This past Monday, I had the pleasure of attending a special seminar sponsored by the Women and Health Initiative and the Women, Gender & Health interdisciplinary concentration at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health featuring Monica Simpson, Executive Director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. She began her talk, titled “Trust Black Women,” with a story of how she became an advocate for reproductive justice.
“We all have a story to tell,” she said. Monica grew up in a small town in North Carolina. In the black church she attended, almost every girl became pregnant before graduating high school; when the choir director at her church died from AIDS, everyone said it was pneumonia. Sex was not discussed in her community, and options for unplanned pregnancy were limited. These experiences among others fueled Monica’s passion for reproductive justice, including standing up for a woman’s right to self-determine.
The scope of “reproductive justice” extends beyond access to contraceptives and abortion. SisterSong, which was founded in 1997, developed a list of four basic principles of reproductive justice that ground their work in the United States.
According to the SisterSong reproductive justice framework, every individual has the human right to:
- Decide if and when they will have a child and the conditions under which they will give birth.
- Decide if they will not have a child and their options for preventing or ending a pregnancy.
- Parent the children they already have with the necessary social supports in safe environments and healthy communities, and without fear of violence from individuals or the government.
- Bodily autonomy free from all forms of reproductive oppression.
Though Monica’s talk focused on the United States, the issues she discussed are indeed global ones. Disrespect and abuse during childbirth, for example, has been documented around the world. Women in rural areas cannot access maternity care because they live too far away from a health facility; and even if they manage to get to a facility, they may deliver without electricity, safe water and the resources necessary to manage obstetric emergencies. Additionally, millions of women around the world have an unmet need for family planning.
Listening to Monica speak reminded me that improving maternal, sexual and reproductive health requires a holistic understanding of the daily lives of women, which includes the integration of economic, social, legal, political and historical contexts. How can the global maternal health community apply the concept of intersectionality to its efforts? In what ways might the reproductive justice framework help to bring researchers, policymakers and caregivers together?
Check out the MHTF blog series and topics page on maternal health disparities in the United States.
Learn about the Trust Black Women Partnership created by SisterSong.
Watch Monica Simpson of SisterSong speak in the Advancing Dialogue on Maternal Health Series at the Wilson Center.
Read what Monica Simpson has written for The Huffington Post and Ebony.