Tag Archives: reproductive justice

Race and Reproductive Freedom in the Childfree Community

This is a direct response to Melissa McEwan’s post at Shakesville today about being childfree, but it’s also something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time in regards to mainstream feminist views about “reproductive choice”, the recent attention being paid to teen parent shaming, and re: the Reddit Childfree community.

 

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Melissa McEwan’s article detailed her personal experiences as a “childfree” individual– someone who consciously chooses against being a parent for any number of personal, cultural, financial, environmental, or political reasons. Being “childfree” is not a new phenomenon, but those who identify as such are becoming more vocal, demanding an end to the endless questions about their reproductive choices, swapping tips for finding “childfree-friendly” doctors, and using feminist and reproductive justice rhetoric to articulate their identities and struggles. They are fighting for rights that students of second-wave feminism might recognize: the right to be sterilized on demand, without question, without waiting periods, and without needing a spouse’s permission; the right to define themselves as other than mother, father, or parent; and the right to absolute reproductive freedom and to make their own choices about their lives.

McEwan identifies the societal pressures to reproduce that she and other childfree individuals are subjected to as “cultural reproductive coercion”. And it certainly is a very specific form of cultural reproductive coercion– coercion to reproduce. The childfree community makes me uncomfortable (even though I do identify myself as “childfree… for now!”) because it often fails to apply an intersectional approach to this idea of “cultural reproductive coercion,” choosing only to focus on the pressure to reproduce– a pressure that is a result of white privilege and the fact that society wants you to reproduce.

I previously brought up the second-wave feminist fights for abortion rights and against sterilization restrictions, and again, if you’re familiar with those fights this may all begin to sound familiar. The “mainstream,” white, educated, cis, upper or middle class feminists of the second wave were fighting against “cultural reproductive coercion” to reproduce because society wanted and expected them to. Many of these women found their liberation through rejecting society’s call, putting off motherhood by fighting for birth control and abortion access.

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At the very same time, black, Latino, and indigenous women in America were suffering extraordinary rates of forced sterilization and forced removal of their children by social welfare agencies, while the leaders of certain groups in the Black Power movement forbid its female members from using birth control because it was akin to genocide. For these women, “cultural reproductive coercion” looked very different. Society told them not to reproduce because they would not, could not, be good mothers, and some among their own people told them they must reproduce because their people were dying out. Many of these women fought against the mainstream feminist movement’s goal of removing waiting periods and other restrictions on sterilization because those same restrictions helped prevent them from being sterilized without their consent or knowledge after a cesarean section or a routine operation. For many of these women, having a child on their own timing, by choice, and to parent that child in their own culture and communities without threat of removal by the state was liberation.

McEwan does mention race in her post about being childfree. She writes:

“…And when I still didn’t change my mind, I was subjected to all manner of shaming narratives trying to convince me there is something wrong with me if I choose not to parent. I am a traitor to my womanhood. I am an incomplete woman. I am a selfish woman. I am a frivolous woman. I am barely a woman at all, if I refuse to use my fertile, cis, female, male-partnered body for what I am told is its natural (and only) purpose. I am a traitor to my race—a white woman partnered with a white man refusing to have white babies when the white birth rate is dropping in the US. I am a traitor to my country—an educated middle-class woman refusing to make a contribution to the future of the great society which has provided her with so much. The ultimate taker among makers….”

By the end of that paragraph, McEwan finally hits the most important part of her argument: the fact that she experiences “cultural reproductive coercion” to reproduce because she is a white woman. When we (as feminists, or as childfree individuals) talk about reproductive justice, freedom, and respect, we must also talk about white privilege. The majority of those who identify as “childfree” are white, highly educated, urban, secular individuals with higher-than-average incomes. The childfree community, specifically as it exists on the popular website Reddit, is often home to young parent shaming,  welfare shaming, and the propensity to call those who choose to parent “breeders,” which to me sounds weirdly… eugenicist.

Are the endless assumptions about a married white couple’s eventual fertility and the patronizing tone of a doctor trying to talk a young white woman out of voluntary sterilization a barrier to complete reproductive freedom? Absolutely. But we must remember that these barriers are a result of white privilege, and that poor, uneducated women of color continue to bear the brunt of our society’s “cultural reproductive coercion” not to reproduce.

A few weeks ago while spending my usual weekly morning at Planned Parenthood as a clinic escort, an older, friendly, liberal, all-around “good person” who is a fellow clinic escort said something that made me very uncomfortable. We were standing together watching one of our usual protestors who frequently chases passersby down the street to hand out anti-abortion pamphlets. Many of the escorts have noted and remarked that this protestor seems to run harder and faster after people of color, particularly young women of color, and especially young women of color accompanied by children. As we watched this fold out in front of us, the clinic escort I was standing with began to shake her head and said something similar to this: “You know, I live in [the city] so I often see these young black women walking around with three, even four kids in a stroller, and I think ‘Why don’t you just go to Planned Parenthood!’“.

Defenders of reproductive justice are not immune to the subtle and not-so-subtle racism and classism that constantly influences who we (as individuals and as a society) deem fit to reproduce. Feminist and reproductive justice activists along with the childfree community need to be proactive in removing oppressive “cultural reproductive coercion” against everyone.

 

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Reproductive Justice on TV: Call The Midwife

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There is a special place in my heart reserved for British television and period costume dramas–anything from Pride and Prejudice to Bleak House to Downton Abbey.  So, when I heard that BBC’s newest period drama combined fierce independent career women with 1950s hoop skirts, I knew I had to check it out.

Call the Midwife is a television dramatization of the memoirs of Jennifer (Lee) Worth¹, a young nurse and newly qualified midwife who takes a job in the impoverished East End of London in the 1950s. In the show, nurse Jenny Lee is shocked when she finds out her new job is not at a small hospital, but at Nonnatus House, a nursing convent that houses nuns (who are also nurse midwives) along with young secular nurses. The show is realistic and gritty, detailing poverty in its worst forms–pregnant women infected with syphilis, patients traumatized by workhouses,  and bugs crawling over tea-plates. Alongside their grittiness, Call the Midwife episodes all end with a silver-lining: some sort of lesson that is learned and narrated over each episode’s closing by an older, wiser, Jenny.

Bitch Magazine has already tackled some of the important connections between Call The Midwife and reproductive justice².  Although in the 1950s birth control had been developed and used by wealthier married women in the United States, most forms of birth control were non-existent for the women in Call the Midwife. Married women gave birth to baby after baby whether they wanted to or not, and women who had sex outside of marriage took the enormous risk of pregnancy “out-of-wedlock”.  Though the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House are all midwives, their reproductive health practice goes beyond simply attending births. The show addresses STDs, incest, miscarriage, and infectious disease prevention. We see the nuns and nurses care for premature infants, veterans, mother’s who’ve lost babies, and people at the end of their lives. Perhaps most importantly, and most interestingly to me, Jenny Lee and company provide emotional as well as medical care to their patients.

In the second episode of series one, a young Irish girl stops nurse Jenny Lee on the street and begs her to change a bank note for her, revealing that she hasn’t eaten in two days, but is afraid someone will think she stole the money if she uses it to purchase a meal. Jenny immediately notices that the girl looks pregnant, and takes her into the restaurant for some food. The girl, Mary, reveals that she ran away from a rough family situation in Ireland and was taken in by a man named Zakir and forced to work as a prostitute. After they share a meal, Mary, who is only fifteen years old, tells Jenny that she can’t go back to the brothel because she is afraid that they will hurt her and force her to have an illegal abortion. Mary tells Jenny that she sometimes slept with three or four men in a night and tells a shocked Jenny: “God love your innocence, Nurse Jenny Lee. Which of us is the oldest now?”

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Sister Julienne, the nun in charge of Nonnatus House, finds Mary a place to stay at Father Joe’s home for unwed mothers. After discovering that Zakir has been following and watching Mary, Jenny and Father Joe quickly transfer her to another home far outside of the city, where she gives birth to a baby girl called Kathleen. Jenny visits Mary, who tells Jenny about her experience giving birth.  “The midwife had a mustache… I yelled a little bit. She kept on saying ‘Nearly over’… All I kept thinking was, it’s nearly starting. I’m nearly a mam.” Jenny returns to Nonnatus House, pleased that she was able to help Mary and her child.

A short time later, Jenny receives a letter in the mail, with a messily written note stating, “baby gone please come”. Jenny immediately knows it is from Mary and rushes to the home to check on her. Jenny finds Mary sobbing and screaming for her baby, who has been placed for adoption by Father Joe. Jenny is furious as Father Joe tells her “Babies are always placed for adoption in these cases. It’s thought to be in the child’s best interest.” Jenny asks, “What about Mary’s best interest? She is that child’s mother and she did not consent!” Father Joe responds: “She can’t consent. She’s only fifteen. She’s legally a child herself… it was a case of which child should we choose.”

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This exchange between Father Joe and Nurse Jenny Lee is fascinating. While Father Joe displays a paternalistic concern for what he thinks is right for Mary, his concerns should not be written off. He later brings up issues of economic justice, mentioning that Mary has no home, no education, or skills other than prostitution. He stresses that without a baby, Mary will be employable. He says: “She could find love. She could have another child.” Jenny asks “Do you think that will console her?” and Father Joe replies, “It consoles me.” Jenny then cares for Mary, physically and emotionally, though there is nothing she can do to reconnect Mary with her wanted child.

In many ways, these strict traditions about unwed mothers and babies born out of marriage are a thing of the past. But shaming teen mothers who choose to parent is not a relic of the 1950s. New York City’s recent ad campaign³ against teen pregnancy has been heavily criticized by feminists for shaming teens who choose to parent, whether their pregnancy was planned or not. NYC’s campaign echoes Father Joe’s concerns that a teen parent will not have the economic ability to care for a child and therefore should not be given a chance to parent.

This episode of Call The Midwife does not leave viewers feeling like either Father Joe or Nurse Jenny were correct. As the episode closes we see Mary leaving the home without her child and into an uncertain future as adult Jenny tells us: “Mary was never reunited with her child. She might look for her, but her name would not be Kathleen anymore.” Mary’s blank face in this final scene reminds us that Mary was not allowed to control her reproductive future. While the nuns at Nonnatus House were able to save Mary from a forced abortion, they were not able to assist her in keeping and parenting the child that she very much wanted. In the reproductive justice movement, there is often a focus on making sure all people can access safe and legal abortion, but Call the Midwife is an important representation of the range of issues that reproductive justice must address in order to truly allow every person to determine their own lives.

 

¹ Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth (please buy from local/independent bookstores when you can!)

² Call the Midwife: What Nuns Know about Reproductive Justice by Jill Moffett. Bitch Magazine (29 Oct, 2012)

³ New York City’s teen pregnancy campaign 

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Planned Parenthood to Move Away from “Choice”

prochoiceRealizing that I identified with the “pro-choice” label was one of my very first “click” moments as a young feminist. From the Second Wave’s fight for legal abortion to our current struggle in the conservative war against reproductive healthcare, “pro-choice” has been one of feminism’s uniting slogans, one that we declare on bumper stickers, buttons, and protest signs. Just in time for next week’s fortieth anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, Planned Parenthood announced its plans to abandon the pro-choice label to make room for language that is more inclusive of the complexities of abortion. Below is a video from Planned Parenthood called “Not In Her Shoes” which details some of the reasoning behind the organization’s shift in language.

This move by Planned Parenthood is concerning in more than a few ways.

To begin, it is disappointing that Planned Parenthood used such cissexist language in this latest video. It is not hard to say that “people need abortions” rather than “women need abortions”. The video not only relies on female pronouns and identities for its cartoon patient–it also genders the politicians, congressmen, and presidents male. This blatantly erases that fact that there are women in positions of political power at all. And it ignores the fact that quite a few of the congressional representatives who continue to vote to limit access to abortion services are women. The fight for abortion access is not men against women, so why is Planned Parenthood representing it that way?

Okay, so you might say I am nitpicking. Let’s return to the larger issues represented by the “Not In Her Shoes” video. For many people seeking abortion in the US, “choice” is not really an option that can be exercised at will. Bills that limit state funding for abortion services for poor people, laws that keep underage teens from getting abortion without parental consent, and the mere fact that there is only one abortion clinic in the entire state of Mississippi is a very good reason to abandon the “pro-choice” label. Abortion access is not merely about having a legal choice anymore. To encompass this range of issues regarding access, affordability, and stigma, young feminists have been using the label “reproductive justice”.

It is understandable that Planned Parenthood, which continuously fights for its federal funding and its right to keep clinics running, is maybe a few steps behind the modern feminist movement. They are right to emphasize that “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels seem to ignore certain complexities in the issue, and perhaps most importantly, they create a hostile environment between the two sides with no room for dialogue about the real issues that people face. But the announcement to abandon the “pro-choice” label still makes me wary, and here’s why:

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“It depends on the situation,” reported the majority of voters when asked their personal view on abortion. Planned Parenthood wants to interpret that as “abortion is complicated and should be left a private decision”. I interpret that as “sure abortion is sometimes necessary for rape or incest but some sluts use it as birth control and that is just wrong and we should stop them no abortion on demand!”. Let me emphasize that this survey asked for personal views on abortion. The people who said “it depends on the situation” were really saying: “to me, some people’s choice to have an abortion is morally acceptable and some people’s choice is morally unacceptable.”

The pro-choice label emphasizes the fact that having or not having an abortion is a personal choice. I fear that by abandoning that strong label, Planned Parenthood is allowing people to continue to believe it is up to them to decide when abortion should be “allowed”.

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Can we please stop “What about rape and incest” -ing?

This election season, the issue of abortion in the case of rape seems to be the only thing that both parties might be able to agree on. I say might because, of course, there are plenty of Republican politicians who believe that women who become pregnant from rape should be forced to carry that pregnancy to term. But from my own involvement in the abortion and contraception debates on the internet and in the real world, the majority of folks are able to admit that even if the idea of abortion makes them uncomfortable, there should be certain allowances for abortion in cases of rape.

This tiny sliver of common ground feels like progress to some– but to me, the “there should be exceptions for rape and incest” rhetoric is very destructive to the future of the abortion debates and to my position as an activist. This position suggests that legally and morally, only certain people are “allowed” to have abortions. It divides women with unintended pregnancies into categories of moral “good” and “bad”. Not to mention (and pay attention, MRAs) that if being raped is the only way that a woman would have access to safe and legal abortion, false rape accusations would skyrocket. 

Especially within the pro-choice movement, using “What about a woman who has been raped?” as your primary argument for abortion access is ineffective at best, because it does not get to the heart of the issue. We cannot decide who is more deserving of an abortion. We cannot judge whether a woman’s reason for having an abortion is legitimate or not. We need to trust women.

I am fiercely pro-choice and do not mind calling myself pro-abortion either (a post on that for another day) but even I would like to see later-term abortions (when a fetus is closer to medical viability) be as rare as possible. This does not mean we should make them illegal, or only accesible to women who fit certain frameworks set by the government. This means we should encourage comprehensive sex education, safe sex and contraceptive use; make all forms of contraception accesible and free; and make abortion within the 1st trimester easily accesible and free. That will reduce late-term abortions. Making exceptions only for rape will not.

I’ve heard a lot of folks say they are pro-choice, spit out a “what about rape and incest” to make their point, and then degrade women who have abortions for “convenience.” This line of thinking is so destructive. What is your definition of convenience? Is it convenience if you don’t want to be a parent, took every precaution not to become one, but became part of that 0.1% of people whose birth control fails? Is it convenience if you are a single mother of an infant who knows she won’t be able to afford food and childcare for two children under three? Is it convenience for a fifteen year old who has only known abstinence-only sex education and was told by her boyfriend that she couldn’t get pregnant the first time?

These weak arguments against abortion only show that the anti-abortion movement is more interested in controlling people’s bodies and sexuality than they are in ending abortion.

 

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