Photo: Waverly Neufeld

A Conversation Beyond Abortion: Loretta Ross visits Ryerson

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By Waverly Neufeld

Human rights leader, activist, author and speaker Loretta Ross spoke at Ryerson Friday at “Celebrating Women’s Voices: Beyond Politics of Choice”, an event organized by The Centre of Womens and Trans People of Ryerson Students’ Union Equity Service Centres.

“One of the most radical things we can do is teach people their human rights. It’s kind of like teaching slaves to read; you don’t know what they’re going to do but you’re damn glad you did it.”

A crowd of approximately 50 people gathered at the event, which featured Ross as well as a discussion with respondents Krysta Williams, coordinator at the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Laura Salamanca, a sexual health counsellor and was moderated by former Ryerson student Awo Abokor.

“There is a reason that we choose to fight against oppression, white supremacy, colonization, all of those things,” said Ross. “We don’t just wake up one day and say ‘we’re just gonna rage against the system’. Actually, life would be much easier if we just succumbed to capitalism and sold our people out. You’d get really rich. When you choose not to do that, you have a story to tell.”

Ross told the audience her introduction to sex came at the age of 11, when she said she was kidnapped from a Girl Scouts outing and sexually assaulted. At age 14, Ross was pregnant with her 27-year-old cousin’s child, back in the 1960s when abortion was not legal.

These events led Ross to pursue her passion for human rights. “I entered this work totally pissed off, because I never gave permission to have sex. And once that permission was taken from me, I never had the right to determine if I would become a parent,” said Ross. “That never leaves you.”

After 50 years of doing extensive activist work, Ross said she is still angry about what happened to her. “My story is not unique. I think that there are a lot of people who are not self-determining because of oppression.”

Ross is credited for co-creating the term ‘reproductive justice.’ It was after hearing of a healthcare reform that didn’t include reproductive healthcare from Hillary Clinton in 1994 that Ross and 12 other black women decided to purchase an ad in the Washington Post. They called themselves the “Black Women for Healthcare Reform.” 

Ross said that reproduction justice explains which bodies are reproductively privileged and which bodies are reproductively disadvantaged and why.

“We critiqued the fact that both the pro-life and the pro-choice movement only start with the pregnancy instead of all the other issues upstream that determine the outcome of that pregnancy,” said Ross.

“If a person has healthcare, social support, [the] ability to go back to work, child care and a safe environment, an unplanned pregnancy is going to be turned into a wanted pregnancy,” said Ross.

Reproductive justice also problematized why the fight for reproductive rights was always isolated from the fights for social justice.

“When you really think about what goes on in a person’s [life] who is dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, a person who has an unplanned pregnancy has to consider a whole lot of stuff before they make a decision whether or not to keep that pregnancy. Do they have healthcare? Can they keep their jobs? Will their partner be violent if they tell them? What about the other kids? Can I stay in school? All these other issues are social justice issues,” said Ross.

Ross said that human rights are not set in stone, and that new rights emerge as new social movements demand them. “We need to bring human rights home and fight for the rights we have been denied. You’re entitled to these human rights not because of your race, not because of your gender, but because you are simply human. No one gets to vote on your humanity,” said Ross.

Ross said that there is a lot of resistance towards the human rights framework and some see it as a Western ideology, both domestically and in the global south, because human rights have been weaponized by the West to exploit others.  

Williams said she wants the conversation in our generation to shift from a self-centred approach, such as self care, to how to get sustainable action. “[Self care] is not about consumer self care, it’s not about bubble baths or whatever. It’s about how we build movements that we can survive in and thrive past.”

As for what we can do as a society, Ross said we need to come together.

“We need to have a vision of what we’re fighting for. That’s the conversation I don’t see a lot of us having. I’m fighting for human rights to be a way of life.”

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