Reproductive Justice

preached on Sunday, August 18, 2013



Good morning. My name is Stephanie Fleming, and Reproductive Justice has been a topic near and dear to my heart since identifying myself as a radical feminist while a women’s studies major in college, when I proudly sported a “Keep Your Laws Off My Body” bumper sticker. My passion continues today as I help care for women as an obstetrician/gynecologist. I hope to demonstrate to you today how reproductive rights advocacy has changed from the autonomy and privacy paradigm in the fight for reproductive choice, embodied by the abortion rights fight, to the broader reality that the term Reproductive Justice encompasses. I will outline why we, as UUs, should care about reproductive justice. I would also like to share some of the important ways that UUs on an individual and congregational level have helped contribute to women’s reproductive health and rights.

            We are all likely familiar with the landmark Roe vs Wade verdict on January 22, 1973 where the Supreme Court interpreted the 14th Amendment of the Constitution in regards to due process and privacy in a way that established a legal right to abortion. No one would argue that this was a monumental victory for women’s right to choose. The number of abortions rose after this ruling, yes, but the number of deaths from previously illegal abortion plummeted. On the flip side, the Court created the means for states to regulate abortion based on the trimester of gestation. So, ultimately, Roe V Wade set boundaries to when states could legally impose restrictions on abortion. 

            Fast forward 40 years, and we find ourselves living in a state with some of the most restricted access for women attempting to assert their 14th Amendment right to a safe abortion. While you’re listening to some of the restrictions, feel free to also read the slide which will outline some fairly current national unplanned pregnancy and abortion statistics. Initially, both state and federal laws (such as the Hyde Amendment) chipped away at women’s access to this procedure by prohibiting public funding, requiring a waiting period, parental consent, and unnecessary ultrasounds to name a few. Currently, restrictions are coming in the form of “TRAP” laws, or Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers. Michigan passed, through its lame duck legislature in December of 2012 (and signed by Gov. Snyder), a set of restrictions aimed at shutting down clinics where abortions are performed under the guise of protecting women’s health.1st trimester abortion is already one of the safest surgical procedures. 90% of abortions are performed in the 1st trimester, where the risk of hospitalization is 3 in one thousand and the risk of death is 4 in a million. Vasectomy, or male sterilization, is thought to be one of the safest outpatient surgical procedures with a mortality rate of 5 in a million and is almost exclusively performed in an office setting. The risk of death in childbirth is about 13 in 100,000 yet there doesn’t seem to be the same push in states to regulate childbirth attendants or birthing centers in the way that abortion clinics are targeted.             
            In Michigan, 66% of pregnancies result in live birth and about 20% in abortion. 95% of abortions in Michigan are performed in a clinic or office setting. TRAP laws in effect currently in Michigan could shut down all but 1 of the 32 abortion clinics due to the restrictions about conforming to surgical center standards. So, thanks to Roe V Wade, the states can’t outlaw 1st trimester abortion, but they can regulate the size of the hallways in the facility they are performed, thereby very much limiting a Michigan woman’s ability to choose. Now 55% of US women of reproductive age live in a state that is hostile to abortion (meaning there are 4 or more restrictive laws on abortion). States continue to pass record number of restrictions on abortion access every year. 

            I truly believe our foremothers, like Margaret Sanger, who fought for reproductive rights pre Roe v Wade, would be appalled to know that we haven’t come very far in eliminating unwanted pregnancy and that the laws that women like her risked their lives and livelihoods to get passed are being chipped away. I believe it is extremely important to become educated about how much the rights afforded women by the Roe victory are becoming more restricted and abortion less accessible. I also believe it is extremely important that women and men in my generation and younger, who were not of reproductive age or even born when Roe was decided, learn the history of the movement and not take these freedoms for granted. We cannot forget the pre-Roe era of unsafe abortion. I believe it is still important that reproductive rights advocacy groups continue to organize and participate in processes directed at policy makers and elected officials. But why is this methodology not seem to be getting us anywhere?
             It is argued that the fight for reproductive rights thus far has been within the traditional feminist framework, using abortion rights as the main headliner. As important as preserving this choice is, it is time to recognize the shortcomings of the “reproductive rights as abortion rights” framework. Women of color first critiqued this framework in that it is too short-sighted, one-sided, and doesn’t account for the reproductive oppressions that affect their choices over the course of their reproductive life. Women of color were the first to put the words to the modern day struggle which obviously continues to include preserving a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion but so much more. They broadened the lens by which, I argue, we as Americans and UUs need to see the struggle for reproductive choice. We, meaning the general public and myself, are about 10 years behind in joining this new movement. In 1994, this new framework was articulated at a meeting of the Black Women’s Caucus in response to a UN meeting which agreed women should be able to access reproductive health care services. That Caucus joined with other groups of women of color and then became SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. They have very eloquently summed up the ideology of the Reproductive Justice movement as: The right to have children, not to have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments. This broader definition of Reproductive Justice includes the vignettes we heard earlier, and many other scenarios such as the lack of sexuality education in schools, the deportation of immigrant mothers, the forced sterilization of Native and other women, and the lack of legal rights of LGBTQ parents.

            The beautiful summary statement offered by SisterSong as well as the similar wordings from the UUA and Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (please read them for yourselves on the slide), changes the whole paradigm of the framework from which I learned to care about reproductive choice. Remember that I was of the “Keep Your Laws Off My Body” philosophy. Instead of the government staying out of the struggle, the Reproductive Justice struggle of today advocates that government must have a central role in eliminating the social inequalities that cause reproductive injustices. The argument is that the needs of marginalized communities in the US, such as immigrants, teens, poor people, disabled people, and LGBTQ people, are rarely met by the current political system and what we need are not simply changes in policies and influence of our lawmakers, but changes in the overall cultural and political power structure. “Government-stay-out” mentality vs the necessity and responsibility of government to intervene as well as the shift from focusing on one specific facet of reproductive health, abortion, to all reproductive health and welfare concerns are the major differences between the radical feminist construct and the broader-reaching term, “Reproductive Justice.”

            In a sermon entitled “Why Reproductive Justice Makes Sense for Unitarian Universalists” the Rev Rob Keithan, the Director for Public Policy for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, makes a wonderful argument that by keeping a narrow focus and each issue pertaining to reproductive justice separated, the religious right minority in this nation has been able to keep our attention off the core issue, which he sums up as “Moralism vs. Pluralism.” Keithan states:

“....Moralism is the old, entrenched, often-invisible mindset that gives the right wing power--especially on issues related to sexuality. The enduring influence of moralism is why, in the 21st century, it’s not a given that health insurance plans should provide contraceptive coverage for women. The reproductive justice framework encourages us to stop working on reproductive choice/rights in isolation, but instead see how much we have in common with other movements. For example, the people and organizations who oppose abortion tend to be the exact same folks who oppose equality for LGBT people. In both cases, because their views are grounded primarily (if not exclusively) in religious belief, rather than human rights, science, public health and welfare, or other democratic values, the right wing’s influence depends on society accepting the notion that they deserve to have that influence. It depends on a society accepting the principle that some people’s rights and access to resources can be regulated based on the strong views of one particular group, because these views---and those who hold them--are seen as “moral.” Moralism means that it's legitimate for some people to impose their beliefs on others. 
            Pluralism, on the other hand, means that people get to make up their own minds, according to their own beliefs and values. Pluralism recognizes that, in the words of Frances David, “We need not think alike to love alike;” that a diversity of viewpoints and ways of being are an inevitable and beautiful part of the human condition. It is pluralism--not moralism--that is expressed throughout the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Pluralism made and makes religious freedom possible, and pluralism makes Unitarian Universalism possible today because respect for individual beliefs and conscience is a cornerstone of our faith and our congregations......”

            This argument shows how the ideology of Reproductive Justice and Unitarian Universalist theology are intertwined:

-As UUs we care about ALL people. We share a belief that it is unacceptable for our laws to willingly and consistently single out a group of people--in the case of restricted access to abortion and family planning services, it is low-income women. By adopting the RJ paradigm, it requires us to see the bigger picture of who has resources and who doesn’t, of overlapping identities (race, gender, economic status, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc), and calls us to see issues of reproductive justice through the eyes of people on the margins and ponder what it means to have a “choice.”

-We care about more than abortion. Abortion rights represent one piece of a much larger goal which is health and justice, healing and wholeness, for all people. We want all people, families, congregations, and communities to have access to the resources they need to lead happy, healthy and responsible lives. 

-We have a unique religious responsibility as a liberal faith. Unlike other social action work that we do, the opposition to reproductive justice is largely religious in nature. Our nation is founded on the separation of church and state and yet religion is associated with ethics and morality. When we speak and act as religious people, we can make a huge difference. If the prevailing message on sexuality and reproductive justice is a conservative one, moralism wins. As the Rev. Rob Keithan states: “Moralism is based on fear, shame, and self-righteousness. It’s based on regulation, judgement, and punishment. It oppresses and represses; constrains and restricts; smothers and stigmatizes. Religion has done a disproportionate amount of the damage to health sexuality, so it stands to reason that religious people have a particular role to play in the struggle for healing and wholeness. Fortunately, we have a truly life-affirming and life-saving message to offer."

There is an important legacy of UU religious justice activism that I am very proud to share today. Although we try to claim Margaret Sanger as a UU, she did have many Unitarian friends and spoke to many congregations, but there is no record of her actually signing a membership book. We do know for sure that the UUA General Assembly passed its first statement supporting abortion rights in 1963 and UUs were active in an interfaith network to help women get counseling and safe abortions before Roe. In the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold vs Connecticut, which legalized the possession of contraception by married couples, the Unitarian Society of New Haven helped keep the clinic running after the state shut it down. In 1972, Eisenstadt vs Baird legalized possession of contraception for unmarried persons, and the defiant physician and reproductive justice pioneer named in the suit was Dr. William Baird, a UU from New York. The Women’s Alliance and the clergy of the First Unitarian Church in Dallas were instrumental in supporting Sarah Weddington to pursue the case which became known as Roe v Wade as it made its way up the Texas court system. In 2012, by adopting Reproductive Justice as the Congregational Study Action Issue, UU became the first religious organization to endorse this language and philosophy.


Hopefully, I have demonstrated to you today that the Reproductive Justice Movement is an adaptation of the Reproductive Rights Movement to include a more diverse perspective and a recognition that there is a wide array of issues that fit under the umbrella of reproductive justice and all share a common enemy. It is important to recognize the plurality of the movement in order to Do Collectively What We Cannot Do Individually (which is a SisterSong motto). I hope to have inspired your liberal religious leanings by learning about some of our UU activism history, some very current and very local barriers to reproductive choice that are passing through our legislature faster than most of us can keep up with them, and perhaps you’ve felt a little spark of interest and thought to yourself “Yes, I care about these issues, but what can I do?”

The first step on our exploration of this Congregational Study Action Item, is that the Reproductive Justice Team of the Social Action Committee will be offering an Adult RE class this fall where we will covenant together about this topic on a deeper level and explore Reproductive Justice in the context of 5 UU theologic principles: Sacred Sexuality, Inherent Worth and Dignity, Reverence for Life, Right of Conscience, and Justice. 

You are also invited to join the currently small-but-mighty Team in our publicized meetings as we plan speakers and movies as the CSAI continues through 2016 and/or come join the events!

We have also compiled a list of ways that you, as an individual, can make a positive difference towards Reproductive Justice, and you can find them in your Order of Service and on a table in the Fireplace Room where we welcome you to come and chat after the service.

As I learned from an outspoken pro-choice Michigan Representative Vicki Barnett at MUUSJN conference this summer, one of the easy ways that we can continue the pro-choice fight is to reclaim the language. The anti-choice movement is in the minority but has the strongest voice in the political system, especially in Michigan. They have used leading, strong, coersive words, like “Pro-Life, “Sin,” “Unborn Child,” “Coersion,” and “Morality.” We need to reclaim our words for reproductive choice and use them proudly and loudly. Words like “Freedom,” “Health,” “Constitution,” and “Privacy.” I also now challenge you to add other words into this reproductive advocacy conversation that, thanks to groups like SisterSong and our own Unitarian Universalist Association are now part of the dialogue, too. Words like: “Respect,” “Tolerance,” “Fairness,” “Conscience,” “Family,” “Love,” and “Justice.”