The road to achieving reproductive justice


On April 25, Black women lawmakers, including Representative Barbara Watson, walked out of a Florida state legislative session to protest the introduction of an anti-abortion bill that would prohibit pregnancy terminations based on “race.” The bill, introduced by white Republican lawmaker Charles Van Zant, is typical of a spate of reactionary laws introduced in an effort to associate the anti-abortion cause with the civil rights and human rights movements.

Such laws specifically prohibit “race-selective” or “sex-selective” abortions and propagandistically assert that Black women—the slogan mounted on some of the campaign’s racist billboards is “the most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb”—are the main threat to children of color. The Asian and South Asian communities, the latter already demonized by imperialist war propaganda and Islamophobia, are similarly targeted as the site of the slaughter of girl children.

This racialization of the efforts to further restrict reproductive rights of women in the U.S., as well as related international campaigns, were key themes of the 27th Annual Conference for Student and Community Activists, sponsored by the Hampshire College-based organization Civil Liberties and Public Policy (CLPP). The April 12-14 conference, entitled “From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom,” was attended by around 1000 people, the large majority of whom were under 25 years of age.

The current attacks on abortion, maternal health, and the economic means to raise healthy children were analyzed by presenters on plenary panels and in nearly 80 workshops, many of which placed these current assaults in the overall national and global contexts created by the ruling elites’ austerity drives, imperialist wars, and systematic repression against working people and people of color.

African American, Latina, and South Asian women led the discussion in workshops about the way that the ruling-class efforts to restrict abortion have been cynically packaged as opposition to a holocaust for children of color. The green light for the state legislation based on this phony concern for the potential offspring of racialized communities was the introduction of PRENDA, the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Non-Discrimination Act, last year in the U.S. House.

A flyer distributed to all attendees and signed by Steering Committee member of the National Coalition for Immigrant Women’s Rights (NCIWR) explained that PRENDA and related bills broadcast the ideological message that women of color are “backward” and incapable of responsible decision-making about whether or not to bear a child. They would force abortion providers who fail to racially profile and “correctly” read the minds of women supposedly prone to “genocidal” decisions about their reproduction would face fines and jail time.

Attendees also learned more about the stunning number of women who have been subjected to murder charges and jail for failing to successfully carry a pregnancy to term. The most dramatic case so far is that of Indiana resident Bei Bei Shuai, who after being abandoned while pregnant, suffered depression and attempted suicide. When she survived and her newborn did not, she was charged with murder and held in a county jail for over a year.

The increasing criminalization and jailing of women whose fetuses do not become children has been dubbed “The New Jane Crow” by author Lynne M. Paltrow, who contends that the restriction of reproductive rights in an age of mass incarceration should be expected to lead to horrors that will put the socially conservative 1950s to shame. This increasing regulation of the lives of poor women is being coupled with the introduction of legislation around the country that would require anyone applying to receive the stingy temporary relief still available to poor women after the Clinton Welfare Reform to submit to drug testing.

The New Orleans-based Women’s Health & Justice Initiative distributed a fact sheet on this campaign in which they explained that this kind of federal assistance to the poor in 2011 represented 0.7% of the federal budget, although that fact is conveniently hidden in the new elite propaganda about the need to quit supporting drug addiction with tax dollars.

The international side to this assault on the reproductive rights of poor women of color was addressed by a number of speakers, including Beverly Hartmann. Hartmann is the director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, as well as the author of “Reproductive Rights and Wrongs:  The Global Politics of Population Control.”

Melinda and Bill Gates, who advocate population control to curb carbon emissions, have partnered on a $4.3 billion initiative to provide doses of the dangerous contraceptive Depo-Provera to 120 million poor women in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The drug, known to cause osteoporosis and to somehow speed HIV transmission, is preferred by those who want to slow population growth without a meaningful investment in all-around women’s health because it is injected under the skin without the need of doctors and is long-acting.

The Gates Foundation, Hartmann says, blames population growth for the burden of diseases, environmental degradation, poverty, and conflict. “It as if the fertility of poor women causes these problems, and not the exploitative policies and practices of the rich and powerful, she has written.

Debate about what strategy will be effective in the effort to build a mass movement to confront these ills was not an organized element of the conference. Nonetheless, such discussion did go on at literature tables, in the corridors, and in small group sessions.

Socialist Action displayed books and pamphlets and signed up 50 young women for a socialist feminist reading group. SA also helped to put together a workshop called “Toward a Mass Movement for Reproductive Justice: Organizing Working Women in a Period of Austerity” and featuring worker rights organizer Kazi Fouzia of Desis Rising Up and Moving, UE National Executive Board member Marie Lausch, UAW steward Stephanie Molden, and SEIU Lavender Caucus member Ann Montague.

Montague spoke of the experience of helping to organize an Oregon pay equity strike that proved to her that mass action in the streets, independent of the Democratic and Republican parties, was the key to any success. She cited one of the leaders of her international union, who referred to his experience in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to conclude: “You cannot lobby your way to social change.” To achieve real and lasting reproductive justice, we must build a strong mass movement of women and their male allies.

Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action

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