Reproductive Rights

While learning about feminist theory and ideology, you may have stumbled upon the term reproductive rights. Reproductive rights relate to the control any person has to make reproductive choices. Reproductive rights have been a matter of central importance in feminist thought, as restrictive and oppressive patriarchal structures have often limited the ability of individuals to take control of their reproductive health and choices. 

Reproductive Rights Reproductive Rights

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Contents
Table of contents

    In this article, we will explore what we mean by reproductive rights and how these rights affect our daily lives. Additionally, we will delve deeper into the connection between feminist thought and reproductive rights, considering some key social movements which have sought to protect these rights.

    Reproductive rights: meaning

    When we talk about reproductive rights, we mean the acknowledged moral right for individuals to make their own reproductive health and choices. Reproductive rights are applied as an umbrella term, covering a range of different decisions a person makes related to their reproductive health.

    The importance of reproductive rights

    Reproductive health and reproductive decisions affect everyone, regardless of their sex or gender identity. Examples of areas relevant to a person's reproductive health include (but aren’t limited to):

    • Their ability to make educated, non-coerced, reproductive choices.
    • To be free of sexual violence.
    • To choose whether you wish to have children, and if so, when and how many.

    Reproductive rights are acknowledged in our global political system to be crucial for an individual's health and wellbeing. The protection of reproductive rights is also acknowledged to fuel wider positive change including ‘the empowerment of women, social justice and respect for human dignity’1.

    The United Nations acknowledges that reproductive rights intersect with twelve fundamental human rights. These include:

    1. The right to life.2. The right to liberty and security.

    3. The right to health (this tends to include health issues that are sexual or reproductive in nature).

    4. The right to decide the number of children to have.

    5. The right to consent to marriage and marriage equality.6. The right to privacy.

    7. The right to equality and non-discrimination.

    8. The right to be free of all practices that harm women and girls.

    9. The right not to be subject to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.10. The right to be free from sexual and gender-based violence.11. The right to access sexual and reproductive health, education, and family planning.12. The right to enjoy scientific progress.

    To protect a person's reproductive rights, these rights above must also be observed.

    Reproductive rights and feminism

    When applying feminist theory to the concept of reproductive rights it is common to focus on issues that specifically relate to childbearing. In the work of noted feminist activist, Betty Friedan, there is a significant focus on creating and defending the right of individuals to choose whether they wish to bear children.

    Friedan's work aims to defend these reproductive rights from the oppressive nature of the patriarchy which has historically and continues to deny women a choice related to whether they wish to have children.

    Chosen motherhood is the real liberation. The choice to have a child makes the whole experience of motherhood different, and the choice to be generative in other ways can at last be made, and is being made by many women now, without guilt.

    - Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963)

    It is important to note that reproductive rights affect the daily lives of everyone, regardless of their sex or gender identity. However, owing to the patriarchy- a system that typically favours the interests of cis-gendered men, to the detriment of others- the reproductive rights of women and gender-variant individuals are more likely to become engaged and infringed.


    Reproductive rights examples

    Now that we've established the foundation principles of reproductive rights and why they are so important, let's apply this knowledge to understand specific examples of a person's reproductive rights.

    Sexual and reproductive health education

    Access to high quality sexual and reproductive health education would ensure that a person could make educated decisions related to their reproductive choices. This could relate to whether a person wishes to become sexually active, or whether they would like to have children.

    For example, in 2020, Relationship and Sex Education became a mandatory subject for all secondary schools in England. In theory, this government policy would provide universal access to all school-age children in England, helping this generation of students to exercise their reproductive rights.

    Contraceptives

    Access to a range of contraceptive choices, via high-quality sexual health services, would allow a person to make a decision regarding their reproductive health. Choices could include the use of condoms, femidoms, hormonal injection, or the copper coil, to name just a few. Having access to contraceptives would enable a person to choose whether they wished to have children, and if so, when and how many.

    For example, in the UK, NHS contraceptive services and prescriptions are free to anyone under the age of 16. Once again enabling young people in the country to exercise their reproductive rights.

    Abortion services

    For those who experience an unwanted pregnancy, access to safe, non-coercive, and high-quality abortion services allows an individual to make a choice about their reproductive health and to exerc. Access to such services enables an individual to make a decision about whether they wish to continue with their pregnancy, exercising their reproductive rights.

    Globally, abortion laws vary greatly. Access to abortion depends on the domestic policies of each individual country. While abortion does remain highly restricted in many countries across the world, over the last 25 years over 50 countries have liberalised their abortion laws. This liberalisation allows individuals seeking an abortion to access these services and exercise their reproductive rights.

    Reproductive rights issues

    As we've established, reproductive rights are important for a person's fundamental health and wellbeing. We have identified a number of ways that reproductive rights affect a person's daily life, such as the choices they make around their contraceptive choices.

    However, it is important to note that reproductive rights are not universally accessible and a person's ability to make decisions linked to their reproductive health is affected by a number of factors such as where they live, their gender identity, or their religious identity.

    An individual's ability to exercise their reproductive rights often rests on a number of highly personal and unique circumstances. Below we will explore some of the general themes which can restrict a person's reproductive rights:

    • Political barriers.
    • Religious barriers.
    • Financial barriers.

    Political barriers

    Political barriers to reproductive rights describe restrictive legislation which prevents an individual from making choices related to their reproductive health. An example of a political barrier could relate to restrictive abortion laws. As we've already highlighted, access to abortion services is not universal.

    Examples of highly restrictive legislation could include Eygpt, Nicaragua, Iraq, and Madagascar where abortion is totally prohibited. 90 million individuals of reproductive age are affected by these highly restrictive laws.

    Religious barriers

    Religious barriers to reproductive rights describe teachings, norms, and practices supported by religious institutions which affect the choices individuals can make related to their reproductive health.

    An example of a religious barrier could relate to teachings and practices which discourage the use of contraceptives. It is important to note that as religious beliefs are a highly personal subject, the extent of these religious barriers may vary from person to person.

    An example of a religious figure speaking out regarding the use of contraceptives can be seen in the case of Catholic Pope Paul VI. In 1968, Pope Paul VI discouraged the use of artificial contraceptives, such as the pill or condoms, declaring: ‘Each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life’.2

    As the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Paul VI had a large influence on the practices of the church and would have altered the reproductive choices made by individuals linked to this religious group.

    Financial barriers

    Financial barriers to reproductive rights describe a lack of essential resources or funding to ensure individuals can make choices regarding their reproductive health. While in the UK we enjoy access to free education and healthcare, this is not the case everywhere in the world. An example of a financial barrier to a person's reproductive choices could include not having enough money to afford reproductive healthcare or enough money to access sexual and reproductive education.

    Historically, funding for abortion services has been highly restricted. This has meant that even in countries where abortion services are legal, access to abortion clinics is often restricted due to a lack of funding. An example of this is the Global Gag Rule, a piece of legislation enacted by US President Donald Trump in 2017. This caused financial barriers to reproductive rights globally as NGOs such as International Planned Parenthood were denied over $100 million in funding to conduct safe abortions globally.

    Spanning from 2017 to 2021 this policy had widespread consequences for reproductive rights, restricting access to abortion services, contraceptive services, and reproductive health education worldwide.

    The reproductive rights movement

    Political movements have sprung up across the world to help defend and protect people's reproductive health and choices. Historically, feminist activists have played a key role in supporting these movements. Feminist ideology acknowledges that a person's ability to exercise their reproductive rights is a fundamental step in ensuring equity in society.

    US Women's Marches- Abortion laws

    In the United States, abortion is a contentious issue that is constantly in the spotlight. Proponents and opponents of the procedure both offer compelling arguments on the subject. Currently, the Supreme Court ruling (Roe v Wade) ensures that women have the right (unimpeded by the government) to terminate their pregnancy as they see fit. However, as it stands, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling is on the verge of being repealed, due to changing political winds in the country.

    Historically, there have been a number of feminist women's marches that have taken place throughout the US. Most notably in recent history, this occurred in 2017, with demonstrators taking to the streets wearing pink hats to march against oppressive patriarchal structures in US politics and culture.

    In October 2021, over 600 marches took place across the US with a specific focus on reproductive rights. Demonstrators took to the streets against an anti-abortion bill that had been enacted in Texas, banning abortion after just six weeks with no exceptions. This is an example of how large groups have organised to try and protect reproductive freedoms and rights in the US.

    Reproductive Rights, Reproductive Rights March in the US, StudySmarterReproductive Rights March in 2021. Source: Louise Palanker, CC-BY-SA-2.0, Wikimedia Commons.

    History of the access to contraception in the US

    The battle for reproductive rights began in the United States in the early twentieth century. A major turning point in this battle occurred in 1917 when Margaret Sanger established the Birth Control Review, a magazine that advocated on behalf of birth control. The publication's motto was ‘Dedicated to the Principle of Intelligent and Voluntary Motherhood’.

    Later, in 1921, Sanger set up the American Control League in order to attract aid from a range of different industries, including medical professionals, social workers as well as individual public donors. Her aim was to provide women with access to birth control.However, it was not until 1960, when the birth control pill was introduced to the market, that women had the access to the contraceptives they needed. With the arrival of the birth control pill, women now had more autonomy over their bodies and could for the first time, independently prevent pregnancies.Even with the introduction of the birth control pill, the reproductive rights movement faced opposition - especially from the Catholic Church and other conservative and religious groups. As a result, access to birth control pills was severely restricted in some states and fully banned in others.

    However, in 1965, a Supreme Court ruling (Griswold v the state of Connecticut) determined that any ban on contraceptives would be unconstitutional. This ruling opened the door for married men and women to obtain the contraceptives that they wanted or needed, and meant that state laws could not dictate the personal lives of women, consequently increasing their freedom.In 1972, a court decided (Eisenstadt v Baird) that unmarried couples should also have access to contraceptives. A couple of years later, the US Supreme Court ruled that minors who were not married were allowed to obtain contraceptives.

    As a consequence of the Reproductive Rights Movement, contraceptives were made more accessible, which led to a major increase in the number of unmarried couples having sex. This was known as the Sexual Revolution.

    Reproductive Rights - Key takeaways

    • When we talk about reproductive rights, we mean the acknowledged moral right for individuals to make their own reproductive health and choices.
    • It is important to note that reproductive rights affect the daily lives of everyone, regardless of their sex or gender identity.
    • Reproductive rights are acknowledged by the UN to be fundamental for the health and wellbeing of a person.
    • Reproductive rights intersect with 12 fundamental human rights.
    • Examples of areas relevant to a person's reproductive health could include:
      • Their ability to make educated, non-coerced, reproductive choices.
      • To be free of sexual violence.
      • To choose whether you wish to have children, and if so, when and how many.
    • When considering reproductive rights issues it may be useful to consider political, financial, and religious barriers.

    • Feminist ideology acknowledges that a person's ability to exercise their reproductive rights is a fundamental step in ensuring equality in society and has been central in social movements to protect reproductive rights.


    1. United Nations, 1994

    2. Pope Paul VI, 1968

    Frequently Asked Questions about Reproductive Rights

    What is Reproductive Rights?

    When we talk about reproductive rights, we mean the acknowledged moral right for individuals to make their own reproductive health and choices.

    What is the feminist approach to reproductive issues?

    When applying feminist theory to the concept of reproductive rights it is common to focus on issues that specifically relate to childbearing.


    It is important to note that reproductive rights affect the daily lives of everyone, regardless of their sex or gender identity. However, owing to the patriarchy- a system that typically favours the interests of cis-gendered men, to the detriment of others- the reproductive rights of women and gender variant individuals are more likely to become engaged and infringed.

    What are the 12 reproductive rights?

    These 12 reproductive rights relate to the human rights listed below:


    1. The right to life.

    2. The right to liberty and security.

    3. The right to health (this tends to include health issues that are sexual or reproductive in nature).

    4. The right to decide the number of children to have. 

    5.  The right to consent to marriage and marriage equality.

    6. The right to privacy.

    7. The right to equality and non-discrimination.

    8. The right to be free of all practices that harm women and girls.

    9. The right not to be subject to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

    10. The right to be free from sexual and gender-based violence.

    11. The right to access sexual and reproductive health education and family planning.

    12. The right to enjoy scientific progress.


    Why are reproductive rights important?

    Reproductive rights are acknowledged within our global political system to be crucial for an individual's health and wellbeing. The protection of reproductive rights is also acknowledged to fuel wider positive change including "the empowerment of women, social justice and respect for human dignity"1

    Are reproductive rights a matter of human rights?

    Reproductive rights enable an individual to make essential decisions regarding their reproductive health and choices. The United Nations acknowledges that reproductive rights intersect with twelve fundamental human rights. Reproductive rights are acknowledged within our global political system to be crucial for an individual's health and wellbeing. 

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