Commentary Religion

Women’s Reproductive Justice: A Matter of Social Justice and a Call to Care About the Least of Us

Cynthia R. Milsap

What has been the church’s role in the reproductive health movement? I realize that while my church is socially progressive on issues of racism, that there is still much to be done within the realm of women’s everyday issues, and especially as they relate to issues of sexuality, sexual violence, reproductive justice, and women’s sexual and overall health.

Cross-posted with permission from

About a year ago, I was invited to speak at a national conference sponsored by SisterSong, a national coalition of women of color organizations working in the area of women’s reproductive health. The Conference theme was “Let’s talk about sex.” The leadership of SisterSong expressed concern that given the intricate connection between sexuality, religious beliefs, and African American sexual values, one cannot effectively develop educational programs or public policies for Black women without engaging the African American church and its leadership. I was asked to represent the Black Church and speak on the role of faith-based communities in addressing reproductive justice at the conference.

New to the term “reproductive justice.” I prepared for the conference by first seeking to better understand the scope of what’s meant by the term “reproductive justice.” My understanding was expanded by conversations with and a workshop led by Toni Bond-Leonard, board president of SisterSong and one of the founding mothers who coined the term reproductive justice and helped lay the foundation for the framework. 

“Reproductive health” is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, reproductive health addresses the reproductive processes, functions and system at all stages of life.”  “Reproductive Justice” is grounded in an analysis that recognizes the intersectionality of race, class, and gender as contributing factors in reproductive oppression. It embraces a multi-prong strategy that incorporates organizing and mobilizing across various social justice issues as a way that engages the support of diverse communities. Reproductive justice is a framework that places the lived experiences of women at the center of the debate and recognizes that they must have the social, economic, and political resources to be healthy, have healthy families, and live in healthy communities. Reproductive justice’s core principles are that: 1) a woman has the human right to decide if and when she will have a baby and the conditions under which she will give birth, 2) a woman has the right to decide if she will not have a baby and her options for preventing or ending a pregnancy, and 3) a women has the human right to parent the children she already has with the necessary social supports in safe environments and healthy communities, and without fear of violence from individuals or the government. (Ross, 2009)

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The social and historical context which gave rise to the development of the reproductive justice movement was one where global health organizations were seeking to control women’s reproductive health for the sake of population control and poverty elimination. Birth rate and poverty levels were considered to be closely related, thus the expectation was that lower birth rates would result in lower poverty rates. At the same time, in the United States, efforts were underway to change the two-tiered health system that denied adequate health care to individuals without economic means. In response to the increasing governmental efforts to control and manage women’s sexual and reproductive health, in 1994, a group of African American women who were attending a Chicago conference, sponsored by the Ms. Foundation for Women and the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance, had an impromptu caucus to discuss the concerns of women of color that were not included in the plan for universal health care that was being proposed by the Clinton administration. The development of the reproductive justice framework sought to move the conversation about women’s reproductive health from a focus on individual rights or freedom of choice to an expanded conversation about women’s human rights and the need for greater social and economic support for women and children. The “Black women who were the founding mothers and ‘involved in coining the term and laying the initial framework were, Toni M. Bond-Leonard, Reverend Alma Crawford, Evelyn S. Field, Terri James, BisolaMarignay, Cassandra McConnell, Cynthia Newbille, Loretta Ross, Elizabeth Terry, ‘Able’ Mable Thomas, Winnette P. Willis, Kim Youngblood.” (Leonard, 2009)

As I prepared for the panel discussion, I asked myself, “What has been the church’s role in the reproductive health movement?” As I reflected on my own home church, I realized that while we offered selected health awareness activities, that there was no sustained discussion of women’s sexual and reproductive health issues. My church, an African American Baptist church, has been at the forefront of the Black liberation and social justice movements. As early as the late 1970s, my church served as an advocate for women who wanted to serve as ministers, pastors, and deacons. The church was ahead of its time and even today many of the baptist churches within its denomination accept women as fundraisers, members, and ministry leaders, but they still do not affirm women in pastoral, diaconate, or trustee leadership. I realized that while my church is socially progressive on issues of racism, that there is still much to be done within the realm of women’s everyday issues, and especially as they relate to issues of sexuality, sexual violence, reproductive justice, and women’s sexual and overall health. Although we are not a “gay-bashing” church, there is a great deal of silence and unexpressed homophobia when it comes to discussing persons who represent the spectrum of human sexual identity. As I thought about my church, I became concerned about our places of silence as well as the places where our theology and social perspectives are not in sync with the realities of the lives lived by those we are called to serve.

It was my preparation for and attendance at the SisterSong Conference that opened my eyes to the gap in the church’s social justice work. There is a need for the church’s “social justice” agenda to include women’s reproductive justice issues. At the conference, I acknowledged that the Black Church community has not adequately addressed women’s issues and that faith leaders and the church need to more consciously and deliberately explore ways to be more responsive and engaged in improving the lives of women and their families. I also asked the women’s movement to not give up on working with faith communities, Christian and otherwise. After the conference, I personally made a commitment to finding ways to make these issues more visible, to provide forums for discussion among faith and community leaders, and to create spaces where people of faith, both male and female, can talk about and develop social justice agendas that include reproductive justice issues. But the lingering question in my mind, was, “Why was the church, and especially women, silent about reproductive justice issues which impact their everyday lives?”

Learned silence

I realized that women have been traditionally taught that silence and submission are Godly traits for women. From the pulpit preaching to the church Bible class, we hear the familiar biblical passage urging women to “keep silent in the church.” If women are outspoken, they are told, “Don’t be a Jezebel.” Women are taught to give deference to the pastor because he is “a man of God.” Women have been taught through the years to look to male leadership for direction and to value it even more than their own voices and spirits. Although applauded for speaking and acting against racism, African American women are encouraged to be silent and to overlook sexism in the church and society. (See Cheryl Anderson’s article later this week on biblical interpretation and its impact on reproductive justice work.)

This learned silence continues when women who are physically abused by their partners are often told, “You need to submit to your husband and pray that God will change him,” by their pastors, both male and female. This silence is practiced in church-based sexual education programs for youth which teach “abstinence only” and recommend “Just say No” as the best method of contraception, instead of providing more comprehensive sex education programs. Silence turns into denial when congregations are challenged to deal with HIV and AIDS in the African American community. It is as though some faith leaders think that we if don’t talk about it, it will just go away. We “hear, see and speak no evil” when it comes to HIV and AIDS education and programs. And we fear that if we do talk about HIV and AIDS, we may have to admit that youth and adults are having sex outside of marriage. We will also discover that the HIV and AIDS epidemic is not limited to persons who are lesbian or gay. We fear sex talk because we may need to discuss issues and experiences which make us uncomfortable. And issues of incest and rape, still the African American community’s dirty little secret, are rarely addressed by the Black Church, if at all.

Reclaiming our voice

To move toward an integrative social justice agenda, one that incorporates the elements of reproductive justice, the Black Church must first recognize and acknowledge the oppressive nature of some of its religious traditions and its misappropriations of biblical texts regarding women’s roles. Faith leaders need to learn from women activists who are committed to changing public policies which negatively impact women’s sexuality, reproductive health, and the quality of life for women and children. We need to create spaces where the connections between the socio-historical impact of slavery and racial discrimination and images that Black women have of themselves and their bodies are explored. And perhaps most importantly, we need to create spaces for biblical and theological study, both in the church and in seminaries. We need to teach women how to do critical biblical research so that they can interpret the Bible for themselves and hear the voices of other women. Women must not let the fear of being demonized or marginalized silence their theological questions or their commitment to women’s issues. We must step out and reclaim our voices, speaking the truth as we see it and, when necessary, reclaiming the voice of Black women’s righteous indignation. We must invite men and women who are social justice advocates to move toward a more holistic social justice agenda, one that includes reproductive justice issues. Creating a more inclusive agenda and advocating for these human rights will improve the quality of life for all –women, men, and children. For as Paulo Freire notes in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that when the oppressor is forced to stop oppressing others, he too is liberated.


World Health Organization. Health Topics: Reproductive Health. 2012. 4 February 2012 .

Ross, Loretta J. “The Movement for Reproductive Justice: Six-years Old and Growing.” Collective Voices 2009: 11:4.

Leonard, Toni M. Bond. “Laying the Foundation for the Reproductive Framework.” Collective Voices 2009: 11:4.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article included a typo that misidentified Sen. Tim Kaine as a Republican. We regret this error.