Are Reproductive Rights Civil Rights?

mlkDoes a woman’s “right to choose” constitute a civil right? Does the reproductive rights movement have the right to compare itself to the civil rights movement? Organizations like Planned Parenthood would argue in the affirmative, “Planned Parenthood believes that reproductive rights are deeply connected to civil rights for all Americans(1).” Is this true? Does the analogy fit? 

Interestingly, Alveda King, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has this to say about abortion:

“Abortion is genocide. It’s killing populations. It’s killing generations and certainly the population that is most impacted by abortion in America is the black community. So I feel that as a civil rights leader I have responsibility to proclaim that black Americans are being exterminated by the genocidal acts of abortion. I know in my heart that if Uncle Martin were alive today, he would join with me in the greatest civil rights struggle of this generation – the recognition of the unborn child’s basic right to life(2).

Is the reproductive rights movement comparable to the civil rights movement? Before we can answer this question, we need to understand what a civil right is. What is a civil right? Political Philosopher, Thomas Sowell lays out some key premises that he considers to be foundational in the case for determining what a civil right is and whether or not it is being infringed upon:

“Statistical disparities in incomes, occupations, education, etc. represent moral inequities and are caused by societybelief in innate inferiority explains policies and practices of differential treatment, whether expressed in overt hostility or in institutional policies or individual decisions that result in statistical disparitiesand political activity is the key to improving the lot of those on the short end of differences in income, ‘representation’ in desirable occupations, or institutions, or otherwise disadvantaged….the general validity of the premise for the wide variety of groups covered by civil rights policies must be examined as a separate issue(3).

For Sowell, a civil right can be determined by observing where disparities lie among people groups. He does not put forth an explicit definition of a civil right, rather, he explains how we can identify infringements on civil rights by observing disparities between people groups. Social ideas of “innate inferiority”, with regard to a group of people, lead to disenfranchisement and infringement upon the quality of their lives by the suppression of certain rights. Let us unfold this definition further. People group A is composed of tall individuals and people group B is composed of short individuals. Now, both groups seek to perform some action “X”. For the purposes of our definition,“X” will be the action that is being protected by a certain civil right. Let us take “X” to be the right to vote. If society only allows group A to perform action X, while prohibiting group B from performing action X solely by virtue of them being part of group B, this is an infringement upon a civil right. Allowing one group of persons to perform “X”, while withholding that same ability from another group of persons simply by virtue of, not their salient identity, but their inherent identity, that is, their identity that cannot be changed and which defines their nature, not their behavior or self-perception, is an infringement on a civil right(4). Essentially, discriminating against one kind of person and barring them from performing an action, X, on the basis of what kind of people group they belong to, is a violation of a civil right.

Now most people will agree that a woman has every right to decide what to do with her own body when speaking in terms of such things as tattoos, plastic surgery, beauty and health, etc. But these types of things only affect her body alone. This is not the case when dealing with pregnancy. Now we have to take into consideration the rights of two bodies, not just one. If, as we believe, the woman has the right to do with her own body as she sees fit and that no one should be able to dictate what she can do to it, does the body of the one growing inside of her not have that same right? Or do the rights of that body not matter merely because it is inside hers, even if her choices are what gave this body no choice? 

The question here is whether or not a woman’s ability to decide how to deal with a fetus in her womb is considered a civil right. Let’s look at this question from a different perspective. By not allowing a woman to choose to have an abortion in the event that she so desires, is this an infringement upon a civil right? No. According to Sowell’s definition of apparent disparities, there is no violation of civil rights in not allowing a woman to terminate her pregnancy by way of an abortion. There is no standard that is being violated in treating women so as to not allow them to have abortions, thus there is no encroaching on civil rights in this case. Whether this is moral or immoral is another issue entirely, but the fact is, if the infringement of civil rights is observed by statistical disparities then this does not apply here.

If Group A (tall people) was allowed to have abortions and Group B (short people) was not allowed to have abortions, then that would be an infringement on civil rights. In this case, there is no group that is being favored over women; women are not being discriminated against if they are not allowed to perform abortions. There simply is no civil rights violation here. The fact is, there is no workable, analogous, issue that women can point to and use as a standard that is not being upheld fairly with regard to them and their ability to choose.

Reproductive rights are not comparable to civil rights. The reproductive rights movement is not analogous to the civil rights movement, they do not fit the category of civil rights in the same way that the African-American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s fought for them.

Margaret Sanger famously said, “We advocates of birth control know that one cannot make quality by insisting on quantity. One cannot make better people simply by having more people.” The fact of the matter is, at least from a civil rights perspective, individuals are important. It is not for us to judge which individuals qualify for which rights. That is what leads to discrimination in the first place. The African-American Civil Rights Movement has taught us that society is not always correct in its deeming of who deserves what rights. Any right that has the possibility of encroaching upon the rights of another is something to be wary about.

1Brown, Rupert, and Sam Gaertner. “The Social Identity Perspective in Intergroup Relations: Theories, Themes, and Controversies.” In Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology Intergroup Processes.. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. pp 3.

Sowell, ThomasCivil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?. NYC: HarperCollins, 2009. pp 3-4

Washington, Steven. “Planned Parenthood: Abortion Rights are Civil Rights.” (accessed May 12, 2012).

Washington, Steven. “Planned Parenthood: Abortion Rights are Civil Rights.” (accessed May 12, 2012).


DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Paul Rezkalla

Paul graduated from NYU with degrees in Religious Studies and History. He has recently completed a MA in Philosophy from the University of Birmingham in England and is now pursuing a second MA in Theology. His interests are too many to list and too varied to make sense of.

  • Clinton Wilcox

    It’s ironic. Pro-choice advocates get offended when we compare abortion to slavery or the Holocaust as a human rights violation, then they turn around and compare reproductive rights ludicrously to a civil rights violation. If anything, abortion is a civil rights violation. The unborn are being discriminated against because they’re not born yet, so they can be legally killed. They’re the people in Group B who have their right to life taken away due to some quality that differs from us, the people in Group A.

    • PRezkalla

      That’s exactly true. They are inconsistent.

  • Laurence

    Great logic and texture article. Although I am sensitive to the word genocide. Can we call aborted fetuses being murdered, something need to be shown in the word of God clearly not by just inferring to. Thank you for your zealous inclination .

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