What Are Reproductive Rights?

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on August 24, 2023
9 min read

Reproductive rights are about the legal right to contraception, abortion, fertility treatment, reproductive health, and access to information about one's body as it relates to reproduction. You might also hear this called reproductive autonomy. It means you have the power of the law to protect you and allow you the right to make your own choices about birth control, pregnancy, and having children.

Abortion, including access to legal, safe procedures to end a pregnancy, is one reproductive right, but there are others. Your reproductive rights include access to:

  • Sex education
  • Family planning
  • Birth control (contraception), including emergency contraception
  • Assisted reproduction
  • Sterilization, or permanent birth control. This includes:
  • Birth control, sex education, or abortion for minors without a parent’s or guardian’s consent


Reproductive rights matter because they give all people access to safe reproductive health care.

If your rights are restricted, you may not be able to make your own decisions about pregnancy or birth control. This could lead to:

In the past, some women, such as Black, lower-income, and Native American women, didn’t have the same reproductive rights as other women. Some were forced to get sterilized. Even today, women on Medicaid or drug rehabilitation treatment programs may have limited birth control options.

Reproductive rights advocates work to pass laws that allow equal access to all of these health care services for people of all genders, races, ethnicities, religious beliefs, income levels, and legal status -- including those who are in prison or are undocumented immigrants.

Reproductive rights don’t just apply to women, but men and people of all genders.

Almost one-quarter of men are sexually active by age 15, so they’re at risk for unplanned pregnancies or for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like gonorrhea or chlamydia that could make them unable to father children.

Men’s reproductive rights include access to health care services like:

  • Birth control counseling
  • Family planning
  • STD prevention, testing, and treatment
  • Infertility treatments and counseling

They can also include a vasectomy. After this procedure, men can have sex and ejaculate, but there’s no sperm in the semen. It’s a 99% effective form of birth control.

Your right to have a vasectomy may depend on your age, your insurance, and where you live: You must be at least 21 in some places to consent to a vasectomy, depending on your insurance.

But in some states, you can get a vasectomy at 18 if you have private insurance, are on active duty with the military, married, or are living independently from your parents. If you have Medicaid, you must be at least 21 to get a vasectomy.

Age often is a factor in your reproductive rights. Since 1977, U.S. federal law has given minors the right to get birth control without parental consent. Some states allow anyone from 12 to 17 equal access to pregnancy testing, prenatal care, and STD tests and treatment without parental consent. But some states allow only minors who are already pregnant, married, or have children to access these services.

Even recently, there are reports of women in prison who were forced to have tubal ligation surgery, or sterilization. These surgeries may not have been medically necessary but made these women unable to get pregnant.

Women’s race and socioeconomic level may affect their reproductive rights, too:

  • Women who are Black, Latina, or native American may be twice as likely to have sterilization as white women.
  • Women who have Medicaid may be 1.4 times more likely to be offered sterilization as a birth control method than women with private insurance.

Why? It’s unclear, but some studies show that doctors seem to offer different birth control options to women based on their race or insurance coverage.

Reproductive rights are different in each state when it comes to access to abortion, birth control, and other reproductive health care treatments. Here’s a quick overview:

Birth control: Since the Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2014, all health insurers must now cover FDA-approved birth control methods and counseling at no cost in all 50 states.

But there are exceptions. Privately owned religious organizations that offer health insurance to their employees can exclude birth control coverage in these policies. Some states have removed emergency contraception pills (Plan B) from their state Medicaid family planning expansion plans or allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense these medicines.

Sterilization: Under the Affordable Care Act, women’s sterilization procedures must be covered by private health insurance plans, but not vasectomies for men. Some states have passed laws that require private insurance to cover vasectomy.

Medicaid, which is federally funded public health insurance, does cover sterilization for women, but not for men. Still, most states have expanded Medicaid coverage to include vasectomies. But federal funds don’t allow sterilization for women younger than 21. All women have to sign an informed consent form at least 30 days before their surgery.

Abortion: In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. As a result, each state has launched its own challenges to the legality of abortions and if they are allowed, at what stage of pregnancy. The laws continue to change quickly, so it’s hard to get an exact state-by-state count, but common restrictions include:

  • Complete ban on abortions
  • Banning abortions after a certain point in the pregnancy including after the detection of a heartbeat (usually 6 weeks after the last period). Other restrictions incude after the fetus is considered old enough to be viable, or to live outside the mother’s womb. In many states, this threshold is 20 weeks. In some, it’s 24 weeks. Most states make exceptions if the mother’s life or health is in danger.
  • Requiring a licensed doctor to perform abortions
  • Waiting for an abortion, usually 24 hours, while you get counseling
  • Allowing individual health care providers to refuse to perform abortions
  • Allowing health care institutions to refuse to perform abortions
  • Allowing religious or private institutions to refuse to perform abortions
  • Requiring a parent to be involved in decision-making when a minor wants an abortion
  • Requiring one or both parents of the minor to consent to an abortion
  • Requiring one or both parents to be notified if a minor gets an abortion

Assisted reproduction or fertility treatments: While you have the right to decide that you want to have children, there’s no law that says the U.S. government or your insurer must pay for fertility treatments. These can be expensive and often aren’t covered by insurance. Because these procedures are so costly, only 24% of people who need these treatments are getting them.

Since the 1980s, a number of states have passed laws requiring insurers to offer policies that cover fertility treatment or to cover these treatments. There are many restrictions: Some states block coverage for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Others allow insurers not to cover drugs that specifically enhance fertility.

There are many different beliefs about abortion that aren't true. Misinformation is everywhere, and sometimes it's easy to think it's accurate. But these false ideas can be scary and harmful to those seeking an abortion. It's important to understand the facts about this procedure. 

Here are some common myths about abortion:

People use abortion like birth control or people won’t use birth control if abortion is an option. Researchers have found that most people don't consider abortion to be a regular method of birth control. In fact, getting birth control is usually a lot easier than getting an abortion. 

But just because people have access to one service doesn't mean they won't need to use another. Unplanned pregnancies can happen even when someone is on birth control. Condoms break and birth control pills can fail - no form of contraceptive is 100%. More than half of people who get an abortion state that they were using birth control during the time they became pregnant. 

Unplanned pregnancies can also happen due to little access to sexual health information, a lack of affordable birth control methods, or sexual assault. 

You can only have a medical abortion in a hospital. A medical abortion is done using medication. You get this from a doctor with a prescription for use with pregnancies up to 9 weeks' gestation.

A medical abortion can take place in a range of areas with your doctor's permission. You can safely take the medication in a medical setting or at your own home.

Abortion causes long-term psychological or emotional problems (called "post abortion syndrome"). Every person who has an abortion will have their own specific feelings and emotions. Some people feel relief after an abortion. But others (especially if the decision was hard) may feel sad or have other difficult emotions. This is especially true in the short term. 

But post abortion syndrome is not an official medical diagnosis. 

Data shows that people are less likely to have emotional or psychological trauma if they feel supported and that they've made an educated decision that's right for them. If you need support before or after an abortion, there are resources to help. 

Medical abortion is very painful. After a medical abortion, it's normal to have bleeding and cramps in your pelvic area. These might be intense during the first 24 hours after you take the medication. You can take pain relief medicine to help.

Many people find that they're prepared for the pain and discomfort if they've been educated on what to expect and understand what's happening. This helps many people cope with the different feelings they may have.

Abortion causes long-term health problems (such as infertility). Abortion isn't linked to infertility. No matter if you have a surgical or medical abortion, most people will ovulate shortly after the abortion. Sometimes this happens before your period comes back. Because of this, make sure you begin using birth control right away if you don't want to get pregnant.

Abortion causes breast cancer. Studies haven't found evidence to support the idea that abortion is linked to breast cancer. 

Medical abortion drugs make your pregnancy "go away" or "absorb into your body." Medical abortions instead cause your body to expel the pregnancy. It can be similar to a miscarriage. This happens through bleeding that's usually heavier than your regular period. 

Early-term fetuses can feel pain. Abortions that take place in the first two trimesters of pregnancy (before the 26th week)happen before a fetus has the neurological (brain) ability to be in pain. 

Most people who have an abortion regret their decision later. A survey of people 5 years after their abortion found that 95% of them said it was the right choice. Every situation is different. You and your doctor are the only people who can make the decision that's best for you and your health. 

Emergency contraception causes an abortion. Emergency contraception, or "the morning-after pill," isn't the same thing as an abortion. It's used to prevent a pregnancy before it even happens, by stopping or delaying ovulation. You may need this if you've had sex without birth control or if your birth control method fails. 

Abortions are dangerous and risky. Abortion performed in a health care setting is a safe procedure.A study of almost 55,000 people found that less than 2% of cases had complications within 6 weeks of the procedure. But abortions done without a doctor's approval can be risky and dangerous. If you’re in a place without access to safe abortions, your risk of death is higher if you rely on unsafe abortion methods.

Many third-trimester pregnancies are aborted. Mostabortions -- 92.7% -- happen at or before 13 weeks of pregnancy, which is in the first trimester. Some people believe that many abortions happen later in pregnancy when the fetus is more developed. But in reality, less than one 1% of abortions happen at 21 weeks of pregnancy or later.