Thursday, March 4, 2010

Beyond choice: The big picture of reproductive justice

Last night I heard four reproductive justice advocates speak at Barnard College.  Surprisingly, the evening's conversation only touched on the topic of abortion.  The four women, Aisha Domingue of Brooklyn Young Mothers' Collective, Mary Mahoney and Lauren Mitchell of The Doula Project, and Miriam Perez of Feministing and Radical Doula, have all been trained as doulas, and all work with women at various stages of their reproductive decision-making: pregnancy, abortion, childbirth, and adoption.  What this panel emphasized is that while abortion choice and contraception access continue to be key frontiers for the reproductive justice movement, there are other crossroads where women find themselves without agency over their own bodies, particularly childbirth.  Perez said she got into doula work after seeing the documentary Born in the USA.  "There was something about the way childbirth was being done in the usa that just appalled and horrified and motivated me," she said.  "I found we had technologized and medicalized and institutionalized it in a way that was not serving mothers."

While some may see this as a separate fight than that for reproductive justice, others see it as a natural extension of their pro-choice beliefs.  Women giving birth in US hospitals are frequently not given choices about whether to have an epidural or not, whether to have an episiotomy, and whether to have a C-section.  The doulas said they saw themselves as advocates for the woman during a vulnerable time.  They were the person who was there for her, with no other motivation.  The panel also introduced me to the concept of pro-choice adoption, a movement advocating for birth mothers to have rights and information throughout the adoption process.  Further emphasizing the connection between choice and reproductive justince, the Doula Project has become the first organization offering doulas for women undergoing abortions.  Their role remains the same as the role of the doula during childbirth: to advocate for the woman, make her feel comfortable, attend to her needs, and serve as a liaison between her and the medical staff.

Despite this merging of minds, Perez described a tension that exists between the "birth world" and the reproductive justice world.  She said she was surprised to learn that many doulas and midwives are pro-life, and will in fact refuse to work with women whose politics they deem not in line with their own (she described one case of a woman being turned down by three doulas, first because she was serving as a surrogate for a gay couple, second because she wasn't sure if she wanted an epidural, and third because she had originally been carrying twins, and had chosen to selectively reduce).  One of the services Perez provides on Radical Doula is linking women with doulas who will respect their wishes.
The panel inspired me to think, as a feminist, about women's choices along the entire spectrum of her reproductive life, not just when she's choosing not to have a child.  As one panelist put it, she saw her role as to "Advocate for what you want in your abortion, your birth, or your adoption."  It's a laudatory goal for feminism, and certainly the reproductive justice movement, as a whole.


  1. Thanks for the review! I was sad not to be able to be there. I'm also a bit sad they didn't talk much about abortion rights.

  2. I didn't feel like they gave abortion short shrift (the women from the Doula Project spoke movingly about their experience helping women through abortion and what the program was like), but rather that the slightly different focus opened up new horizons for me. It was also really wonderful to hear Aisha Domingue talk about trying to give disadvantaged young mothers options before, during, and after their pregnancy so that they can continue to pursue education and their other goals whatever choice they make. The focus was on treating women as whole people, which I'm always glad to hear about.


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