A low hum of quiet conversation settles over the rows of chairs in Ernst Common Room. A few people are milling about, pinning support buttons onto their coats and mixing coffee as they talk amongst themselves. Despite the small number of people, this sun-drenched room doesn’t feel empty in the least. Each man and woman in attendance seems to have a very strong presence and an understanding that everyone is there for the same reason.
Appropriately, the symposium When Justice Has a Body is being held on a date close to the thirtieth anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, the landmark Supreme Court decision that forever changed the landscape of the debate on women’s health and abortion. Ages of the attendees range from those who have only lived in a post-Roe America, to people who can recall the conditions of reproductive rights before abortion was legalized.
Some of the students have extensive knowledge of the issues and have followed the crusade: Fred McNulty ‘15 has been an advocate for Planned Parenthood since his sophomore year of high school. Older members of the New London community in attendance offer a view of an America unfamiliar to Conn students: one where women were not given choices concerning their own reproductive health or decisions. Others are just beginning to develop an interest in the debate. “The topic is interesting. I want to know more. This is an issue that effects everyone but has been oversimplified,” says freshman Nora Britton.
Edgar has a passion for reproductive rights that compelled her to organize this event. “After working with women, I am interested in answering the questions ‘Why did this happen and why are things this way?’ I want to provide a better life for my daughters and examine structures so we can change them.”
While each of the speakers had their own specialties within the issue, from economics to health, each emphasized what reproductive justice means beyond the common conception of simply meaning “pro-choice.”
Professor Joan Chrisler stated “Contraception and abortion are important elements at the core of Reproductive Justice but not the sum total.” Reproductive justice, according to the women’s organization SisterSong is defined as the right to reproduce, be pregnant, and chose when to have a family and with whom to have children with; the right to make the choice to not have children, and finally, the right to be able to parent the children they do have in a safe and healthy environment.
These standards are embodied in the eight basic human rights categories: civil, political, economic, social, cultural, environmental, developmental and sexual rights.
Each of the speakers sought to prove that reproductive rights are indeed something that need to be broadened beyond the compartmentalization of women’s rights and included in the broader category of human rights. Another issue they each addressed was the need to focus on women holistically rather than only focusing on them when they are faced with injustice and eradicating the mentality that they are only important when they are pregnant.
The first speaker of the day was Loretta Ross. She began her talk by assuring the audience that she is indeed a force to be reckoned with by declaring “I am a great-grandmother. I have earned the right to sit while I talk and do basically whatever the hell I want.”
Apart from being a forceful speaker, Ross has worked tirelessly on behalf of women of color to gain rights and equality. However, what she focused on through much of her talk was the work done by the foundation she founded in 1997, SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. SisterSong is a group women from every ethnic and political background. They each have a different voice but collectively create a harmony of their differences.
Her battle against reproductive injustice began at the young age of 15, when she was impregnated by way of incest and forced to keep the child because at that point abortion was not an option. For Ross, the experience of teen pregnancy and motherhood disproved the myths and reasoning used by pro-life activists: have the child and just give it up for adoption.
“But then something happened,” said Ross. “I saw my child’s face.” While she was unable to give up her child to adoption, she had to contend with an issue that many face: learning to love her rapist’s child and understanding the ambiguity of loving and hating her child at the same time.
Since that experience she has dedicated her life to activism to ensure that future generations would have the choices she wasn’t given. Recently she has been involved in the battle against race-targeted abortion. In 2010, a billboard campaign advertising a website, TooManyAborted.com with the slogan “Black Children are endangered” with the aim, Ross argued, of manipulating black women into believing they are somehow participating in a genocide, therefore taking away their ability to direct their own lives. Ross sought to connect the issue of reproductive justice with issues about race in American society.
The second speaker was Conn psychology professor Joan Chrisler. Professor Chrisler is the author of numerous writings on abortion including the forthcoming Reproductive Justice: A Global Concern.
Chrisler argues that women’s rights are abused across the globe in order to enforce the power of others. Nicaragua has completely illegalized abortion and Ghana officially removed marital rape from its Domestic Violence Act on the grounds that according to tradition marriage meant permanent consent to the husband. Even here in the U.S., women’s rights have been used as a political tool, for example by pro-life Republican presidential candidates.
Gretchen Raffa, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood for Southern New England, added to this discussion by giving more examples of women’s rights being subjugated to political aim, such as the recent controversy surrounding the Susan G. Komen Foundation pulling funding for Planned Parenthood this past week.
The main theme was that presence of rights does not necessitate actual access to care. Attempts to devaluate crimes such as rape by changing the vocabulary of heinous sexual crimes speak volumes about what is left to be done, Raffa argued.
One of the most important problems that has been prevalent through the history of reproductive justice is the loss of control women experience when they are used as bargaining chips or when others (often men) decide that they are not capable of making their own decisions.
Edgar, the event’s organizer, provided a history of abortion so our understanding of the issues would have a firm foundation on past events, arguing that there has been a growing empowerment of women going through the process of abortion.
The final speaker, Miriam Perez, editor of Feministing.com, offered insight to the future of reproductive justice activism.
Perez has seen many different sides of the birthing process and its flaws here in the U.S., which ranks seventy-fifth in the world for number of maternal deaths related to childbirth, near the level of developing countries. She argued that the U.S. is an “overdeveloped” country: over-dependent on technology and synthetic drugs.
In many countries it is more common for women to use a midwife for at-home births than it is to give birth in a hospital; interestingly enough these are the countries with the lowest number of birth-related deaths. It is not the standard of care that is the problem, she argued – it is the model of being purely a medical field rather than approaching women holistically.
In Perez’s view, there is no attempt to create a connection or a sense of trust between the care provider and the one receiving the care. Originally, Perez had intended to follow a premed track to being an OB/GYN; however, she took a detour into the field of being a “doula.” Doula is a Greek word for mother-helper and has developed as a field alongside the return of midwifery in the last forty years. The job of a doula is solely to provide emotional support and a listening ear for women during the stress of childbirth, and more recently, abortion and miscarriage procedures.
Key to Perez’s view of the future of activism is her status as identifying as gender ]queer. Women have a huge monopoly on the field of childbirth, serving as proof that our country is very focused around gender connections. Perez referred to it as a compartmentalization of values, when in reality it is a synthesis and combination of values that is needed. “It’s difficult to argue about rights,” she says “But remembering our values is equally, if not more, important.”
Many of the speakers demurred that is easy to feel disheartened by the length of the battle over reproductive rights. Ross went so far as to say, “I am tired of this war.”
Yet each of the speakers gave a message that it is possible to cause change.
Zak Kirwood, a senior at Wesleyan, a Planned Parenthood intern and self-proclaimed anarchist gave advice for campus organizing by connecting abortion with economic justice. During the blackout of the freak snowstorm this past October, it became evident that labor workers were not being given proper childcare funds when they were forced to work overtime despite the breaching of the third part of reproductive justice: inability to care for their children. Kirkwood described the sudden unity of the students who reached out and offered childcare to the workers.
Seeing this injustice touched Kirkwood, and caused him and his peers to begin looking at the ways that vulnerable people are punished for their vulnerability, and more importantly, to do something about it.
Perez challenged symposium attendees to ask how change can be effected. Through outlawing certain practices we see unfit? Or through open communication? Ross gave the advice of finding something to be passionately involved in within a movement. Whether it be improving sex education for youth or the creation of more effective fitness classes for women, she advised attendees to find a passion to focus on instead allowing oneself to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things that could possibly be fixed
This sentiment was summarized by Chrisler’s closing words: “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” •