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ASU sociologist says debunking myth of 'anti-choice' Latinas critical for inclusive health care

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January 11, 2023

As state legislatures return to session across the country, debates about reproductive rights are picking up in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning the Roe v. Wade ruling.

Misinformation — particularly that targeting Latinas and other women of color — continues to be an issue. Rocio Garcia, an assistant professor of sociology at Arizona State University, is among a growing number of scholars and advocates who say it’s long past time to have a candid conversation about what reproductive justice means for Latinas and how generalizations about culture and religion can sometimes lead to medically dangerous situations.

“We’re Not All Anti-Choices: How Controlling Images Shape Latina/x Feminist Abortion Advocacy'' is the title of Garcia’s study, published in Sociological Perspectives, part of Sage Publications.

The culmination of three years of research with California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, Garcia’s study was published just weeks after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that effectively overturned the previous landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.

Garcia, part of the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, spoke with ASU News about her study and its relevance in the current cultural climate.

Asst Prof  - Latina Reproductive Justice Study

Rocio Garcia

Question: The rhetorical zeitgeist around abortion rights has shifted dramatically since the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, ending almost 50 years of federal abortion rights in the U.S. What questions did you initially set out to answer through your research before the repeal of Roe?

Answer: A lot of U.S. research takes for granted the centrality of gender identities in abortion debates without properly focusing on how gender identities are shaped by immigrant status, racial or ethnic identities, sexualities, class positions, to name a few.

Because we know little about the contributions of pro-abortion Latina/x feminists, I was motivated to learn more about how they develop strategies to mobilize LatinxA gender-neutral version of Latino.s and the struggles they experience in attempting these mobilization efforts.

Q: How does centering the pro-choice/pro-life discussion around the Latina/x community advance the conversation about reproductive health for women in the U.S.?

A: Centering the realities for Latinxs helps us see some of the limitations of the pro-choice/anti-choice binary discussion. The organization that I studied, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, conducted their own research based on opinion polls of Latino voters across the U.S., and they found that most respondents said they supported the right to abortion access and medically accurate information for all even if they would not make the choice to have an abortion. Rather than cite religion or stereotypical ideas of “Latinx culture” as monolithic and inherently conservative, their findings show that the reliance of U.S. public opinion polls on the binary language of the “choice” framework fuels misconceptions of Latinx reproductive politics.

The language of “choice” is unique to a U.S. political context that does not necessarily resonate with immigrants, for example, coming from sociopolitical contexts with distinct anti-abortion rhetoric. These findings suggest the need to … take into account how the intersections of people’s identities affect their experiences and ideas regarding abortion and other matters of reproduction.

Centering the discussion on Latinxs also helps us focus on the societal conditions that make it harder for Latinxs to access medically safe abortion care relative to whites. For example, I found that (California Latinas for Reproductive Justice) does a lot of community education to teach Latinxs about the predatory practices of crisis pregnancy centers (or CPCs). CPCs purposely present a veneer of a health clinic to lure Latinxs seeking health services. Promoting free services such as pregnancy tests and ultrasounds serve as predatory tactics that exploit Latinas’ increased likelihood to experience poverty. The pressure to give birth from volunteers at CPCs on Latinxs seeking abortions further reinforces the criminalization of abortion. Important to this also is the fact that CPCs are more likely to appear in neighborhoods where poor and working-class Black people and Latinxs are more likely to live.

Q: In what ways were the findings of your study revealing?

A: I found that for Latinx/a feminists engaged in intersectional reproductive justice advocacy, they must simultaneously challenge abortion stigma and the controlling image of “la santa” — the saint — used to presume that Latinas make poor advocates for reproductive autonomy.

In other words, Latina/x feminist have to both challenge abortion stigma while challenging the stereotypical assumption that Latinas make bad feminists. People often erroneously assume that all Latinas are Catholic, self-sacrificing and extremely family-oriented, and therefore, they must be anti-abortion. The reality is that there is just as much diversity in the experiences and opinions regarding topics like abortion among Latinas as there are with any other group.

Q: Explain the idea of “controlling images” and the degree of influence it can have in education about reproductive health?

A: Controlling images theory was developed by sociologist Patricia Hill Collins in her seminal 1990 book, "Black Feminist Thought." Controlling images are insidious stereotypes that misrepresent marginalized people as caricatures, dehumanizing them and justifying various forms of social control and punishment. Hill Collins theorized how stereotypical images of Black women as nursemaids in service of white children, matriarchs, “welfare queens” and jezebels are often internalized across groups as commonsense knowledge.

Controlling images are continuously imposed on marginalized people. This is important relative to reproductive health because if medical doctors, researchers, advocates and legislators truly believe that stereotypes reflect reality, rather than view marginalized people as complex human beings, then this produces dangerous outcomes for successfully recognizing the kind of medical care and resources that people need in order to have bodily self-determination.

Q: What would you highlight as the major takeaways from the findings of your research?

A: I hope that this research offers an important reminder that it is not only inaccurate but also medically dangerous and politically ineffective to assume that all Latinas are anti-abortion. … It’s important that we recognize the humanity of marginalized people and center the inequalities unique to different groups of people.  

Top photo by FG Trade/iStock

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