Karen Stote, “Decolonizing Feminism: From Reproductive Abuse to Reproductive Justice”

“Reproductive justice calls us to pay attention to how broader social, political, and economic factors work to discipline the reproductive lives of some and to privilege those of others while these conditions shape the choices we all make… At its core, reproductive justice is an intersectional concept.”

Karen Stote, “Decolonizing Feminism” (113)
Karen Stote’s An Act of Genocide

Karen Stote is a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is the author of the 2015 book, An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women (Fernwood). In the assigned reading for this module, as in her book, Stote pays particular attention to the experiences of Indigenous women in Canada, who have often been involuntarily subjected to the very reproductive controls for which white feminists have fought. For instance, while white feminists have demanded access to birth control and abortion, Indigenous women have been subjected to Depo-Provera as a first choice form of birth control although its effects are long term, and to abortions and sterilizations against their wills. Many Indigenous women in Canada have been given sought-for abortions on the condition that they be sterilized at the same time, or have been sterilized without their knowledge or consent during childbirth.

A rally in Saskatchewan against nonconsensual sterilization

One of the many repercussions of this ongoing history of involuntary sterilization is that it makes Indigenous people understandably wary of settler medical professionals. We heard much about this wariness during the Covid-19 pandemic, when Indigenous people, like other people of colour, were less likely than white people to trust vaccines due to histories of medical abuse. Today, Indigenous people are not only underserved by the health care system, they are also less likely to turn to that health care system when and to the extent that it is available to them. Unfortunately, this has consequences for pregnancy- and birth-related fatalities and is one of the reasons that Indigenous women, like other women of colour, are more likely than white women to die during pregnancy and childbirth.

A photo from 1948 showing a nurse taking a blood sample from a child at a residential school in Port Alberni, B.C. as part of a series of nutritional experiments conducted on Indigenous children without their or their families’ consent. 

A central aspect of Stote’s article is the differentiation she makes between reproductive rights and reproductive justice within the settler colonial Canadian context. Rights are a legal concept but justice is broader, encompassing principles such as fairness, equality, respect, dignity, autonomy, freedom, safety, peace, life chances, wellbeing and flourishing. Legal rights may sometimes be a way of seeking to ensure these goals, however, as we saw with the work of legal scholar Dean Spade in module 8, they do not guarantee them; on the contrary, many successful legislative campaigns for equal rights have made little difference to the life chances of marginalized and oppressed groups of people and many forms of inequity and oppression are simply not addressed by the law. For example, some of the ways that women remain unequal to men have to do with social roles or processes of socialization that are not illegal or in violation of any constitutional rights. Social justice movements may include considerations of law and legal rights but must necessarily think and struggle beyond them. Stote makes a similar point to Spade when she writes:

“Current reproductive struggles that seek to establish, secure, or strengthen access to state-provided services stemming from the medical-industrial complex leave our movements vulnerable to the whims of the state and private interests. This reality effectively works to frame the scope of our struggles by limiting our demands to those rights that are offered and then withheld or by us thinking institutions that have been actively involved in our oppression are the most effective means through which to better our individual and collective lives. It also impedes potentially more radical and all-encompassing demands for collective change in a way that reproductive justice demands.”

Karen Stote, “Decolonizing Feminism” (115)

Medical systems, like the legal system, have frequently been means through which women, queer people, poor people, people of colour and people with disabilities are oppressed, and reproductive justice will fall short if it limits its aspirations to what can be accomplished through and within these institutions. Medicine and law are, in a sense, the “master’s houses,” and Stote cites Audre Lorde’s famous assertion that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Even more profoundly, Stote questions whether reproductive justice, understood capaciously to include relationships to land and nature, can be realized within the oppressive and ecocidal context of settler colonialism.

This is a significant point when settler pollution of Indigenous lands and water is biomagnified in the bodies of pregnant and nursing women. Wind and water currents carry contaminants such as mercury, heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, DDT and other pesticides north, where they enter the food chain and accumulate in human fatty tissue, blood, and milk. As a result, Indigenous women in northern territories and Inuit women in particular are very likely to have unsafe levels of carcinogens and other contaminants in their blood and breastmilk which their infants absorb in the womb and while nursing. In this context, what does reproductive justice look like for Indigenous women, and can it be realized within the context of a polluting settler colonial society that values capitalist gain over environmental and human wellbeing? In fact, Stote argues that reproductive justice requires decolonization.

Indigenous women and girls from Grassy Narrows First Nation in northern Ontario protesting environmental racism and mercury contamination in their waterways.

Find the Stote reading here.