A longtime advocate for women’s health and reproductive justice, Lourdes Rivera is senior vice president for US Programs at the Center for Reproductive Rights, a Ford grantee working to ensure that reproductive rights are recognized as human rights and are protected by law.

You’ve dedicated your career to improving women’s health and reproductive rights. What led you to work in this field?

Reproductive rights has been an interest of mine since I was a child. I came to learn that one-third of my mother’s generation had been sterilized, often without informed consent. That was my entryway into this work. And I came to this core belief that it’s really important for individual women to be able to make their own decisions to become a parent or not to become a parent.

How does the Center for Reproductive Rights approach its work?

The Center for Reproductive Rights is the only global legal organization that focuses on using the power of law to advance reproductive rights as human rights around the world. Laws matter. The way courts interpret laws has a direct impact on peoples’ lives. We occupy a particular niche in a broader movement and ecosystem. We’re very clear about who we are and who we aren’t. We work very closely with other organizations in a robust ecosystem who do culture change work, community organizing and civic engagement work, and communications work. The center is particularly focused on using the law and law reform to bring about change.

From a legal perspective, what are the biggest challenges to reproductive rights in the US today?

There have been more than 450 restrictions passed by states since 2011 alone, all kinds of laws that are meant to pick away at the ability of abortion providers to keep their doors open. They’re designed to make abortion access harder and harder for women, and to make the experience as stigmatizing and as humiliating as possible. They subject patients to unnecessary medical procedures as well as expensive long-distance travel and hotel stays because they have to wait 24, 48, 72 hours—and then they’re forced to arrange child care, which also gets expensive. All of these restrictions are really executed with the intent to just make having an abortion completely inaccessible.

Can you give an example of how the Center for Reproductive Rights is fighting against these types of obstacles?

On March 4, 2020,  the Center for Reproductive Rights will be back at the Supreme Court challenging an abortion restriction that has been adopted by the state of Louisiana. This restriction is one that the Supreme Court, in 2016, already ruled was unconstitutional because it posed an undue burden on women’s ability to access abortion. If the court upholds the restriction, it would result in closing all but one of the state’s remaining clinics and leave just a single doctor providing abortion in the state. This would have the harshest impact on the most marginalized communities, including low-income people, people of color, young people, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and immigrants. We’re going to have not just excellent lawyers arguing inside the court but we are going to have a tremendous rally outside of the court because it’s so important for the court to know that people are watching, that people expect the court to uphold the rule of law, to uphold precedent, and that this is not going to be decided under the radar.

Can you point to one of the greatest achievements for reproductive rights in the past 25 to 50 years?

The International Conference on Population and Development, a 1994 meeting in Cairo, was truly a game changer. One hundred seventy-nine governments called for women’s reproductive health and rights to take center stage in national and global development efforts. Women of color went to Cairo, and they later went to Beijing. Black women, in particular, came back to the United States armed with a framework that reflected their lived experience and insisted that we talk about not just reproductive health and rights but also about reproductive justice.

What is the difference between reproductive rights and reproductive justice?

At the Center for Reproductive Rights, when we say rights we mean human rights. But I think traditionally here in the United States people think of rights as what a written law or a court says you or the government is able to do or not do. Reproductive justice is the expression of human rights in the United States and it focuses on women’s lived realities so that it’s not just about rights as traditionally understood here, it is also about the ability to act upon those rights, considering questions like, Do you have access to what you need? Do you have resources? Are you able to make decisions that impact your life? What is the role of structural racism and other forms of discrimination? Can you live your life in safety and with dignity? It is a more comprehensive approach to realizing peoples’ rights and being able to act on them.

Can you give an example?

Everyone is familiar with Roe v. Wade, which is a really important Supreme Court case that decriminalized abortion across the country. But in this country, Roe v. Wade has become the ceiling and not the floor. What reproductive justice says is it’s not just good enough to have the legal right, it’s also important to be able to have the funding necessary to be able to access services free from stigma and discrimination. And so a justice lens is very complementary to a rights lens because we need both in order for people to actually be able to exercise their rights.

What does equality look like to you?

That’s a really big question and it’s an evolving answer. At a very basic level, equality means that everyone has the ability to be treated with dignity, respect, and to have autonomy and control over their own lives. It also means to be treated fairly and without discrimination.