“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.
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.