About a year ago, I was invited to speak at a national conference sponsored by SisterSong, a national coalition of women of color organizations working in the area of women’s reproductive health. The Conference theme was “Let’s talk about sex.” The leadership of SisterSong expressed concern that given the intricate connection between sexuality, religious beliefs, and African American sexual values, one cannot effectively develop educational programs or public policies for Black women without engaging the African American church and its leadership. I was asked to represent the Black Church and speak on the role of faith-based communities in addressing reproductive justice at the conference.
New to the term “reproductive justice,” I prepared for the conference by first seeking to better understand the scope of what’s meant by the term “reproductive justice.” My understanding was expanded by conversations with and a workshop led by Toni Bond-Leonard, board president of SisterSong and one of the founding mothers who coined the term reproductive justice and helped lay the foundation for the framework. (You will hear from Toni later this week in our discussion). “Reproductive health” is defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, reproductive health addresses the reproductive processes, functions and system at all stages of life.” (World Health Organization) “Reproductive Justice” is grounded in an analysis that recognizes the intersectionality of race, class, and gender as contributing factors in reproductive oppression. It embraces a multi-prong strategy that incorporates organizing and mobilizing across various social justice issues as a way that engages the support of diverse communities. Reproductive justice is a framework that places the lived experiences of women at the center of the debate and recognizes that they must have the social, economic, and political resources to be healthy, have healthy families, and live in healthy communities. Reproductive justice’s core principles are that: 1) a woman has the human right to decide if and when she will have a baby and the conditions under which she will give birth, 2) a woman has the right to decide if she will not have a baby and her options for preventing or ending a pregnancy, and 3) a women has the human right to parent the children she already has with the necessary social supports in safe environments and healthy communities, and without fear of violence from individuals or the government. (Ross, 2009)
The social and historical context which gave rise to the development of the reproductive justice movement was one where global health organizations were seeking to control women’s reproductive health for the sake of population control and poverty elimination. Birth rate and poverty levels were considered to be closely related, thus the expectation was that lower birth rates would result in lower poverty rates. At the same time, in the U.S., efforts were underway to change the two-tiered health system that denied adequate health care to individuals without economic means. In response to the increasing governmental efforts to control and manage women’s sexual and reproductive health, in 1994, a group of African American women who were attending a Chicago conference, sponsored by the Ms. Foundation for Women and the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance, had an impromptu caucus to discuss theconcerns of women of color that were not included in the plan for universal health care that was being proposed by the Clinton administration. The development of the reproductive justice framework sought to move the conversation about women’s reproductive health from a focus on individual rights or freedom of choice to an expanded conversation about women’s human rights and the need for greater social and economic support for women and children. The “Black women who were the founding mothers and ‘involved in coining the term and laying the initial framework were, Toni M. Bond-Leonard, Reverend Alma Crawford, Evelyn S. Field, Terri James, BisolaMarignay, Cassandra McConnell, Cynthia Newbille, Loretta Ross, Elizabeth Terry, ‘Able’ Mable Thomas, Winnette P. Willis, Kim Youngblood.” (Leonard, 2009)
As I prepared for the panel discussion, I asked myself, “What has been the church’s role in the reproductive health movement?” As I reflected on my own home church, I realized that while we offered selected health awareness activities, that there was no sustained discussion of women’s sexual and reproductive health issues. My church, an African American Baptist church, has been at the forefront of the Black liberation and social justice movements. As early as the late 1970s, my church served as an advocate for women who wanted to serve as ministers, pastors, and deacons. The church was ahead of its time and even today many of the baptist churches within its denomination accept women as fundraisers, members, and ministry leaders, but they still do not affirm women in pastoral, diaconate, or trustee leadership. I realized that while my church is socially progressive on issues of racism, that there is still much to be done within the realm of women’s everyday issues, and especially as they relate to issues of sexuality, sexual violence, reproductive justice, and women’s sexual and overall health. Although we are not a “gay-bashing” church, there is a great deal of silence and unexpressed homophobia when it comes to discussing persons who represent the spectrum of human sexual identity. As I thought about my church, I became concerned about our places of silence as well as the places where our theology and social perspectives are not in sync with the realities of the lives lived by those we are called to serve.
It was my preparation for and attendance at the SisterSong Conference that opened my eyes to the gap in the church’s social justice work. There is a need for the church’s “social justice” agenda to include women’s reproductive justice issues. At the conference, I acknowledged that the Black Church community has not adequately addressed women’s issues and that faith leaders and the church need to more consciously and deliberately explore ways to be more responsive and engaged in improving the lives of women and their families. I also asked the women’s movement to not give up on working with faith communities, Christian and otherwise. After the conference, I personally made a commitment to finding ways to make these issues more visible, to provide forums for discussion among faith and community leaders, and to create spaces where people of faith, both male and female, can talk about and develop social justice agendas that include reproductive justice issues. But the lingering question in my mind, was, “Why was the church, and especially women, silent about reproductive justice issues which impact their everyday lives?”
I realized that women have been traditionally taught that silence and submission are Godly traits for women. From the pulpit preaching to the church Bible class, we hear the familiar biblical passage urging women to “keep silent in the church.” If women are outspoken, they are told, “Don’t be a Jezebel.” Women are taught to give deference to the pastor because he is “a man of God.” Women have been taught through the years to look to male leadership for direction and to value it even more than their own voices and spirits. Although applauded for speaking and acting against racism, African American women are encouraged to be silent and to overlook sexism in the church and society. (See Cheryl Anderson’s article later this week on biblical interpretation and its impact on reproductive justice work.)
This learned silence continues when women who are physically abused by their partners are often told, “You need to submit to your husband and pray that God will change him,” by their pastors, both male and female. This silence is practiced in church-based sexual education programs for youth which teach “abstinence only” and recommend “Just say No” as the best method of contraception, instead of providing more comprehensive sex education programs. Silence turns into denial when congregations are challenged to deal with HIV/AIDS in the African American community. It is as though some faith leaders think that we if don’t talk about it, it will just go away. We “hear, see and speak no evil” when it comes to HIV/AIDS education and programs. And we fear that if we do talk about HIV/AIDS, we may have to admit that youth and adults are having sex outside of marriage. We will also discover that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is not limited to persons who are lesbian or gay. We fear sex talk because we may need to discuss issues and experiences which make us uncomfortable. And issues of incest and rape, still the African American community’s dirty little secret, are rarely addressed by the Black Church, if at all.
Reclaiming our voice
To move toward an integrative social justice agenda, one that incorporates the elements of reproductive justice, the Black Church must first recognize and acknowledge the oppressive nature of some of its religious traditions and its misappropriations of biblical texts regarding women’s roles. Faith leaders need to learn from women activists who are committed to changing public policies which negatively impact women’s sexuality, reproductive health, and the quality of life for women and children. We need to create spaces where the connections between the socio-historical impact of slavery and racial discrimination and images that Black women have of themselves and their bodies are explored. And perhaps most importantly, we need to create spaces for biblical and theological study, both in the church and in seminaries. We need to teach women how to do critical biblical research so that they can interpret the Bible for themselves and hear the voices of other women. Women must not let the fear of being demonized or marginalized silence their theological questions or their commitment to women’s issues. We must step out and reclaim our voices, speaking the truth as we see it and, when necessary, reclaiming the voice of Black women’s righteous indignation. We must invite men and women who are social justice advocates to move toward a more holistic social justice agenda, one that includes reproductive justice issues. Creating a more inclusive agenda and advocating for these human rights will improve the quality of life for all –women, men, and children. For as Paulo Freire notes in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that when the oppressor is forced to stop oppressing others, he too is liberated.
World Health Organization. Health Topics: Reproductive Health. 2012. 4 February 2012 .
Ross, Loretta J. “The Movement for Reproductive Justice: Six-years Old and Growing.” Collective Voices 2009: 11:4.
Leonard, Toni M. Bond. “Laying the Foundation for the Reproductive Framework.” Collective Voices 2009: 11:4.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970
Professor Milsap teaches courses on African American Church history at DePaul University in Chicago. She has taught and directed urban theological programs at the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) and its Center for African American Theological Studies. She is a past executive director of The Night Ministry, an organization which addresses housing and healthcare issues. She is the co-editor of Slamming on Concrete: Poems by homeless youth in Chicago. She is pursuing her doctorate degree at Northern Illinois University, where she is researching Black women in ministerial leadership.