Think of reproductive justice and you might think of the right to contraception or abortion.
And without a doubt, the term does include those things—yet so much more—say the organizers, speakers and panelists who presided at the 9th Annual Maternal and Child Health Student Organization (MCHSO) Symposium entitled “Reproductive Justice: It’s More Than Just a Choice.” The event was held March 2 at the USF Marshall Student Center.
The MCHSO, which is open to any undergraduate or graduate student in any department at USF, is a forum for students interested in issues affecting maternal and child health.
“The purpose of our symposiums is to raise awareness about maternal/child health,” explained Mary Hill, a second-year MPH student specializing in community and family health who is also president of MCHSO. “Reproductive justice is a buzzword we keep hearing more about. We thought it would be interesting to have a symposium on the subject.”
“Reproductive justice is not a woman’s issue,” stressed Rachel Logan, a USF COPH doctoral student and student presenter at the symposium. “Nor is it a racial issue. It is a community and human rights issue. Reproductive justice is the right to parent, the right to not parent, and the right to parent in a safe and healthy environment. It is the marriage between reproductive rights and social justice that was birthed from a human rights framework.”
After an introduction focusing on the 10 best reasons to become a maternal and child health professional from Dr. Russell Kirby, MCHSO faculty advisor and USF Distinguished Professor and Marrell Endowed Chair, Dr. Donna Petersen, dean of the College of Public Health, gave opening remarks, urging the audience to not only listen attentively, but to act on what they heard.
“If we don’t take care of our children, then we are doomed to have unhealthy, unhappy adults. And that does not bode well for our future. We can learn something about what we hear today,” she said. “We can become angry and passionate about it. But in the end if we don’t act, then why are we really here?”
The keynote speaker was Ann Fessler, author of the award-winning The Girls Who Went Away, a book based on the oral histories of 100 women who lost their babies to adoption in the years 1945 to 1971, when baby surrender was at its peak.
As an adoptee herself, Fessler thought she knew a lot about the subject until she began interviewing women for her book.
“And then I started hearing their stories of life-long shame, guilt and sadness. The quickest way for a white family to lose their newly minted middle-class status after the war was to have a pregnant daughter,” she commented. “Then they were considered trash. These women were locked away and not only not given their reproductive options, but they were also not given their voice.”
Fessler went on to describe a climate in post-war America where “first mothers” (a term she prefers over birth mothers) were painted as being “burdened” and “chagrined” by their pregnancies. Thanks to portrayals by adoption agencies and the media, their babies were thought of as unwanted and tossed aside without emotion.
“Thus began the casting of these first mothers as mothers who did not have the maternal instincts of other women,” she said.
Fessler noted that if reproductive justice implies choice, these women had none.
And while there is less of a social stigma surrounding single parenting today, she said, pregnant women are still not being given accurate, unbiased information about their options.
“You can see it today with billboards advertising crisis pregnancy centers saying ‘We inform. You decide.’ But these centers lure women in to try to prevent abortions and, in the meantime, give them information on surrendering their children. Women are in serious need of institutions and organizations that respect their dignity and offer unbiased information so they can make informed decisions about whether to have a child, not have a child and to parent,” she said.
Fessler’s presentation prompted a hearty question and answer session with the audience, mostly students.
“I am super impressed,” noted Emily Walters, a first-year MPH student concentrating on global health practice and epidemiology. “To hear the accounts of these women and the long-term effects it has had on them is eye-opening.”
Cherisse Scott, founder of SisterReach, spoke next.
SisterReach, based in Memphis, is a non-profit supporting the reproductive autonomy and reproductive justice of women and girls of color, poor women, rural women, gender non-conforming people and their families.
Scott detailed her own experience at a crisis pregnancy center she entered with the intention of having an abortion. She spent hours in the clinic where the staff tried to dissuade her from ending her pregnancy. Finally they sent her for an ultrasound, but not before they packed up a basket that included a onesie, rattle and bottle. At the ultrasound the technician asked if she wanted to hear the baby’s heartbeat and told her if she went through with an abortion, she would wind up with a perforated uterus and infertile.
Scott opted to have the baby. Her son, Joshua, is now 15 years old.
“Every woman has the human right to decide if and when she will have a baby and the conditions in which she will give birth,” Scott said. “It doesn’t matter if she is a teen or identifies as a transgender man, she should be able to control how and if that baby comes into the world. That’s reproductive justice.”
Scott said SisterReach’s current focus is on long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) “coercion.”
“You will see LARCs being given free to black and brown women. In Tennessee, you can be an undocumented woman and you cannot get health care or prenatal care. But at your six-week postpartum checkup, you can get a LARC inserted. These are very real, racist issues happening in our community and state,” she said.Panelists Amy Weintraub, reproductive rights program director for Progress Florida; Linda Mann, director of family services for DACCO; and Candice Simon, public and community health director for REACHUP and a 2005 USF COPH graduate, rounded out the symposium, discussing how they see reproductive justice in their realm of work. Dr. Ronee Wilson, assistant professor at the USF COPH, was moderator.
“People don’t understand how many issues relate to maternal and child health,” summed up MCHSO president Hill, “or how many topics fall under reproductive justice. Our symposiums bring awareness not just to things that are important now, but to things that impact our future.”
Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health
Tags: : Reproductive justice, adoption, Amy Weintraub, Ann Fessler, Candice Simon, Cherisse Scott, Community and Family Health, Donna Petersen, Emily Walters, Linda Mann, Mary Hill, maternal health, MCHSO, Rachel Logan, reproductive health, Ronee Wilson, Russell Kirby, SisterReach