Analysis Human Rights

Tenets of Reproductive Justice Take Root at Red-State Conference

Robin Marty

The two-day Take Root conference examined the tenets of reproductive justice: ensuring "the right to have a child, the right to not have a child, and the right to raise that child in a healthy, safe environment."

“Reproductive justice. It’s the right to have a child, the right to not have a child, and the right to raise that child in a healthy, safe environment.” – Loretta Ross, Take Root 2013

Time magazine’s article on the pro-choice movement since Roe v. Wade claimed broadly that the movement was suffering from a generational schism—a break that was resulting in a winnowing away of youth and diversity, which are needed to keep and especially expand access to reproductive rights. Anti-choice activists picked up on that theme and continued with it relentlessly, pointing to Planned Parenthood’s decision to move beyond the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels as a sign that choice, as both a descriptor and a movement, was struggling.

If so, that was news to the more than 100 attendees of Take Root, a red-state reproductive justice conference held in Norman, Oklahoma, in mid-February. The audience of mostly Millennial activists, students, organizers, and supporters, the majority of whom came from abortion- and civil rights-hostile states like Kansas, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama, joined local Oklahomans to learn more about strategies to change the discourse in the legislature and on the streets and rally citizens of their states around the tenets of reproductive justice.

“We didn’t design reproductive justice to replace ‘pro-choice.’ ‘Pro-choice’ is a very good word,” said Loretta Ross, the keynote speaker for the conference. Ross, one of the 16 founders of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, explained that reproductive justice isn’t just a concept for individuals who support abortion rights, pointing out that one of the collective’s founders opposed abortion, but advocated for other birth and reproductive issues of importance to women of color.

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Both the collective and Ross have had great success promoting the reproductive justice framework, which looks at issues through the lens of human rights, in their work across the globe. It’s in the United States that she sees more resistance. “Internationally, we have a much richer debate on human rights than in the United States, because here we are still stuck on ‘pro-choice’ versus ‘pro-life,’” she said.

For Ross, and those who follow reproductive justice, this is not a privacy issue, as was decided by the courts in Roe v. Wade. According to Ross, the U.S. Constitution denies privacy rights to much of the population. “That slaveholders’ document never included women. If it did, we’d have the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment],” she noted.

The constitutional right to privacy is even more non-existent when it comes to women of color, according to Ross, who added, “The concept of privacy offers little protection to people of color who experience little privacy in a police state.”

Can reproductive rights be moved away from a “privacy” issue and into one of basic human rights? For one thing, human rights as a framework recognizes that not everything “human” has the ability to have rights. “All human beings are born into human rights. You have to be here to accept that right,” said Ross.

Ross’ keynote set the stage for what became an intense day and a half of organizing and advocacy around the reproductive justice framework. Take Root, now in its third year, takes much of its inspiration from its predecessor, the Civil Liberties and Public Policy (CLPP) conference, held annually in Amherst, Massachusetts. Oklahoma for Reproductive Justice Executive Director Sandra Criswell reminisced about her first trip to CLPP, recalling during her opening remarks what an experience it was to see abortion spoken about openly and unabashedly, something she never experienced back at home. “It was the first time I’d seen ‘abortion’ on a sign that big in public without any gruesome pictures attached to it,” she said.

However, her time at the conference made her aware that the battle was different for individuals in blue states than for those who live deep in red states dominated by an anti-choice dogma. She said she realized that “we need our own conference. Not just a panel.”

Speaker Wyndi Anderson concurred, elaborating that for red-state reproductive justice advocates, their strength is their ability to address these issues via a local mindset—one that can see opposing viewpoints and work through them. It’s an ability to work both with the conservative or traditional viewpoints of one’s community as well as one’s own vision and beliefs as a means to direct change. “I’m very familiar with the Bible,” Anderson joked. “I’ve had a couple of runs through it. But that place, that split, that hole I can walk through—that’s where I organize from.”

It’s a place from which many Take Root attendees organize. Some sessions in the intense, two-day conference discussed how to organize in a virtual land—an issue of special concern for vast, low-population-density states, where legislation is often supported or opposed based on who has the best resources to get out their message to voters. Others looked at the important issue of access across the reproductive justice agenda, from access to abortions without a myriad of hoops to jump through, to access for doctors and medical practitioners to the training they need, to access to information. A significant amount of time was also devoted to discussing underserved communities, such as LGBT populations, immigrants, and individuals who have been incarcerated because of their pregnancies.

It was also a conference unafraid to critically examine not just the legislators creating unjust laws, but the individuals within the movement who are not enacting the true values of reproductive justice. Inspired perhaps by Ross’ declaration that “I always piss people off—that’s what professional feminism does,” panelists and audience members alike evaluated the efforts of the advocates in the room. What many attendees saw as most egregious was a failure on behalf of the organizers pushing Mississippi voters to defeat Amendment 26 to at the same time work to defeat the state’s voter ID initiative, allowing one civil rights injustice to be battled while another went mostly unaddressed. “We won on ‘personhood’ and lots on voting rights,” she said, adding an oft-repeated refrain from the conference: “I thought our movement was better than that.”

Even medical professionals in attendance weren’t left unchallenged. One session on medical access became particularly tense when, after a discussion of the push by antis to view doctors as enemies, rather than partners, in obtaining health care, a provider stood to defend practitioners who will turn down sterilization requests out of fear that patients may eventually change their minds and regret their decisions. When the same doctor then justified the practice of allowing students to practice pelvic exams on unconscious patients, a direct challenge of what does or doesn’t pass for implied consent left many in the room either angry, uncomfortable, or both.

In contrast to the media claims of disengaged youth and intergenerational conflict causing a fractured movement that’s left with no energy or direction, Take Root gathered together a group of younger and older advocates ready to further the reproductive justice movement and advance its goals, as summed up by Ross: to support everyone’s right to have a child, not have a child, and raise a child in a healthy, safe environment. For the attendees of the conference, there’s no lack of will or direction, but they do face the hurtle of finding the resources they need to accomplish those goals in a landscape so different from the left-leaning coastal states. They have larger geographic areas to cover, and messages that may work in one part of a state may not be as effective in another. Simply put, the resources needed to canvas a red state are exponential compared to those needed in states like New York and Connecticut, and with fewer supporters in the state, the number of human hours and and the amount of funds available are much more limited.

Adding resources from out of state can only help so much, and in some ways can harm the movement. Especially problematic is when organizers go into a new area to build infrastructure then just abandon those citizens. “You get the people fired up, and then you have to leave them,” explained Valencia Robinson, executive director of Mississippi in Action. Worse, some organizers try too hard to change areas that they come in hoping to help, trying to make those areas into their ideal. “You have to meet the people where they are, not where you think they should be,” Robinson added. “We need to get out of our comfort zone.”

Meeting people where they are is the essential lesson of the Take Root conference. The framework of reproductive justice is one that can cross all religious, cultural, and, yes, even geographic divides. What we still need to learn as activists, however, is to use the framework within those divides—or, as Anderson put it, to organize from that split that we can walk through.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

News Abortion

Texas Pro-Choice Advocates Push Back Against State’s Anti-Choice Pamphlet

Teddy Wilson

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated since 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature.

Reproductive rights advocates are calling for changes to information forced on pregnant people seeking abortion services, thanks to a Texas mandate.

Texas lawmakers passed the Texas Woman’s Right to Know Act in 2003, which requires abortion providers to inform pregnant people of the medical risks associated with abortion care, as well as the probable gestational age of the fetus and the medical risks of carrying a pregnancy to term.

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated or revised since it was first made public in 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature. 

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) in June published a revised draft version of the pamphlet. The draft version of “A Woman’s Right to Know” was published online, and proposed revisions are available for public comment until Friday.

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John Seago, spokesperson for the anti-choice Texas Right to Life, told KUT that the pamphlet was created so pregnant people have accurate information before they consent to receiving abortion care.

“This is a booklet that’s not going to be put in the hands of experts, it’s not going to be put in the hands of OB-GYNs or scientists–it’s going to be put in the hands of women who will range in education, will range in background, and we want this booklet to be user-friendly enough that anyone can read this booklet and be informed,” he said.

Reproductive rights advocates charge that the information in the pamphlet presented an anti-abortion bias and includes factually incorrect information.

More than 34 percent of the information found in the previous version of the state’s “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet was medically inaccurate, according to a study by a Rutgers University research team.

State lawmakers and activists held a press conference Wednesday outside the DSHS offices in Austin and delivered nearly 5,000 Texans’ comments to the agency.  

Kryston Skinner, an organizer with the Texas Equal Access Fund, spoke during the press conference about her experience having an abortion in Texas, and how the state-mandated pamphlet made her feel stigmatized.

Skinner told Rewire that the pamphlet “causes fear” in pregnant people who are unaware that the pamphlet is rife with misinformation. “It’s obviously a deterrent,” Skinner said. “There is no other reason for the state to force a medical professional to provide misinformation to their patients.”

State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said in a statement that the pamphlet is the “latest shameful example” of Texas lawmakers playing politics with reproductive health care. “As a former registered nurse, I find it outrageous that the state requires health professionals to provide misleading and coercive information to patients,” Howard said.

Howard, vice chair of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus, vowed to propose legislation that would rid the booklet of its many inaccuracies if DSHS fails to take the thousands of comments into account, according to the Austin Chronicle

Lawmakers in several states have passed laws mandating that states provide written materials to pregnant people seeking abortion services. These so-called informed consent laws often require that the material include inaccurate or misleading information pushed by legislators and organizations that oppose legal abortion care. 

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) sent a letter to DSHS that said the organization has “significant concerns with some of the material and how it is presented.”

Among the most controversial statements made in the pamphlet is the claim that “doctors and scientists are actively studying the complex biology of breast cancer to understand whether abortion may affect the risk of breast cancer.”

Texas Right to Life said in a statement that the organization wants the DSHS include “stronger language” about the supposed correlation between abortion and breast cancer. The organization wants the pamphlet to explicitly cite “the numerous studies that indicate undergoing an elective abortion contributes to the incidence of breast cancer in women.”

Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place) said in a statement that the state should provide the “most accurate science available” to pregnant people seeking an abortion. “As a breast cancer survivor, I am disappointed that DSHS has published revisions to the ‘A Woman’s Right to Know’ booklet that remain scientifically and medically inaccurate,” Davis said.

The link between abortion and cancer has been repeatedly debunked by scientific research.

“Scientific research studies have not found a cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and breast cancer,” according to the American Cancer Society.

A report by the National Cancer Institute explains, “having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.”

DSHS spokesperson Carrie Williams told the Texas Tribune that the original booklet was written by a group of agency officials, legislators and public health and medical professionals.

“We carefully considered medical and scientific information when updating the draft booklet,” Williams said.