JoAnna Smith, Emory University
During the first day at the Leadership Institute, we discussed how the reproductive justice model differs from other frameworks for reproductive rights or social justice.
It made me think back to when I was working as a labor doula before law school. A labor doula is a trained and experienced professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to a woman before, during and just after birth. A doula learns that she is there to help the woman have a safe and satisfying childbirth as the woman defines it. It is not the role of the doula to discourage the laboring woman from her choices, nor to project their own values and goals onto her.
As a doula, I was required to listen more than I talked. I learned to encourage women to ask questions and get information rather than doing it for her. I learned that I couldn’t possibly understand all the circumstance of another woman’s life that drive her to make the decisions she does, but that I should do everything in my power to hear her and help her achieve those choices. I learned to work behind the scenes, providing valuable skills and resources when needed, but never taking the spotlight away from those who really mattered: the woman, her family, and supporters. Outside of the birthing room, I advocated for changes in a complex system of institutions, laws, and circumstances that make it difficult for women to have the birth they knew was best for them.
What I heard during the RJ 101 session made me think hard about the role of an RJ lawyer. In law school we learn how to be the interpreter of the law and the one who gives advice. We are taught to stand up in front and speak confidently. We are taught to be, or at least act like, the experts our education prepares us to be.
But the reproductive justice framework asks us to focus on the intersections of race, class, sex, age, sexual orientation, gender expression, immigration status, and ability and how they impact access, agency, and autonomy in shaping one’s reproductive destiny. It shifts our role from achieving a right or winning a case for someone to one that requires us to listen and to act only once we attempt to understand those we serve. It asks us to work with communities as allies, strategists, and advisors to overcome the complex systems, laws, and circumstances that make it difficult for people to have the reproductive destiny they know is best for them.
We must be doulas in the reproductive justice movement.
I am incredibly honored to be at the L I with so many soon-to-be lawyers who will continue to doula this movement, and those it affects, forward with compassion, grace, and integrity.