What Do We Do With the Fear of Disenfranchisement?

TrustingWomen

How should the reproductive justice community address the fear of disenfranchisement, this fear that has fueled a very successful anti-abortion movement that continues to effectively limit and prevent access to abortion and other reproductive health services?

A friend brought to my attention this week one of The Onion’s faux-news articles that many of my friends and colleagues in the reproductive justice movement found chilling: New ‘Anti-Abortion Pill’ Kills Mother, Leaves Fetus Alive.

“This is a step forward for equality,” men’s rights activist Charles Hackett said. “For too long, women have had an unfair advantage in the outcome of a pregnancy. UR-86 levels the playing field for husbands and boyfriends across America.

Again, none of this article actually happened, no one in the article actually exists. However, the article and its fictional characters said exactly what many of us in the reproductive justice movement hear and understand the anti-abortion movement to be saying. It also expresses the deep fear that many feel about the changes that the social movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s brought about, particularly the fear that (White) men may feel. Frank Rich addressed this in his recent op-ed “The Rage Is Not About Health Care,”  where he said that the “tsunami of anger” over the health care bill has much more to do demographic shifts and the enfranchisement of non-white men than any particular policy decision.

The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement…no matter what policies were in play.

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How should the reproductive justice community address this fear of disenfranchisement, this fear that has fueled a very successful anti-abortion movement that continues to effectively limit and prevent access to abortion and other reproductive health services? A LOT of my training to be a clergy-person involves learning about managing and facilitating a community’s movement through major change. Even the most hoped-for and desired changes often bring about a sense of loss and grief for people. Unless addressed and managed well, such grief can turn toxic for a community — fear of change can turn into aggression and mean politics.

W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay “Of the Dawn of Freedom” haunts me regarding these matters. In it, Du Bois explores the post-Civil War South and the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was charged with orchestrating the transitions of millions of formerly enslaved people into citizenship and, more pointedly, the paid labor force. As Du Bois put it, even “in a time of perfect calm, amid willing neighbors and streaming wealth, the social uplifting of four million slaves…would have been a herculean task” (17). In midst of post-Civil war America, in “the spite and hate of conflict, the hell of war” the task may well have been impossible.

Du Bois has this passage that totally blew my mind and has radically changed my understanding of how we, those dedicated to abortion access, approach the anti-abortion movement:

Amid it all, two figures ever stand to typify that day to coming ages,–the one, a gray-haired gentleman, whose fathers had quit themselves like men, whose sons lay in nameless graves; who bowed to the evil of slavery because its abolition threatened untold ill to all; who stood at last, in the evening of life, a blighted, ruined form, with hate in his eyes;–and the other , a form hovering dark and mother-like, her awful face black with the mists of centuries, had aforetime quailed at that white masters’ command, had bent in love over the cradles of his sons and daughters, and closed in death of the sunken eyes of his wife,–aye, too, at his behest had laid herself low to his lust, and born a tawny man-child to the world, only to see her dark boy’s limbs scattered to the winds by midnight marauders riding after “damned Niggers.” These were the saddest sights of that woful day; and no man clasped the hands of these two passing figures of the present-past; but, hating, they went to their long home, and hating, their children’s children live today.” (p.17-18).

No man clasped the hands of these two passing figures of the present-past; but, hating, they went to their long home, and hating, their children’s children live today.

Is Du Bois suggesting that we, as a society, did not appropriately grieve slavery, did not attend to the very real grief that “these two passing figures” experienced?  Is he saying that we as a society should have attended to the grief not only of the enslaved but also of the plantation-owners?  I think he is.  There were real relationships and communities that existed under that horrendous system, relationships and communities that were lost in liberation. Even the most just change, the most longed for change, can bring about its sadnesses and losses.  To deny this risks planting the seeds of hate that will fuel bitter conflict for generations to come.

The chattel-bondage system was/is deeply entrenched in our culture, perhaps only rivaled by one other oppressive system: gender.  Roe v. Wade represented a vast change in the course of Western human history—far greater, perhaps, than the dismantling of slavery.  The major religious, political, and medical institutions of “the West” have been fundamentally concerned with “the problem” that the most valuable “means of production” (women producing and maintaining (certain) human populations) is not easily controllable by those who rule and govern (i.e. men).   Accessible abortion does irrevocably what other contraceptive techniques do imperfectly: make pregnancy avoidable and therefore completely manageable/controllable by women.

Accessible abortion (and birth control) means loss and grief for those who derived a sense of security under the old societal arrangements, loss and grief that easily converts into fear and rage.  What might the reproductive justice community gain by attending to this grief? What would attending to that grief even look like?

Commentary Human Rights

Love, Respect, Accountability: What We Need in This Time of Tragedy and Crisis

Jodi Jacobson

Speaking up, speaking out, changing systems... This is not disrespect or lack of love and support. It is the essence of the struggle for the rights of all people. It is democracy.

In a time of great strife, in which those who seek to divide us have a very large platform, I remember that these things are all true:

You can oppose an illegitimate or unnecessary war, and still individually and collectively honor and love the troops that serve.

You can honor and love the troops that serve, but protest the ways in which war is waged and abhor the behavior of individual soldiers who abuse human rights and dehumanize the civilians in a population. You can honor and love and support the troops that serve but still work to change the systems, and hold politicians and individuals responsible for crimes they perpetrate.

You can honor and love any and all public servants—as I do deeply—but still abhor systemic problems in civil services that lead to racist behaviors and outcomes (or those based on class, immigrant status, gender, ability, or any other basis for discrimination).

You can honor, love, and respect police, but abhor the militarization of our police forces; racial and ethnic profiling; abuses of fines, fees, and arrests that both target and most adversely affect the poorest individuals; and the growing dependency of the budgets for police forces based on fines drawn from those who can least afford it. You can honor, love, and respect the police, but still understand why there is a great level of distrust of policing in some communities. You can honor, love, and respect the police, but still recognize real abuses of power by individuals or groups among them, and seek to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.

You can honor and love police for putting their lives on the line for public safety, but recognize the very deeply legitimate concerns of movements—like Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights groups, women’s rights groups, LGBTQ rights groups, and others for whom policing often is not about public safety, but is itself a source of fear—because law enforcement is and has been too often used against these groups in ways that are disrespectful, demeaning, and sometimes deadly.

You can honor, respect, and love the police, but support the work of Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights groups, women’s rights groups, and LGBTQ rights groups, and defend them against blame for the behavior of someone acting in their name who is not actually acting in their name at all.

You can honor and respect the work of prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials, but recognize when the systems in which they are working are not working for the people or to promote justice, or when individuals within those systems operate more on bias than on integrity.

You can protest and advocate for change in any and all of these systems without dishonoring the individuals within them. Indeed, by protesting and seeking to make them better, you make the world better for those within and outside of law enforcement and, hopefully, promote a more universal justice.

You can and we all must honor and treasure the freedoms of speech and of assembly, and abhor violence, while also recognizing that sometimes it is perpetrated by people, like veterans, whose own needs for health care, love, and honor have not been met by the country that sent them to war, or by people who feel so alienated that they—wrongly but nonetheless—resort to violence.

You can be confused by or even irritated by something you don’t understand, but it is on you, not others, to try to understand it. As Proverbs 4:7 says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” Read, discuss, challenge yourself. Try to open yourself up to what may seem like radical ideas. Make yourself vulnerable to learning. If you don’t understand the movement for Black lives, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, then listen to the very people fighting for their rights in order to better understand them. You may have started from a very different place than they do; you may stand in a very different place today. The issues may seem alien at first. But just because you don’t have cancer does not mean cancer does not exist. Try hard to understand why there is distance, what you don’t understand, and what you can—what we all must—do to narrow that distance in understanding each other.

We can love, honor, and respect each other and still recognize and raise awareness of our collective weaknesses. Indeed, that is the essence of progress and of democracy. Don’t fight it. Try to help it along.

People are human and therefore flawed. The systems we create also are therefore often flawed. We need mutual love and respect, along with vigorous debate and sometimes protest, to right the wrongs that are the inevitable result of our flawed selves and our flawed systems.

Love, honor, respect, and accountability: We need them all. Accountability, along with freedom, is the essence of a functioning democracy and part of the struggle for justice. The right to speak, the right to protest, the right to agitate for changes in systems that are flawed because we are all flawed in some way. The right to make things better.

Speaking up, speaking out, changing systems… This is not disrespect or lack of love and support. It is the essence of the struggle for the rights of all people. It is democracy. Some will tell you that in speaking out you are being disrespectful, but the opposite is true. You are respecting the many who have fought and given their lives—and who continue to be placed in harm’s way—on behalf of all of us so that we may all exercise our basic freedoms.

Let’s embrace the struggle. We can love, honor, respect police and other public servants, politicians, soldiers, and ourselves, and still work to hold them and ourselves accountable. These things are all true. I can hold these true simultaneously.

Can we all hold these things true simultaneously? I hope so, because I fear our failure to do so will only result in more violence and hatred.

Commentary Sexual Health

‘Not the Enemy, But the Answer’: Elevating the Voices of Black Women Living With HIV

Dazon Dixon Diallo

National HIV Testing Day is June 27. But for longtime advocates, ensuring that the women most affected by the epidemic can get and influence care and policy is the work of many years.

I met Juanita Williams in the mid-1980s. She was the first client at SisterLove, the then-new Atlanta nonprofit I founded for women living with AIDS.

June 27 is National HIV Testing Day, and many women will be tested during the observance. But when I met Williams, HIV was a growing reality in our communities, and women were not even recognized as a population at risk for HIV at that time.

This lack of understanding was reflected in women’s experiences when seeking care. Williams’ attempt to get a tubal ligation had been met with fear, ignorance, and hostility from a medical team who informed her she had AIDS. Not only did they refuse to provide her the medical procedure, the hospital staff promptly ushered her down the back staircase and out the door. Williams was left without information or counseling for what was devastating news.

A Black woman who grew up in Syracuse, New York, she had moved to her family’s home state of South Carolina. Her first major decision after her diagnosis was to leave South Carolina and move to Atlanta, where she believed she would get better treatment and support. She was right, and still, it wasn’t easy—not then and not now. Even today, Williams says, “Positive people are not taken seriously, and positive women are taken even less seriously. People think positive people are way down on the totem pole.”

As communities across the United States observe National HIV Testing Day and emphasize taking control of our health and lives, women’s voices are an essential but still neglected part of the conversation. The experiences of Black women living with HIV, within the broader context of their sexual and reproductive health, highlight the need to address systemic health disparities and the promise of a powerful movement at the intersection of sexual and reproductive justice.

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The urgency of adopting an intersectional approach to sexual and reproductive health comes to light when considering the disproportionate impact of HIV on women of color. Black women account for 69 percent of all HIV diagnoses among women in the South. Advocates also acknowledge the history of biomedical and reproductive oppression that Black women have suffered throughout American history, including forced pregnancy and childrearing during slavery to forced sterilization afterward. Keeping these matters in mind helps us understand how the HIV epidemic is a matter of sexual and reproductive justice.

Taking seriously the perspectives of women such as Williams would amplify our collective efforts to eradicate HIV’s impacts while elevating women’s health, dignity, and agency. This is especially pressing for women living with HIV who experience the greatest disparities and access barriers to the broad spectrum of reproductive health, including contraception and abortion.

The policy context has created additional barriers to advancing the reproductive health of women living with HIV. For example, the 2015 National HIV AIDS Strategy Update neglected to mention family planning or reproductive health services as arenas for providing HIV prevention care. Yet, in many instances, a reproductive health clinic is a woman’s primary or only point of access to health care in a given year. Providing HIV prevention and care in family planning clinics is a way to provide a space where women can expect to receive guidance about their risk of exposure to HIV.

As advocates for women living with HIV, we at SisterLove are committed to ensuring that human rights values are at the center of social change efforts to protect and advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and their families. We work to transform the policy frame to one that asserts women’s agency to make decisions that are best for themselves and their loved ones. We draw strength from the resilience and determination of the women we serve.

Several years after becoming deeply involved with SisterLove, Williams became an advocate for her own reproductive health and began speaking out on behalf of other Black women living with HIV. She eventually became a trainer, counselor, and health outreach worker.

Later, in 2004, Williams was the only woman living with HIV invited to be a main speaker at the historic March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. She is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother who has returned to South Carolina, where she teaches other women living with HIV about sexual and reproductive justice and human rights. Williams uses her own story and strength to help other women find theirs.

“Give [women living with HIV] a voice and a platform for that voice,” she has said. “Give a safe place to let their voices be heard and validate them …. We need positive women’s voices to continue to fight the stigma. How do we do that? We tell our stories and reflect each other. I am not the enemy, I am the answer.”

Advocates need strength as we work at many critical intersections where the lives of women and girls are shaped. We cannot address HIV and AIDS without access to contraception and abortion care; health and pay equity; recognition of domestic and gender-based violence; and the end of HIV criminalization. And as advocates for sexual and reproductive health in our communities, SisterLove is working alongside our sisters to support National HIV Testing Day and ensure all people have the information, tools, and agency to take control of their health.

Elevating the health and dignity of people living with HIV calls for special attention to the epidemic’s implications for women of color and Black women, particularly those within marginalized communities and in the Deep South. The voices and leadership of the most affected women and people living with HIV are essential to making our efforts more relevant and powerful. Together, we can advance the long-term vision for sexual and reproductive justice while working to eradicate HIV for all people.