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What Are Reproductive Rights?

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on May 25, 2021

Reproductive rights include your legal ability to make decisions about when and if you have a child. 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 include:
  • Birth control, sex education, or abortion for minors without a parent’s or guardian’s consent

Why Reproductive Rights Matter

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 help 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.

Gender

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 ability 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

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.

Males may be sexually active or in sexual relationships before they turn 18. Young males may need access to condoms, counseling on how to use condoms to prevent pregnancy and STIs, advice on other forms of contraception, STD testing and treatment, or pregnancy testing.

Access to Care

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 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 than 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.

What Reproductive Rights Are Available?

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: While abortion has been legal in the U.S. since 1973’s Supreme Court decision in the Roe v. Wade case, each state has different laws about abortion. They change quickly, so it’s hard to get an exact state-by-state count, but common restrictions include:

  • 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
  • Banning abortions after a certain point in the pregnancy, usually 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 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.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

National Council of Jewish Women: “Understanding Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice: An NCJW Primer.”

Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health: “Measuring women’s reproductive autonomy.”

Center for Reproductive Rights: “Our Issues,” “Assisted Reproduction.”

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: “Sterilization of Women: Ethical Issues and Considerations.”

Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology: “Stratified reproduction, family planning care, and the double edge of history.”

Journal of Urban Health: “Health Disparities and the Criminal Justice System: An Agenda for Further Research and Action.”

YourFertility.org: “Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).”

Guttmacher Institute: “Looking at Men’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Needs,” “Minors’ Access to Contraceptive Services,” “State Policy Trends 2020: Reproductive Health and Rights in a Year Like No Other,” “An Overview of Abortion Laws.”

Alabama Medicaid Agency Plan First/Family Planning Program: “Facts About Sterilization for Men (Vasectomy).”

Mayo Clinic: “Vasectomy.”

State of Oregon: “Vasectomy Services Under the Reproductive Health Program.”

NYC Health: “Sterilization and Reporting Frequently Asked Questions.”

University of California San Francisco Medical Center: “Informed Consent: Elective and Non-Elective Sterilization.”

Engender Health: “Engaging Men in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Including Family Planning.”

Hastings Women’s Law Journal: “‘If They Hand You a Paper, You Sign It’: A Call to End the Sterilization of Women in Prisons.”

Institute for Women’s Policy Research: “Status of Women in the States: In This Section.”

Kaiser Family Foundation: “Sterilization as a Family Planning Method.”

American Society for Reproductive Medicine: “Disparities in Access to Effective Treatment for Infertility in the United States: an Ethics Committee Opinion.”

National Conference of State Legislatures: “State Laws Related to Insurance Coverage for Infertility Treatment.”

NBC News: “Texas governor signs fetal heartbeat abortion ban.”

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