The bigger the break, the bigger the opening. The last time I said that, it was May of 2020, during the George Floyd protests around the world and days after the one here in Cleveland. Speaking from this pulpit, I asked you, Can we find the opening that the break has created and go through it, to get to the transformation side?
It’s the same thing I wish to ask today, as we acknowledge the devastating impact of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling from this past June.
America as it has been for almost 50 years: broken.
Molly Jong-Fast, writing in The Atlantic, suggests how big this break is. She says, “Forty-nine years after the greatest feminist victory of the 20th century “[we hear Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito say that] ‘Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences…’ It’s worth pointing out here,” Molly Jong-Fast continues, “that in 1973, five years before I was born, when women had far fewer rights—when they couldn’t even get a credit card without the permission of their husband or father—Roe was decided 7–2, with five Republican-appointed justices in support. The world has become profoundly more pro-choice than it was in 1973; even Catholic countries like Ireland have legalized abortion. Yet here in America, the clock is spinning backwards with stunning and terrifying speed.”
The break is big. The speed of the break has indeed been stunning and terrifying.
And, the bigger the break, the bigger the opening. The opening, I believe, opens up an opportunity to see some important things that will help us establish a path forward in the wake of the Dobbs vs. Jackson decision.
A path forward to something even better than Roe.
Here is one important thing to see: how, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, advocates of legalizing abortion originally used the language of “rights.” Historian Rickie Solinger speaks to this in her book Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States. She says that movement leaders changed the language to that of “choice” after the Roe vs. Wade decision because “choice” felt fresher. “Choice” felt like it had more energy. By 1973, people had been hearing about voting rights and civil rights for decades and were tired of “rights” language. “Choice” just seemed more serviceable in the moment.
Yet Solinger suggests that this change in language backfired. The dissenting justices in the Roe v. Wade decision suggested how this might be so when they picked apart that word “choice” and accused it to mean nothing more than “women’s convenience, whim, caprice and a willingness to end pregnancies for no reason at all.” “Choice,” in other words, tends to smack of arbitrariness, and this was actually echoed in something Justice Samuel Alito said more recently, in his take-down of Roe v. Wade, when he said that abortion is “not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions” and that it has been a “highly restrictive regime” imposed upon the entire nation—arbitrarily so.
Is, then, the language of “choice” something we want to hold on to, in this broken time that is also an opening to what comes next? Or, should progress mean that we reclaim the older language of “rights”?
We’re exploring possibilities for the path forward from here, and now let us turn to something else to see: how some people were living in a post-Roe world long before Dobbs vs. Jackson made it so for everyone.
The fact is, Roe did not guarantee actual access to abortion services. It only established boundaries to how and when states could impose restrictions, and these boundaries were not absolute but relative depending upon which trimester the pregnant person found themselves in.
Not that the establishment of boundaries has been an insignificant thing! However, it’s one thing for there to be the option to have an abortion, and it is another thing entirely to be in a position to take advantage of that option. Monica Simpson, executive director of the SisterSong organization which is located in Atlanta, Georgia, wants folks to understand how big this gap is between having an option and being able to take advantage of it. She says, “People seeking abortions in America must consider: Do I have the money? How far is the nearest clinic, and can I get there? Can I take off work? Will I be safe walking into the clinic? For more privileged people, these questions are rarely a deterrent. But for many women of color and poor people, they are major obstacles.”
In 2019, women of color made up a majority of women insured through Medicaid. So can you imagine how terrible the Hyde Amendment has been to this community and others whose financial resources are limited? Are you familiar with the Hyde Amendment? Passed in 1976, never seriously contested by the mainstream “choice” movement, and still going strong, it bans the use of federal funds for abortion in most circumstances. So, if you are on Medicaid or Medicare, or if you are a Native American, a U.S. veteran, someone serving in the military or the Peace Corps, a federal employee, or someone in prison or in immigration detention facilities—if you are any one of these, you won’t get any help to access the abortion option that Roe said you are entitled to.
Above all, the Hyde Amendment targets poor people and people of color. Ana Lucia Carmelo, who is a healthcare consultant, public health advocate, and Peruvian immigrant, put it like this (and she’s speaking from a time when Roe was still the law of the land): “A lot of people currently live in places where Roe v. Wade exists merely in statute; an abortion is not an attainable reality for them due to costs, lack of nearby facilities, or poor quality care. [L]egalizing abortion is only one piece of what it would mean to make abortion accessible and destigmatized.”
So now, in our current post-Roe world which the Supreme Court made post-Roe for everyone, the question becomes, Besides the legality piece, what are the other pieces that need to be in place to make abortion accessible to all and destigmatized? As we move forward from here, what are the other pieces that we dare not forget?
But we are not done seeing all that must be seen, through the break that is also an opening….
This next thing to see is how abortion is just one part of the continuum of how people capable of pregnancy live out their reproductive lives. (Note that language of “people capable of pregnancy”—we are not just talking about women, but trans and non-binary folk also.) People capable of pregnancy live out their reproductive lives along a wide spectrum. It’s not just about having a child or not having a child; it’s also about being able to parent the child or children one has in environments that are life-sustaining and healthy. And there is also the need to not have to hide one’s sexuality but to be able to express it freely and without fear of violence and exploitation.
That’s the wide spectrum and the parts all hang together, they impact each other; you really can’t just talk about having or not having a child without also talking about the enabling conditions in society that help make any given life worth living. And liberals know this. Liberals affirm this when they critique the hypocrisy of “pro-life” conservatives who want to save all embryos which are only potential human beings, but side by side with this, they argue (for example) for absolutely no restrictions on guns which would lead to saving actual human beings. These same “pro-life” conservatives argue that government has no business ensuring paid parental leave, universal child and health care, universal mental health care, universal child care, and so on.
But how in Jesus’ name can you be “pro-life,” truly, when you are not “pro-quality-of-life” also?
However, we must acknowledge how the liberals originally in charge of the 2003 “March for Women’s Lives” seemed to be unconsciously tied to the narrow script endorsed by pro-life conservatives. We heard about this in Vicky’s reading from earlier (see below). Originally, the “big four” reproductive rights organizations in America responsible for planning the march chose to focus on the issue of having or not having a child to the exclusion of everything else, as suggested by their choice for a name: the “March for Freedom of Choice.” But, again, this was just playing into the hands of pro-life conservatives. And also: things were fizzling out. Energy was low. People at the grassroots were not responding. It was only when women of color leaders joined the planning team that the march’s scope was broadened to address quality of life issues. People of color leaders from SisterSong, the Black Women’s Health Imperative, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health intervened, and that made all the difference, that raised the roof, that led to more than a million folks showing up in Washington D.C. and also to the endorsement of over 140 women of color and people of color organizations including a first-ever endorsement from the NAACP. As scholar Kimila Price says, “The focus on life should not be concerned just with the birth of children, but also about the quality of life for those who already exist. The ‘right to life’ is an empty rhetorical phrase if it is not also focused on addressing social issues such as poverty and drugs that contribute to poor living conditions and crime-related activity—which have a significant impact on reproductive freedom.”
Isn’t this what our Unitarian Universalist First Principle of Inherent Worth and Dignity is getting to, anyway? The fullness of what that Principle implies?
And so, moving forward, how can our social justice work advocate for this vision of Our Whole Lives and not just for one narrow part of the spectrum?
From the broken present moment, we are moving forward, forward we are going, and now, there is one more thing to see. One more thing to look at, through the breakage of Roe v Wade that is also an opening….
It’s summed up in the phrase “reproductive oppression.” How many of you have ever heard that phrase before? It absolutely resonates with our 8th Unitarian Principle. Specifically, it refers to the control and exploitation of women, girls and individuals through their bodies, sexuality, labor, and reproduction. Its manifestations throughout American history have been endless:
- The sale of enslaved African American children to the highest bidders;
- The removal of Native American children to schools whose purpose was to educate Indian enculturation out of them;
- The government instituting laws against contraception and abortion in the mid-19th century, during the country’s expansion westward, so as to ensure that white women’s fertility was protected and that the growing country would stay white;
- Leaders of the early 20th century birth control movement (like Margaret Sanger) who were very vocal about how “choice” was supposed to be for middle-class and wealthy white women; whereas for poor women, immigrants, women of color, and other women thought unworthy of childbearing, sterilization was thought best;
- Barring gay couples from having children;
- Incarcerated women (especially people of color) who are pregnant being punished by enforced abortions;
- Closing family planning clinics where trans folk seek hormone replacement therapy and gender affirming care.
Loretta Ross, scholar, SisterSong activist, and leading advocate for reproductive justice issues, speaks to all of this and more when she says, “While the reproductive oppression of white women has differed in detail and scope from oppressions faced by women of color, all women are vulnerable to state control because every government throughout history has depended on the reproductive capacity of those who can give birth for achieving key national goals, such as producing a white country, creating a no-cost (enslaved) or low-cost labor force, and producing sufficient population for military forces.”
Say it again: “every government throughout history has depended on the reproductive capacity of those who can give birth for achieving key national goals.”
The stories of this go on and on. Loretta Ross herself tells this one, which happened in the mid 20th century (and I quote): “Family planning initiatives in the Deep South in the 1950s encouraged women of color (predominantly African American women) to use contraceptives and sterilizations to reduce the growth of our populations, while simultaneously obstacles were placed in the paths of white women seeking access to these same services. A Louisiana judge, Leander Perez, was quoted as saying, ‘The best way to hate a nigger is to hate him before he is born.’”
Ross goes on: “Conservative politicians like George H. Bush and Strom Thurmond initially supported family planning in the 1960s when it was used as a racially directed form of population control aimed at limiting black voter strength and tensions in African American communities.”
Ross, again: “Increased federal spending on contraception coincided with the urban unrest and rise of a militant Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s. In 1969 President Nixon asked Congress to establish a five-year plan for providing family planning services to ‘all those who want them but cannot afford them.’ However, Nixon was not responding to the desire of women to control their fertility. Rather, the rationale for the proposed policy was that population increases among blacks would make governance of the world in general, and inner cities in particular, difficult. […] This scarcely disguised race- and class-based appeal for population control persuaded many Republicans to support family planning.”
This is the story. It’s true. There are so many. And, hearing them, as a people committed to our 8th Principle, we must ask the question: How, moving forward in our post-Roe world, can we center the social reality of inequality? How can we finally acknowledge the reality of white supremacy and the ways in which it “constructs different destinies” (Ross) for people based upon their collection of identities?
That is the fourth question arising from seeing through the breakage of Roe vs. Wade that is also an opening and an opportunity for planning for our collective future. Add this question to the other three:
Is the language of “choice” something we want to hold on to?
Besides the legality piece, what are the other pieces that need to be in place to make abortion accessible to all and destigmatized?
How can our social justice work advocate for the holistic vision of Our Whole Lives and not just the exclusive issue of having or not having a baby?
All these critical questions…. And the good news is that, to answer them, we don’t have to start from zero. We can tap into a new way of approaching reproductive issues, called Reproductive Justice.
Reproductive Justice was born in 1994, out of the vision of a group of Black women gathered in Chicago. They had just come from attending the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. “They recognized that the women’s rights movement, led by and representing middle class and wealthy white women, could not defend the needs of women of color and other marginalized women and trans* people. […] These women named themselves Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, and they came up with the basics of this new approach.
The basics include, first of all, the intentional grounding of all talk regarding reproductive issues in a “human rights” framework and not a “choice” framework. Says Loretta Ross, “The human rights analysis rests on the claim that interference with the safety and dignity of fertile and reproducing persons is a blow against their humanity–that is, against their rights as human beings.” After all, what do you call creatures who are not permitted to control their own reproduction? You call them livestock. And we have already seen how governments have, time and again, treated humans as livestock when enacting their racist and classist population control agendas. Reframing reproductive issues as human rights becomes the way to stop reproductive oppression, for human rights, by definition, are not negotiable. Operating within a human rights framework, we are better able to “draw attention to–and resist–laws and public and corporate policies based on racial, gender, and class prejudices” (Ross).
From this, we immediately go to the next basic element of Reproductive Justice: the necessity of ensuring that people are able to access abortion services. In recognition of the human right to bodily autonomy, the larger society must deliver the goods. Every question that we heard Monica Simpson bring up earlier must have positive answers:
- Do you have the money? Yes, we will make sure you have the money.
- Is the clinic far away? If it is, we will guarantee that you will get there safe and sound
- Can you take off work? You bet—we will make sure your job is waiting for you when you get back.
- Will it be safe for you to walk in the clinic? Oh yes, we will make sure it is safe.
Did you know that, four years after the 1976 Hyde Amendment was passed (which, as you recall, banned the use of federal funds for abortion), another case came before the Supreme Court: Harris v. McRae. In it, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the Hyde Amendment and found that a woman’s freedom of choice did not carry with it “a constitutional entitlement to the financial resources to avail herself of the full range of protected choices.” I hope you see that, from a human rights standpoint, such a conclusion is despicable. It is just more reproductive oppression. Justice, om the other hand, calls us to make sure that everyone needing abortion services can access them in safe and dignified ways, without regard to their ability to pay.
A final element of the Reproductive Justice approach I want to explore with you is its intersectionality. This is another justice word we want to know. In intersectionality, we find yet another solution that was lacking in the “choice” paradigm Roe represents. The “choice” paradigm was essentially an exclusive focus on whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. But that narrowness of focus plays into the hands of pro-choice conservatives and the way they like to define things. Intersectionality, on the other hand, affirms that you can’t isolate abortion from other social justice issues that concern everyone but especially communities of color: issues of economic justice, the environment, immigrants’ rights, disability rights, discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, and more.
All these issues intersect. They all impact quality of life. None can be ignored.
As one concrete example: think of how climate change intersects with reproductive rights issues. Poverty makes it more likely for folks to live in locations near oil & gas drilling, areas where there is a higher likelihood of extreme heat and air pollution, homes with lead-tainted water, and other environments that are known to lead to poor, if not deadly, pregnancy outcomes. System racism in housing practices, combined with poverty, make it more likely that Blacks, Indigenous people, and people of color will carry a disproportionate amount of these sorts of burdens and harms. Reproductive Justice calls us to witness this and to address these inequities so that all children can be raised in truly safe and sustainable communities and experience genuine quality of life.
Yes, what the Supreme Court did via its Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling from this past June has been devastating.
Yes, it has felt like the clock is spinning backwards with stunning and terrifying speed.
Roe has been shattered. It has been broken.
And, the bigger the break, the bigger the opening. The opening is indeed an opportunity to establish a better path forward. To insist on women’s rights which are human rights. To fight reproductive oppression.
The Reproductive Justice paradigm, I believe, is that path forward.
Let’s go down that path, together.
The reading today comes from Dr. Kimila Price, who is a Professor of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University. Her article is entitled, “What is Reproductive Justice?: How Women of Color Activists Are Redefining the Pro-Choice Paradigm.”
In early 2003, the “big four” reproductive rights groups in the country—Planned Parenthood, NOW, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and NARAL Pro-Choice America—met to discuss the current state of affairs. They ultimately decided to hold a march to call attention to the endangerment of reproductive rights, deciding to call it the “March for Freedom of Choice.” Little did they know that getting people at the grassroots level revved up and excited to participate was going to be a challenge. Loretta Ross, the national coordinator of SisterSong and a former organizer for national NOW, recalls:
But we women of color felt that the abortion framework, the choice framework, was just too narrow a vessel to talk about the threat to women’s lives. We’re dealing with the Bush administration, an immoral and illegal war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, poverty—I mean, all these things would not be challenged by just talking about freedom of choice. I mean, if we made abortion totally available, totally accessible, totally legal, totally affordable, women would still have other problems. And so reducing women’s lives down to just whether or not choice is available, we felt was inadequate.… And so, we had dissatisfaction with the name of the march. We had dissatisfaction with the fact that there were no women of color involved in the decision-making about the march. And then, if they wanted women of color to significantly participate in the march, then they had to build our capacity to do so. We’re representing organizations that have one, two, three staff people, so which one of our projects are we going to drop so that we could participate in their agenda? That was not a tenable solution for us.
As Ross’s story suggests, the march was not gaining any momentum among grassroots constituencies in the early stages of the planning. Many activists were resentful that the “big four” had decided to plan a march without any significant input from them and were dissatisfied that the march would address only abortion rights. Eventually, SisterSong, the Black Women’s Health Imperative, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health would join the planning team of the 2004 march. These three groups are credited with broadening the march’s message beyond abortion and having it renamed the March for Women’s Lives. Not only did the revamped march draw more than one million participants, it was endorsed by over 140 women of color and people of color organizations out of a total 1,400 organizations; only twenty women of color groups had endorsed the march at the beginning. Significantly, the NAACP publicly endorsed the reproductive rights march, which was the first time ever for the ninety-five-year-old civil rights organization. Its endorsement resolution simply stated, “A woman denied the right to control her own body is denied equal protection under the law.”
Ross’s story also alludes to the ambivalence that many women of color activists have felt toward the pro-choice framework. As Andrea Smith argues, the pro-choice/pro-life framework marginalizes many groups of women, including women of color, poor women, and women with disabilities, as it is not an accurate reflection of the experiences of these communities. For example, Native American women are not just concerned about the criminalization or decriminalization of abortion, but also about fighting for the life and self-determination of their communities, including the issues of sovereignty rights and the increased incarceration of people of color. The focus on life should not be concerned just with the birth of children, but also about the quality of life for those who already exist. The “right to life” is an empty rhetorical phrase if it is not also focused on addressing social issues such as poverty and drugs that contribute to poor living conditions and crime-related activity—which have a significant impact on reproductive freedom.