Can We Advance Reproductive Justice in the Obama Era?

Reproductive justice is built on the foundation of human rights. The framework of "reproductive justice" requires that the most vulnerable populations be kept in the center of our lens, not at the margins.

I’m not a policy wonk. I
am very ill suited to talk frequently to legislators to ask them to
do the very jobs they were elected to do and for which they already
get paid. From that admittedly jaded perspective, I’m not anyone’s
first choice to do lobbying or "education" of elected officials. 

Nevertheless, I think it’s
important for reproductive justice activists to have a serious discussion
— immediately — about public policies, reproductive justice and President
Obama’s Administration. 

Reproductive justice is built
on the foundation of human rights. The framework of "reproductive
justice" requires that the most vulnerable populations be kept in
the center of our lens, not at the margins. This means that we may have
to work hard and quickly to create a public policy platform worthy of
and capable of doing justice to the reproductive justice framework. 

The shape of things 

Although the reasons may be
obvious why the reproductive justice community must be engaged and clear
about what we want, I’d like to state a few points to get them organized
in my head: 

1. This may be the best opportunity
to advance a reproductive justice agenda in my lifetime (okay, I’m
over 50 so my urgency may be simply age-related). 

2. We have developed strong
values in the reproductive justice movement that keep the most vulnerable
among us at the top of our concerns: girls, poor women, young women,
incarcerated women, lgbtq folks, substance-abusing women, immigrant
women, disabled women, teen mothers. 

3. We have great collaborations
among the leading groups promoting reproductive justice at the grassroots. 

4. We have an exciting framework
that has transformed the pro-choice movement by raising critical intersectional
issues on race, gender, class, age, sexual orientation, ability and
immigration in a way that is being heard and embraced beyond women of

5. We have allies in the Obama
Administration who are strong, have serious integrity and care as strongly
as we do about the vulnerable populations and issues we prioritize. 

6. We have determined opposition
from those opposed to human rights – not just for women of color,
but those who also oppose bringing the United States to human rights
conversations in a constructive way, either domestically or internationally. 

7. We have well-financed anti-woman,
anti-gay forces in communities of color that will try to thwart any
reproductive justice agenda. 

8. And we have a small economic
crisis on our hands. 

Having said all of that, I
believe we need to have a discussion about how we can take advantage
of this historic moment to advance a reproductive justice agenda that
will benefit women, men and families of color to advance and protect
their full human rights. 

How do we get what we want? 

I believe we need to organize
an agenda around three important and convergent conversations: 

First, we need to discuss what
we believe. As reproductive justice activists evolving into a powerful
movement, we need to seek agreement on our non-negotiables. 

Will we sacrifice poor women
during policy discussions on abortion, failing to insist on the repeal
of the Hyde Amendment because "conventional wisdom" says "taxpayers
don’t want to pay for abortions for poor women?" 

Will we sacrifice lesbians
and trans folks if they do not fit poster-child images of who needs
to be covered under regulations of assisted reproductive technologies?
Will we fight for the sexual and mothering rights of women who are incarcerated
even while our society dismisses their needs as people who have few
human rights? Will we insist that women who are disabled have the same
sexual rights as women who are not disabled? Will we demand that the
sexual rights of young people are respected? 

Exactly who will we sacrifice
on the altar of expedience? Who will make that call? 

Second, we need to discuss
what we want. This means that we not only want access to public policy
tables, but in fact, to change the fundamental nature of what’s served
at those tables. Too often, women are forced to compromise on our human
rights, or told to wait for a more propitious time to ask for what we
need and deserve. Do we want public policies that appear to work, but
don’t really meet our needs? 

For example, in the 1980s,
I worked to help pass the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993. I protested
when the Washington Beltway "experts" said we could not ask for
paid leave because the opponents would not accept that. I knew that
without paid leave, many women would not be able to take advantage of
the FMLA. In fact, many more women would be excluded than covered because
few of us can afford an unpaid leave without ending up homeless. I was
told that we could come back and amend the bill later to include paid
leave. I’m still waiting for that day to come sixteen years later. 

This is an example of what
can happen when we are not clear and united in demanding what we want.
We are vulnerable to classic divide-and-conquer strategies by both our
allies and our opponents. It is often believed that any bill is better
than no bill. It is also believed that opportunities to re-launch new
fights to fix flawed legislation will easily occur. I do not agree. 

I believe that it’s better
to draw our lines in the sand and hold those lines! If we can’t produce
public policies that benefit the people we most care about, then we
should never put ourselves in the position of explaining why we didn’t
win the fight for them or, even worse, why we abandoned them for an
easier victory. 

Third, we need to discuss how
to get what we want. Women of color have fought to get a seat at policy
tables for the past century. Often they have affected the discussions
and outcomes. They have done so by not confusing access with influence,
or influence with power. 

A seat at the table does not
guarantee the power to ensure that the priorities of women of color
are shared by others at the table. A photo-op may look impressive in
an organizational report, but unless we truly can bring quality and
intersectional results home to our communities, why should they believe
we are much different from those who have disappointed them in the past? 

For this reason, I believe
we have to be extremely strategic about bringing the grassroots folks
we represent to the policy debates. The central question for me is not
whether any organization (even my own, SisterSong, as much as I’d
like to meet President Obama!) gets a representative seat in policy
discussions. The more urgent question is whether we will continue to
invest in our base building strategies so that when we get to the table
we have the organized power of our constituencies at our back. 

Too often, we are told that
shortcuts are possible and necessary because community organizing and
mobilizing is slow, painstaking and nebulous work, especially when we
don’t have the backing of the corporate media or other levers of power,
such as adequate funding. It may be tempting for our donors to urge
us to engage in public policy debates, but not provide us with adequate
resources to do base building and public policy work at the same time. 

This has happened before to
women of color organizations in which the policy work became the tail
wagging the dog and resources to do community organizing are devalued
over the more quantifiable and visible policy work. The potential outcome
of such a division could be women of color representatives in Washington
without a constituency that can be mobilized to bring our power to bear
to support our allies and oppose our foes. 

Keeping our vision front
and center

Discussions of this sort truly
reveal the transformative power of the reproductive justice framework
for me. 

At present, we have few platforms
or policy vehicles capable of carrying our intersectional analysis and
serving the people we prioritize. Not only is most legislation of the
"single issue" variety, but the negotiations for even these limited
bills usually end up lopping off the very people who most need the laws. 

Can we envision violence against
women legislation that protects women raped in prisons and ensures they
have humane birth control, birthing and abortion services? 

Can we picture an economic
recovery that destigmatizes welfare and welcomes immigrants (legal or
undocumented) to receive vital supports from the society they hold up
with their labor? 

With whom in power do we have
these critical discussions who won’t dismiss us for asking for the

I don’t know the answers
to these questions, but I’m sure of this: only a carefully thought-out
approach will enable us to present our beliefs, wants and strategies
to President Obama’s Administration. I do not expect that he will
be able to give us everything we want and deserve. I am sure, however,
that we certainly won’t get it if we don’t ask. 

And that means drawing some
lines in the sand and holding our president accountable. People like
us who believed his message of hope and change were the ones who helped
him get that seat of power. But he can’t deliver our dreams to us
without mobilizing our power.

This post first appeared on On The Issues.