By Tanya Dapkey
More than a year ago, 500 Women Scientists organized a series of webinars that focused on reproductive justice. The screenings were available for Pods all over the world, and many of us hosted screening parties. I decided to rewatch these webinars this month (July 2021) to honor the work that has been done and to relight my justice fire for reproductive rights. I am now full of righteous indignation, won’t you join me?
In case you have forgotten, or just don’t know, what Reproductive Justice means and how it started, let me refresh your memory. The movement was first started by 12 Black women at a conference in 1994 and they called themselves the “Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice.” Since then, many women and advocacy groups around the world have joined the call for these same human rights. One such organization, Sister Song, defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
While reviewing these webinars and thinking about where we are today, a few things stood out to me. I realized many of these issues still aren’t solved or, in some cases, progressing backwards. There are many historical injustices since the founding of this country, and I thought that we had put a stop to such atrocities. I was wrong! One example of this happened as recently as 2013. It was reported that incarcerated Hispanic women were being sterilized without their knowledge. And even today, there is a disproportionate impact on women of color when it comes to access to contraception, abortion rights, education and medical care. The right to a safe, legal abortion is currently under intense attack here in the United States.
Persistent Injustices in Medical Care
A portion of the webinars focused on the history of healthcare and how it relates to the history of how slaves were treated as experiments and not as people for hundreds of years. Most of the medical care we receive today is due to Black women’s bodies being used without their consent (just like Henrietta Lacks). We have to come to grips with the idea that science was used as a tool to degrade and mistreat many people. As disturbing as this is, it’s even more shocking to discover that some of these abuses persist today.
Eugenics has been a tool used to sterilize the disabled, the poor and people who were seen as a race other than White. In 1977 the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse was formed to stop forced sterilizations of women in marginalized communities. As recent as last year, women were being sterilized without their consent! Health care workers who witness these atrocities need to speak up and report them. We need to advocate for more health and sexual education for under-resourced communities as this type of education can decrease pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and helps individuals understand how to become informed about their own bodies.
Black women in America are more likely to die from complications from pregnancy or childbirth. It doesn’t matter if the woman is famous, if she is Black, she is less likely to be heard and to be given proper medical care. This discrepancy in medical care between Black women and White women isn’t just somewhere else, it’s in my backyard. Dr. Rosenzweig from the University of Pittsburgh is a nurse practitioner working with women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her research has found that Black women living in western Pennsylvania are more likely to die from breast cancer than White women. The reasons — Black women were given less treatment (chemotherapy, communication) than White women.
I also want to address how COVID has disproportionately affected women in marginalized communities. It can feel like COVID is almost over, we are all going back to work, children will be in school in September. For some of us, life will return to normal with relative ease. But remember that under-resourced communities were hit harder by this disease. Essential workers, who were out in the world every day, were being sacrificed, Black communities all over the country struggled to survive. In November of 2020, a study was published that interviewed 913 pregnant women in the Philadelphia area. The interviews were aimed at understanding how COVID-19 impacted pregnant women and their mental health. This study found that Black women were more likely to have a “greater likelihood of having their employment negatively impacted, more concerns about a lasting economic burden, and more worries about their prenatal care, birth experience, and post-natal needs.” The people living with inequality have fewer resources, less health care, and increased chances of exposure, all of this culminating in an even wider economic and social division. Indigenous communities have also been hit hard by the pandemic, with the “third-highest per capita rate of COVID-19 in the country.”
The bottom line throughout all these examples: Black women aren’t given equal care, respect and empathy from the medical community. It is clear that here in the United States, structural racism has a significant impact on the reproductive rights of Black women.
Attacks on Human Rights
This year saw the greatest number of abortion restrictions then at any other time. Why is the attack on women’s bodily autonomy happening again!? It’s scary to think that Roe v. Wade may indeed be in danger of being reversed. If this case is ruled in favor of overturning Roe, it means that abortion would become banned in 24 states. As we wait for the Mississippi case to be reviewed in the Supreme Court, we can only hold our breath, cross our fingers and hope that justice prevails. At the local level, we must advocate for abortion rights. If you need inspiration, just watch Paxton’s Smith’s speech at her high school graduation where she spoke about the horrid heartbeat bill that was recently passed in Texas. Also important to note that the lack of access to safe and legal abortion would disproportionally impact women of color. In a recent article that looked at the number of abortions in Brazil showed that when women do not have access to legal abortion, the rate of hospitalizations and death goes up significantly. And if the US refuses to provide support and/or contraceptives for women who choose (or are forced) to have children, then it should at the very least provide SAFE, LEGAL abortions!
Integrating Reproductive Justice into our everyday lives as Scientists
At the local level, fight for preserving and expanding access to abortion care, improving access to contraceptives and sexual education, and protecting a patient’s right to the truth in the doctor’s office.
The Patient Trust Act was put up in the PA state legislature in 2017–2018 by Rep. Dan Frankel. It never made it out of committee. This bill would protect a patient’s right to full transparency from their medical professionals, keeping politics out of the doctors office.
Bill HB 1636 states: “It is the intent of the General Assembly to protect the health of patients under the care of a licensed health care practitioner by ensuring that the practitioner is able to communicate freely with patients and exercise the practitioner’s medical judgment, in order to provide the safest and most beneficial medical treatment to the individual patient..”
Write or call your Representative today about bringing this bill up again for a vote in the next session.
Remember to thank your representatives when they support issues that matter to you. I also send Governor Wolf a thank you letter whenever he vetoes a bill that would impact the rights of women or the LGBTQIA+ community.
Check out the policy position statements on the National 500 Women Scientists Website and the Philly Pod’s Medium Page, download them and send them to your local representative. We also need more policy positions that specifically focus on reproductive issues and support women of color. And it’s not just advocacy groups who are calling for change, the medical community recognizes the need for their voice and opinions. Demand more scientific research that focuses on women’s health and insist that the research include women of color. If you are in the position to direct the research, include women of color in the cohort.
It’s time for these injustices to end. Black women and Women of Color deserve to get the same level of care and treatment as White women do. There are many women across the country who need our voices and support. Amplifying other’s calls for action and standing in solidarity shows our power in numbers. Educating yourself and supporting those who are doing the work to amplify these issues is imperative.
Support these Reproductive Justice Organizations
- “What is Reproductive Justice?: How Women of Color Activists Are Redefining the Pro Choice Paradigm” by Kimala Price
- “Queering Reproductive Justice” by Marie-Amelie George
- “If You Really Care about Environmental Justice, You Should Care about Reproductive Justice!” by National Women’s Law Center and Law Students for Reproductive Justice
- “Abortion in Brazil: the case for women’s rights, lives, and choices” by Monica Malta et. al.
- “Moving toward Sexual and Reproductive Justice: A Transnational and Multigenerational Feminist Remix” by Alexandra Garita
- Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts
- Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth by Dána-Ain Davis