September-October 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 7

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On Reproductive Justice and the Importance of Listening to People with Whom We Disagree 

Jeanne Flavin, Fordham University

I am a professor of sociology at Fordham, a Catholic university. I also am president of the board of directors for National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), a non-profit organization devoted to reproductive justice using strategies of national and community organizing, public education, and legal advocacy. I am equally proud of both affiliations.

Teaching at a Catholic institution, I encounter many students who oppose abortion. Fordham is a university in the Jesuit tradition, and as such, emphasizes progressive ideals such as social justice, a preferential option for the poor, and respect for the dignity of the whole person, all of which are very much consistent with the values of NAPW.

Working in these two settings, I have become acutely aware of the divisiveness of the rhetoric defining much of the abortion debate. The rhetoric obscures the reality that most women who have abortions are—or go on to become—mothers. Many people concerned about the health and well-being of pregnant women do not speak to one another, much less work together on shared concerns. There is a lack of awareness that efforts to legally separate the fetus from the pregnant woman have consequences not only for women who seek to terminate a pregnancy, but also for many women who continue their pregnancies to term.

This is where NAPW comes in. NAPW defends the humanity and dignity of all women, especially pregnant women who are poor, addicted to drugs, mentally ill, or who hold certain religious beliefs. These women are particularly vulnerable to state intervention e.g., arrests, detentions, prosecutions, child welfare involvement, and/or forced medical interventions based on junk science, as well as stereotypes about pregnancy, drug use and mental illness rather than empirical evidence. Many of these women have been branded as criminals. They have been subjected to gross violations of privacy and bodily integrity, and have lost years of their lives to incarceration. What follows are some lessons I’ve learned about the importance of listening to people, including and especially those with whom we disagree, and the conversations that are possible when we do.

Find points of agreement and shared concern. Not long ago, Serrin Foster of Feminists for Life of America (FFLA) spoke at Fordham on “the feminist case against abortion.” Among other things, she emphasized that universities should better support pregnant and parenting students, thus obviating their need for abortions. Her appearance reminded me that while much about FFLA can be, and should be, subject to critique, FFLA advocates share concerns about the lack of social and economic supports for young women who carry their pregnancies to term. Perhaps it would do well for me – and my blood pressure – to focus on these.

With some noteworthy exceptions (e.g., organizations or individuals who espouse violence and hate), it is nearly always worth the effort to seek and find points of agreement. People across a spectrum of beliefs often recognize the unreasonableness of expecting a woman to overcome an addiction during the relatively short term of a pregnancy when, as a society, we do not offer her drug treatment or guarantee safe and healthy conditions for her or her unborn child. And people of all political stripes recognize the shortcomings of policies that deter pregnant women from seeking prenatal care or press them to seek an abortion to avoid risking arrest. Common ground exists if we look for it.

Respect the experiences, the intelligence, and the range of opinions of those who differ from us. The characterization of abortion providers and pregnant women who are addicted to illegal drugs or who refuse a cesarean section as “depraved” or “murderers” troubles me. I grew up on a farm in rural Kansas approximately 130 miles from where Dr. George Tiller, a late-term abortion provider, was murdered. I respect the need for the services he and his colleagues compassionately provided, as well as the gap in services left by his death and the closing of his clinic. My position is at odds with that of many people, including members of my family and peoplewith whom I grew up.

Living in the “liberal Northeast,” I also sometimes feel like an outsider. I find it galling that in many circles, it is still acceptable to deride the accents, lifestyles, and values of people from rural areas. As Carol Mason, a fellow NAPW board member, and I noted in a recent essay, mentioning a southern state or rural area all too often calls up under-examined dynamics of racism, poverty, and patriarchy. Such places are written off by many scholars and activists as being too entrenched in conservatism to teach or live there, much less address reproductive injustices that exist there (and elsewhere). No one is served well by biased assumptions and stereotypes; they distract us from the effective advocacy that does take place.

Consider Oklahoma. Like many other states, Oklahoma features a lack of access to prenatal care and drug treatment, coerced sterilizations, tightly restricted access to abortion, bans on comprehensive sexuality education, and the prosecutions of pregnant women based on radical expansions of child endangerment and drug trafficking laws. Many arrests and prosecutions of pregnant women involve exaggerated claims about fetal harm. Part of NAPW’s work involves educating the public about the facts and social reality of drug use, pregnancy, and parenting. In 2007 and 2008, Oklahoma allies and NAPW joined forces with local sponsors to organize two public education forums in an attempt to shape and shift the conversation from one about murderous and indifferent mothers to one about the pressing need to create greater access to appropriate health care (including drug treatment) for pregnant women. This public education was instrumental in helping secure the release from prison of Theresa Hernandez, charged with murder in the wake of a stillbirth. These and other, ongoing grassroots efforts also put a stop to new arrests on similar grounds and supported local leaders in advocating for treatment rather than punishment.

Be patient with people’s mistakes. We are all works in progress.It is not only journalists, lawmakers, social workers, and health care workers who need to rethink using language like “crack babies” or appreciate the differences between drug use with addiction, but also our putative allies. The work of NAPW requires us to be tolerant of others’ learning curves, especially if they involve people who have less power or—as is sometimes the case with defense counsel and prosecutors alike—less experience or less knowledge than us. People need room to reconsider; it’s hard to reconsider if you’re being shouted at or shamed.

We also need to learn how to discuss hot button issues. To that end, I recently organized an event at Fordham, titled “Pro-Life or Pro-Lives: What the Difference Means for Pregnant Women and their Families.” Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of NAPW, was the featured speaker. Her respondent was from the philosophy department and the moderator directs Fordham’s Center for American Catholic Studies. I wanted to signal that everyone was invited into the conversation. Our efforts were rewarded with a standing room-only crowd of over 115 students, staff, and faculty. In addition to being a thoroughly thought-provoking educational experience, the event modeled for students the kind of constructive dialogues on emotionally charged subjects that are possible.

Mind you, while I have come a long way, I still shout too much and get annoyed too easily. I am not always the person I want to be. For instance, when my niece’s Facebook profile photo featured her standing proudly with one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq and the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib, I promptly de-friended her. (Way to be mature, Aunt Jeanne). But the more we practice principles of respect, flexibility, and inclusiveness, the easier it gets.

Achieving reproductive justice requires us to recognize that everyone is a work in progress and that we share a stake in ensuring the health and well-being of women and girls.

I like to think that these are principles upon which we can all agree.

Jeanne Flavin, Fordham University. also is president of the board of directors for National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

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