselves heard, all the while staying silent about her own secret marginalized identity.

Weigel was born with internal testes, which were surgically removed shortly after she was born. This medically unnecessary surgery forcibly sterilized her by removing the part of her anatomy with the capacity to produce gametes (sex cells). Because she was forcibly assigned female anatomy at birth, she was never allowed the chance to reach reproductive maturity with reproductive anatomy. She was denied the choice to ever have her own biological children by her doctor and by the system that normalized and encouraged such surgeries.

In 2017 when Senate Bill 3, the “bathroom bill,” was heard in a special session in the Texas state legislature, Weigel chose to come out in a way that she hoped would help others. With support from Davis and new transgender activist and friend Danielle Skidmore, Weigel testified against the bathroom bill on July 21, 2017. In the testimony, she came out publicly as intersex, and explained that although her medical record and her genitalia would categorize her as “female” on the societally imposed dichotomy of biological sex, her genes would categorize her as male because she has a Y chromosome.

Texas Senate Bill 3 asserted that gendered bathroom use must be dictated on the basis of biological sex. The underlying assumptions of the bathroom bill were that there are two clear cut biological sexes, male and female, and that genitalia or genes can be used to determine which biological sex an individual belongs to. Weigel testified as someone for whom this assumption would not hold. She and other intersex individuals, which comprise approximately 1.7 percent of the global population, cannot fit into this false male-female dichotomy, rendering the dichotomy a worthless basis for policy decisions.

Intersex issues are in the “visibility” stage of advocacy. That is, most of the population doesn’t know what intersex means or is unaware of the realities of the intersex experience. Intersex individuals are often forced into silence by the medical community so early in their lives that they live without the knowledge of their own voice in the matter, and as such face difficulties in becoming visible to the rest of the world. As a result, being intersex can be extremely isolating. Learning to speak up by the example of others in the intersex community is often difficult because of its small size and wide global distribution. Once intersex advocacy is able to move past the visibility stage and more of the global population can recognize the issues of the community, the movement will be able to focus on issues of equity.

Weigel suggests that the reproductive justice movement could make a greater effort to be inclusive of and to support intersex advocacy. Reproductive justice often focuses on the rights of people with vaginas and uteruses, and has primarily been grounded in abortion-forward work. The normalization of having abortions and efforts toward widespread abortion access are major reproductive issues worth investing time and resources into. However, the intersex community faces many reproductive injustices completely unrelated to abortion, and these issues are often left unacknowledged by the reproductive justice movement.

Preventing people from choosing whether to have children is reproductive injustice. Forced sterilization of children is undeniably reproductive injustice. Most young children born with intersex anatomy are given medically unnecessary surgeries, often involving sterilization. The medical industrial complex has evidently prioritized the socially constructed two-sex dichotomy above the reproductive rights of the people who do not easily fit within it. Fighting medically unnecessary gender assignment surgeries on intersex children is a major issue on the intersex advocacy agenda. This fight should be on the reproductive justice agenda as well.

Surgeries are not the only intersex issue interconnected with reproductive concerns. In order to adequately address intersex issues in a fully intersectional capacity, the reproductive justice movement must integrate intersex voices into all aspects of the pursuit of reproductive justice. Focusing on community building, ending stigma, and supporting stories could yield huge dividends in increasing intersex visibility. Reproductive justice and intersex policy and legislative outreach groups could support one another by co-sponsoring or co-writing bills addressing intersectional issues concerning both groups.

There is great potential for the reproductive justice movement to bring intersex advocacy, which so often struggles to be acknowledged at all, into the light. There are many issues faced by the intersex community that are reproductive justice concerns, as they limit the opportunity for people to determine the shape or size of their families. When reproductive justice advocacy claims intersectionality, it must include intersex justice.

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