Beyond Choice, Beyond Our Community

Grace Ramsay, LSRJ Summer Reproductive Rights Activist Service Corps (RRASC) Intern (’16, Smith College)

In the RJ community, word travels fast.  Scary fast.  So after the New York Times posted a well meaning yet misguided article regarding Planned Parenthood’s shift from its pro-choice framework, all of my feeds blew up with conversation, from Twitter, to Facebook, to my LSRJ intern email.  The article seems to credit Planned Parenthood’s recent (actually, three-year old) move away from the phrase “pro-choice” as being innovative and in-touch with today’s women.  The problem is, women of color adopted this stance over two decades ago with the term reproductive justice.  LSRJ took part in a Twitter storm using the hashtags #KnowYourHistory and #StopErasing as a chance to re-educate — or perhaps introduce — folks on the beginnings of beyond-choice reproductive justice activism.  I understand being sick of educating again and again people who are supposed to be our allies, but I also sense the hope of strength in numbers of more people “tuned in” to reproductive justice tenets.   I was surprised when I sat down with some older family members later in the day, family who considers themselves feminists, very involved with current issues regarding reproductive health, etcetera.  They asked me “Why would we want to move away from the word ‘choice’ ?”  I launched into my well-rehearsed explanation of the history of reproductive justice.  They seemed unmoved and I wondered if our differences in approaching the issue were too big to cross.  My family members are white, upper-class, educated folks who can separate out abortion from other RJ issues because of their privilege.  They spent their adult lives advocating for abortion access and birth control — “of course we believe in choice!” For me, it’s about more than abortion and birth control.  For me, it’s about access to high quality preventative healthcare, and childcare to those need it.  It’s about validating queer relationships.  It’s ensuring everyone can live free from sexual abuse and coercion.  It’s about so much more than Pro-Choice vs. Anti-Choice.

Loretta Ross was a guest lecturer at Smith College this past year and I will never forget how moved I was listening to her during my Introduction to Study of Women and Gender class. She explained how choice alone did not make sense of the reproductive oppression that women of color faced.  It was Loretta Ross and that class that made me realize RJ spoke to me more than anything I’d ever studied. We can’t erase barriers to reproductive injustice by only focusing on abortion when large populations of women have been forcibly sterilized, exposed to toxic chemicals in the workplace, or been shackled to a hospital bed in labor.  Why is this difficult to communicate to people who have long taken a pro-choice stance?  I have no answers, but it always seems to come down to power and privilege.  While I’m glad that Planned Parenthood is acknowledging that abortion is but a facet in women’s reproductive freedom, I hope that we will continue to honor the true foremothers of the RJ movement.

Vlogging for Reproductive Justice

Mangala Kanayson, LSRJ Summer Intern (’15, Emory University School of Law)

On June 14th, fellow summer intern Kaitlin Morrison and I attended the ACCESS Women’s Health Justice fundraiser to support ACCESS’s mission of removing barriers to sexual and reproductive health care. While there, we interviewed attendees to get the pulse of the reproductive justice community. We know that not all reproductive justice activists work directly within reproductive health, rights, or justice organizations, and the fields in which advocates are found can vary. The resulting video blog features repro activists from diverse work backgrounds and their perspectives on current pressing reproductive justice issues.

Take a look at our video here!

No Standard Deviation from Our Principles

Rosie Wang, Resident Blogger (’14, Columbia Law School)

Here is an alarming fact that I didn’t know until recently: Some studies have found that it is actually more likely for a woman to conceive after rape than after consensual sex. So much for the woman’s body having a way to shut that down. On the contrary, this tragic reality seems to highlight the necessity of abortion as an option.  But what is behind the link between lack of consent and increased likelihood of conception?

Jonathan and Tiffani Gottschall looked at the results from the National Violence Against Women survey and found that out of the 405 women who said they had been raped, pregnancy occurred at rate of 6.42% Horrifyingly, this is more than twice the rate that women become pregnant from consensual sex. The Gottschalls eliminated a few possibilities: rape does not induce ovulation, nor is the sperm of the rapist unusually viable. One hypothesis they present is that of male choice. Supposedly, rapists target women who are young and desirable. And since the markers of beauty and the markers of high fertility overlap, a woman with high fecundity is more likely to be chosen by a rapist because of these physical cues. Various news outlets [Huffington Post here, Politico here, Washington Post here]  have trotted out these findings as a refutation against the blatant misinformation perpetuated by Todd Adkin and his ilk.

However, there is something very wrong with this picture.

First of all, rape is not primarily about sexual attraction, rape is about power and anger. Second, this type of correlation between visible fertility and rape veers straight into the territory of victim-blaming. I imagine wildly misguided “advice” based on these findings that puts the onus on the victims to obscure their physical cues of fertility. “If she had worn something baggier, that would have obscured her ideal hip to waist ratio, she wouldn’t have been raped.” Sadly, since two-thirds of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and 38% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance, it would seem like rapists do not target the women with the highest and strongest fertility cues, but those whose familiarity and trust they can exploit. Thus, even if some piece of information or research looks like a good argument for reproductive justice, it’s often worth it to dig a bit deeper and look at what the implications mean.

RJ and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Part 2

The following are the second part of condensed remarks given by Law Students for Reproductive Justice Fellow Laura Nixon on October 6, 2012 at William & Mary School of Law’s Reproductive Justice Symposium, sponsored by their Initiative on Gender, Sexuality, and the Law. Read the first part here.

Now, I want to turn to addressing some specific barriers to reproductive justice for transgender people. I want to ground this conversation in the reality that transgender people have sexual partners who are men or women  – and that when we make blanket assumptions about sexual behavior based on gender identity and sexual orientation, we may miss reproductive health issues that are important to members of our community.

The National Center for Transgender Equality has created an excellent fact sheet showing us some of the important reproductive healthcare issues for transgender people. Foremost of these issues is how often transgender people are denied healthcare by providers outright – in national surveys, somewhere between 19 to 27 percent of transgender people report having this experience.  Related to refusal of care, is how often transgender people must educate their healthcare providers about appropriate clinical care and the paucity of adequate information about sexual health available to transgender people.  With regard to reproductive health, many transgender men who have sex with men report being more concerned about unintended pregnancy than sexually transmitted infections, even as they may be at high risk for both.  Additionally, requirements that people undergo sex reassignment surgery before being allowed to change the gender marker on their identity documents (such as driver’s licenses or birth certificates) essentially requires that they be sterilized in order to obtain these correct documents – which should be a profound concern for LGBT and reproductive justice advocates.

With respect to the experiences of transgender people, an important question to ask is: are our language choices in the reproductive health, rights, and justice movements drawing people in or are we pushing people out? In terms of reproductive health care, Dean Spade, a trans legal scholar and activist has proposed some ideas about how anyone working in the health field can change the language they use, so that transgender people know that their needs are being considered, met, and welcomed. In terms of reproductive rights and justice movement-building, we have heard a lot about the “war on women” over the past year, given the number of unprecedented legislative attacks on reproductive freedom.  Sometimes in these discussions, we may have heard people say something to the effect of “Only people with vaginas should be deciding these issues!”  This is a tongue-in-cheek way to demand that people who are most affected by these attacks on reproductive freedom be heard on these issues, and be the decision-makers in their own reproductive lives.  However, it’s worth thinking a little more deeply about how those statements may box out transgender people from the movement and communicate that they don’t have a voice in these issues because people who are women may or may not have vaginas.  In the same way the Dean Spade has suggested that we shift our language about reproductive anatomy in the healthcare setting, we must think about our language choices in reproductive rights and justice movement-building so that our work truly reflects the needs and experiences of all members of our community.

I hope the information and research that I have shared today shows us why harmful restrictions on contraception and abortion care affect LGBT people and how we can build healthcare systems and movements that are really responsive to the reality of LGBT peoples’ sexual and reproductive experiences.  Our LGBT rights and reproductive health, rights, and justice movements have strong  – not just theoretical – connections.  Let’s continue to work together to build a better world!

RJ and the National Center for Lesbian Rights

The following is part one of condensed remarks given by Law Students for Reproductive Justice Fellow Laura Nixon on October 6, 2012 at William & Mary School of Law’s Reproductive Justice Symposium, sponsored by their Initiative on Gender, Sexuality, and the Law. Stay tuned for part two tomorrow!

The National Center for Lesbian Rights has been concerned about issues of reproductive health and rights since our founding – and we are grateful to the reproductive justice movement for developing new frameworks to think about issues at the intersection of reproduction and sexuality.  Reproductive justice is the right to have children, the right to not have children, and the right to parent the children we have. In fact, the right to have children and to parent the children formed the basis of the founding of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. We were founded in 1977 because many lesbian mothers were losing custody of their children because of their sexual orientation.  Seeing this desperate need, Donna Hitchens – a law student like many of you here today — decided to start the Lesbian Rights Project which eventually grew into the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

My presentation today will touch on the right to have children and to parent the children we have.  I will directly address the right not have children, and why issues of access to contraception, emergency contraception, and abortion care have a big impact on the LGBT communityissues that has been raised by a number of activists and organizations working in these two movements.  Then, I will describe some specific barriers to reproductive justice for transgender people, and ask us to consider how our LGBT rights movement and reproductive justice movements can be stronger allies in our fights for social change.

The right to have children encompasses situations that LGBT people are already, tragically familiar with — discriminatory state adoption statutes, courts that fail to recognize non-biological parents as full and equal parents, and access to affordable reproductive technologies.  The right to have children also requires us to consider issues we may believe are outside of LGBT rights, but also implicate the right to have children, such as the effect of family caps on women in poverty. Family caps impact children in poverty by denying them critical support for their health and well-being – and may have the effect of incentivizing abortion for poor women subject to this policy.  It is a profound reproductive injustice for coercive state policies to force people to make these kinds of decisions about having children.

The right to parent the children we have includes if and how same-sex parents are placed on the birth certificates of their children, access to second-parent adoptions, how these parental rights travel across state lines, and how parental rights play out in the case of separation or divorce.  The right to parent the children we have also includes combating how the child welfare system systemically punishes poor women of color struggling to raise their children and the devastating impact of child welfare system and immigration, where it has recently been revealed that more than 5,000 children have had the traumatic experience of being placed into foster care while their parents are subject to deportation proceedings.

The right not to have children – access to contraception, emergency contraception, and abortion care – are the focus of my presentation today.  The LGBT rights movement and the reproductive rights and justice movements have strong  – not just legal and theoretical – connections to one another in this area for several reasons that law professor Ruthann Robson has expertly identified in this op-ed.  First, there is a devastating prevalence of rape and sexual assault in the United States, which includes an incredibly high number of lesbians who are raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Secondly, our sexual identity may not always align with our sexual behavior.  For example, surveys have consistently shown that many lesbians have a history of sexual contact with men, and that in many of those encounters, no condom was used, thus increasing the likelihood of an unintended pregnancy.  Finally, public health research has shown us that queer youth are uniquely susceptible to unintended pregnancy.  In fact, several studies have documented that young lesbians are two to ten times more likely to become pregnant than their heterosexual counterparts for a number of reasons that speak to how vulnerable queer youth are to the inadequacies of abstinence-only sex education, sexual abuse and/or substance abuse, homelessness, and the kind of surveillance and harassment that may lead young lesbians to have unprotected heterosexual sex in order to hide their sexuality.

**Laura’s remaining remarks, detailing barriers to reproductive justice for transgender individuals, will be posted tomorrow.**

The Land of the Brave, and the Home of the Childfree

Rosie Wang (’14, Columbia Law School)

My parents have been joking for 15 years that when I have children, they’ll move close by so they can help babysit them and tutor them in math. This scenario has always absolutely horrified me because (1) learning the times table at age 4 was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone and (2) who said I wanted kids? Its a matter I’m ambivalent on, but start feeling actively resistant towards on principle, once people knowingly say that I’ll change my mind and or rehash the tropes of parenthood being the noblest calling. This may have contributed to me amusing myself as a young adolescent by reading “childfree” livejournal groups that served as forums for people to discuss the stigma they felt from not wanting to have children. Specifically, there was a childfree group that I read out of interest in some of the feminist, pro-choice ideas, and a childfree “hardcore” group I read out of a morbid fascination with people who had built up so much resentment that they called parents “moos” or “breeders.”

This movement, more extreme parts included, is still alive and well. And looking at it from a reproductive justice angle is fascinating. Believe it or not, it is possible for reproductive justice advocates who work for healthy mothers and infants and for who say they actively dislike children and mothers to find common ground. For instance, some women who do not have children feel taken advantage of by the workplace accommodations given to women with children. From a different point of view though, you could say both groups of people are on the same side. Both women with and without children want their choices to parent or not to parent respected. Rather than developing antagonistic feelings, the answer may be better found in working together to develop workplaces that do not ask women without children to “pick up the slack,” but instead hire more employees so that no one has to disproportionately sacrifice their life outside of work.

On another workplace angle, as recently as 1991, courts have reviewed cases in which employers have banned fertile women from job duties that may cause birth defects with both an assumption that their female employees would all have children and an assumption that they knew what was best for these women. The posts I used to find the most interesting were by people who had never had children chronicling the frustrating experience of being denied tubal ligations by doctors who were sure they would regret it. Though the reproductive justice movement was founded by women of color, who have historically experienced forced sterilization, it makes perfect sense that it also champions the rights of the “childfree” to be voluntarily sterilized. The recurring theme is a familiar one from legislative battles surrounding abortion and contraception: Those with power arising from political clout, a professional degree, or employment position are trying to control how those with less power how to live their reproductive lives. And though the ability to choose is usually associated with the right to time and space having children – it is just as much of a reproductive right to choose to never have children.

Judge Dredd…er…Graves. Wait, is that better?

Ash Moore (’14 University of Oklahoma College of Law)

I promise I will try not to blog about the “gay agenda” too much. I don’t even know what the “gay agenda” is really. I think it has something to do with fabulous heels in a size 13 and Justin Bieber’s hair. However, I want to give a cent or three about a recent Oklahoma court ruling. The short and not-so-sweet of it is a Judge named Graves denied two transgender people name changes based on God, DNA, and science. He even cited Genesis 1:27-28 in the opinion.

Now, I cling to my guns and religion just as much as the next Texan but this is absurd. Aside from the Constitutional problems all of the young and idealistic law schoolers can rattle off, there’s even a huge problem with the religious argument. The old testament condones the beating of slaves to death as long as they survive for at least a couple of days (Exodus 21:20) and condemns eating shrimp, lobster, and clams (Leviticus 11:9). So, Judge Graves, unless you abstain from the aforementioned ocean delicacies and beat your slaves, join the modern age.

It’s absolutely horrifying to look in the mirror and not be able to see yourself. No matter what other people say or do, no matter how many hormones or surgeries we put to use, we spend our entire lives clawing at the inside of our own skin.

Some individuals and organizations define reproductive justice as “the right to have kids, the right not to have kids, and the right to parent the kids we have with dignity.” Ignoring an entire class of people deprives them of dignity in every aspect of their lives, especially with regard to reproductive justice.

I want to be listed as the father on my baby’s birth certificate. I want to hear my children call me Dad one day, not Mom. I don’t want trick some unsuspecting hetero into marriage, I just want to be able to hold my head up when I walk down the street and feel just a little bit better about who or what I am. I want dignity. Why do other people care? You shouldn’t care what I do as long as I don’t do it in the street and scare the horses.

A Stylized Version of Sarah Palin’s “Real America”

Elisabeth Smith (’14, University of Washington School of Law)

My passport expired on June 12, 2012.  In the 10 years I carried that passport, I lived in Japan and traveled across Asia, Europe, South America, and Africa. Leafing through the pages reminds me of amazing full-color adventures: interesting people, delicious food, different languages, widely varying experiences and opinions.

When I flipped through the pages of my new hyper-American passport, I saw something radically different. No diversity, no nod to different experiences or differing perspectives. The United States as depicted in our current passport (established in 2007) has no cities, no minorities, and no women. True, there are quotations at the top of each spread and exactly one comes from a woman, one from an African-American man, one from a Japanese American, and one from an unattributed Mohawk Thanksgiving address. All the others are from white men or from documents written by the Founding Fathers. The U.S. as seen in the illustrations includes white men, both as figures and as faces carved into Mt. Rushmore, mountains, cactus, buffalo, eagles, oxen, longhorns, salmon, unidentified birds, the Atlantic, the Mississippi, a lake, and the moon. The white men fight the British, till a field, and herd the longhorns. The only industrial depictions are a steamboat, a plow, the railroad, and, on the back inside cover, a space satellite.

Where am I in that depiction of the U.S.? Where are women of color? Where are Asian-Americans? Where are Latinos? Where are African-Americans? Each of the illustrations obliquely reference a more complicated history, but never depict that history. Who built the railroad? Chinese immigrants. Whose ancestors were forced to come to this country in ships? Who lived in concert with the bison and who shot hundreds of thousands of them and left them to rot on the plains? Who considered the mountain that became Mt. Rushmore a holy site before the rock face was cut away to reveal presidential power?

In short, this passport creates a stylized version of Sarah Palin’s “real America,” a country that never existed. Yet, this white-washed, masculine, rural country clearly appealed to the lawmakers who approved it and to the State Department that created it. In fact, when the passport was released in 2007, the deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services stated, “We thought it really, truly reflects the breadth of America as well as the history. We tried to be inclusive of all Americans.”

What’s the link to reproductive justice? Well, if our lawmakers think the country they’re governing is the one in this passport, then they haven’t considered whether a woman of color has the support to parent her children with dignity, or whether a Native American woman can access emergency contraception through Indian Health Services, or whether an Asian woman working at a nail salon is adequately protected from the toxins in nail polish. Until we understand that an illustration of bison feeding in front of a mountain does not mean the same thing to every American, until we recognize that depicting Americans as only white men ignores vast and valuable American experiences, reproductive justice will remain just out of reach. Until our government and our fellow citizens recognize that we’re a nation of interesting people, delicious food, different languages, widely varying experiences and opinions, reproductive justice will remain an ideal, not a reality.

I have no choice but to carry this passport. When I do, though, I will do my best to honor the people it doesn’t.

Risky Business

Catrina Otonoga, Case Western Reserve 

Across the United States, the reproductive justice movement is in a face-off. We’re facing off with our opposition on just how much legislation they can push at us, before we shove them back. We’re facing off on how far their messaging can go, before we finally go father. But most of all, we’re facing off against ourselves.

Even in the Midwest, generally known for our non-offensive accents, cornfields, and ability to get along with most everyone – we couldn’t always agree on just what issues our region was facing, whether we were red, blue or purple, or how to address the myriad of issues being thrown our way by opposition. In our afternoon plenary, this thought was manifested further. CoreAlign gave figures and facts to assumptions and showed us just how deep the divides are within the movement.

From Boston to DC, Atlanta to the Bay, the divides on how to approach the movement, the work, and the balances of needs and long-term change are scattered across the spectrum. But one consistency remains; we fail at taking big risks. While our opposition is great at flashy, pithy banners full of half (or less than half) truths, we’re struggling to find a way to please everyone. The RJ movement, and each of us in it, has to break free of habit and find ourselves in a place a little less comfortable, a little more risky, a lot more open to new dialogues, and a little closer to creating a whole new narrative.

Storytelling and a Reflection of RJ Blog Posts Past

Rosie Wang, Columbia

Culture is to softness as is policy to hardness. Cultural change is to a wave as legal change is to a solid object. No, this is not the return of the ye olde standardized testing analogies but some of the concepts used today at a storytelling workshop that explained the role of stories in the RJ movement. Basically, stories are engines of change for public sentiment, and subsequently political reality. Awesome, but admittedly, also a bit abstract to me. What made it click on a new level for me was Sujatha Jesudason of CoreAlign’s truly powerful closing talk to the LI. She said that to survive, the reproductive justice movement had to break its bad habits. This included no longer telling stories of victimhood, and instead writing a heroic narrative, in which the heroes include all people as people who have agency in their reproductive lives. She said that the RJ movement must craft something akin to Rosa Parks’ story, something both familiar in its everyday aspect, and yet with lasting potential for symbolism and parable. Looking back on the stories that I have helped tell this summer via this blog, I see myself falling into this very trap of bad habits. Writing about Bei Bei Shuai, a woman being charged with murder and feticide for attempting suicide while pregnant and mentally ill, I wrote that “her story demonstrates how even women who have conformed to the mainstream can become victimized.” And yet Ms. Shuai is a hero to me for facing with optimism and strength a legal system designed treat her body as first and foremost life support vessel for her fetus. But this is story that is yet unresolved, where victory is uncertain –how can it be a success story and not something reactionary? I concluded that the narrative of someone acted upon and then acting in response is not victimizing or teleological. Instead, it is empowering and can do important work in touching upon people’s common sense of humanity. I think it also serves as a rallying cry to people devoted to RJ to support Ms. Shaui in determining the course of her own heroic narrative. Because while anti-choice has it easy in that they can frame decades of reproductive oppression and the status quo as “tradition” for the dominant story they tell, we get to write our own rallying cry from scratch, with the very work we do every day.