Reproductive Justice

29 Jan

Reproductive Justice
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on January 26, 2014

There is hardly an area of human life that we clergy don’t see our interactions with people. A person will come to us with when there is trouble in her family, when he has questions about a decision he is about to make, when she is not sure what to do next. People come to us to celebrate decisions to bind their lives together, they come when they mourn the loss of such a covenantal relationship, they come when they find themselves facing an a decision about whether to become a parent, or how to make that happen. You can go to your clergy person (me!) seeking guidance, discernment, and support (spiritual, emotional or financial). I don’t think there is an area of human life that clergy don’t see in our interactions with people. As such, we are on the front line when it comes to questions of how to have children, how not to have children, and how to raise children in a safe and healthy environment. And these are the questions fundamental to reproductive justice.

Reproductive justice recognizes that all people and communities should have the social, spiritual, economic and political means to experience the sacred gift of sexuality with health and wholeness. Rather than just telling the government to “butt-out,” reproductive justice asserts that government must have a central role in eliminating the many, many social inequalities that are related to reproductive oppressions.

What are reproductive oppressions? Year after year, in far too many states, there are proposals that go before state legislatures that seek to limit a person’s access to comprehensive sexuality eduction, seek to limit a person’s access to the full range of pregnancy-related healthcare, including contraception and abortion, and seek to deny critical family support.

Friday’s Courier-Journal had an excellent article by Amber Duke, which highlights some of the ways the KY legislature is seeking to impose more reproductive oppressions: Senate Bill 3 would require a woman to come to a clinic in person 24 hours before an abortion; House Bill 163 takes this even further and requires this extra meeting before even a medication prescription that would terminate a pregnancy; Senate Bill 8 would require a woman seeking an abortion to undergo a medically unnecessary ultrasound AND require the doctor to tell her information even if she does not want to hear it; Senate Bill 57 would make it a crime in KY for a doctor to perform an abortion after 20 weeks.

Many of those seeking to further these reproductive oppressions claim that they do so on the basis of their religious tradition, or because their faith calls them to. This leads many, politicians and otherwise, to a severe misunderstanding that to be a religious person means to fit into a particular, narrow box, but that is just not the case. To be religious does not at all mean to oppose reproductive health, rights and justice. This is only one, small religious perspective.

Many people of a variety of religious perspectives, including Unitarian Universalism, support reproductive justice. This does not mean we agree all time the time – we don’t. Even within our faith tradition we disagree on particulars, on specifics. And this disagreement is okay – it is even healthy. This is why the Reproductive Justice Congregational Study/Action Item that we heard about in our reading asks questions rather than providing one-size-fits-all answers. However, what is not healthy, what is not just, is when one particular religious perspective gets written into law. When this happens, it removes an individual’s moral authority – a moral authority that all faith traditions support. When one particular, narrow religious perspective gets written into law, it removes a person’s ability to make choices according to his or her own religious beliefs and conscience. When one particular, narrow religious perspective gets written into law, it denies the reality that there are other religious perspectives that are crying for wholeness and justice.

Many people of a variety of religious perspectives, including Unitarian Universalism, support comprehensive, science-based sex education programs – like our OWL program which we heard about in our Moment for All Ages. In some religious traditions, people are taught that we are all made in the image of God. As Unitarian Universalists, we honor each person’s inherent worth and dignity. The Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, which many faith leaders have endorsed, reminds us that we celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality. We believe “all persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure.” When we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity, we participate in a life-giving and life-fulfilling gift.

And it is important that we understand this gift! This means supporting science-based sexuality education programs that are age-appropriate, accurate, and truthful. People often need support in order to more fully develop their capacity for moral discernment. Sexuality education that respects and empowers people has more integrity than education based on incomplete information, fear, and shame. Programs that teach abstinence only and withhold information about pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease prevention fail our young people.

Our OWL facilitators shared with me some of their reasons for teaching OWL. Several shared that they appreciate the sex positive approach. One said “Having a healthy perspective on sexuality at a young age enables young people to grow into adulthood seeking positive relationships with others and making healthier decisions.” Another shared that “in the rape culture in which we live, it is critically important for everyone from kindergarten to adulthood to understand consent” which is covered extensively at every level of OWL . A common theme from our facilitators was that OWL helps participants become comfortable with their sexuality and that the benefits to this comfort are numerous.

Young people require the skills to make moral and healthy decisions about relationships for themselves now and in their future adult lives. They need help to develop the capacity for personal relationships that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure. We believe that the ability to make informed, moral choices is a sacred part of what it means to be human. To respect a person means to give them accurate information they need to make a meaningful, moral decision about whether, when, and how to parent. Comprehensive, science-based sexuality education gives people the help and skills they need.

In addition to comprehensive sexuality education, many people of a variety of religious perspectives, including Unitarian Universalism, support access to the full range of pregnancy-related healthcare, including contraception and abortion. The decision about becoming a parent is one of the largest decisions a person will make. And yet a small group of religious conservatives wants to limit and restrict access to healthcare services that would best help someone make the decision about whether or not they are able to parent.

As Rev. Thom Belote points out “An employer may have a moral opposition to alcohol, but no employer is trying to deny [healthcare] coverage for liver transplants. An employer may have a moral opposition to smoking, but no employer is trying to deny [healthcare] coverage for lung cancer. An employer may have a moral opposition to red meat, but not a single employer is trying to deny [healthcare] coverage for colon cancer. Why is this?” It is because these conditions are seen as a part of healthcare, but contraception is viewed by a small group of people not as healthcare, but as part of their narrow religious agenda.

It is unacceptable for our laws to willingly and consistently single out women, particularly low-income women, specifically for the purposes of denying access to healthcare. And this is the situation right now with abortion and lack of access to contraception. By making a woman take time off not just one day but two days for a medically unnecessary ultrasound the day before an abortion; Or by allowing doctors and pharmacies to put limits on what medically necessary healthcare treatment, services, and pharmaceuticals they provide; By making it harder for a woman in need to access these services the government is putting up barriers that are unjust and unfair. Besides, as Derek Selznick points out in todays’ Courier-Journal, providing family planning services would actually SAVE the United States $4.3 BILLION annually in maternity and infant care!

We see this injustice in the growing Catholic hospital system. Between the years of 2001 and 2010, the number of Catholic non-profit hospitals in the United States grew by 16%. During this same time, other nonprofit and public hospitals saw a serious decline. Catholic hospitals now make up 10 of the largest 25 healthcare systems in this country. The Ethical and Religious Directives, issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, govern medical care at all Catholic hospitals — “and influence care at secular hospitals that merge or affiliate with Catholic providers. The directives ban elective abortion, sterilization, and birth control and restrict fertility treatments, genetic testing, and end-of-life options.” However, they do not stop there. “Depending on the hospital and the local bishop, they may also be interpreted to limit crisis care for women suffering miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies, emergency contraception for sexual assault, and even the ability of doctors and nurses to discuss treatment options or make referrals.” This is reproductive oppression, particularly for low-income women who may not have access to a high-priced for-profit hospital.

Instead, we seek reproductive justice. We understand compassion to be at the core of our relationships with one another. We may have different beliefs about abortion, and still agree to respect a woman’s right to make decisions according to her own beliefs, according to her own conscience.

A common theme across religious traditions is the importance of caring for people who, for reasons of poverty, race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status or other factors, struggle against hardship and oppression. This ethical obligation to justice is central to our understanding of faith, and it calls us to eliminate the enormous disparities which exist in access to reproductive healthcare.

Finally, many people of a variety of religious perspectives, including Unitarian Universalism, support healthy families. Our children are not just our future, they are our present. It is the seat of hypocrisy for lawmakers to deny access to contraception and abortion and then penalize families by cutting access to childcare and other supportive services. When food stamp programs are cut and no alternate plan is put in place, then children go to school hungry. And people then wonder why these hungry kids can’t sit still, or can’t learn? People wonder why their test scores are low?

Safe, affordable childcare is also important. When parents don’t have access to reliable, affordable childcare, they are often forced to take unpaid time off to care for children. Kentucky’s child care subsidy program for low-income working families has almost 20% fewer children participants than a year ago due to cuts – but what do you think is happening to those families who relied on this support in order to work or go to school? They are forced to make impossible choices that put their children and their futures at risk.

A family also deserves access to decent, affordable housing. There is a direct link between the stability of a child’s home situation and how well they do in school. It will be interesting to see what becoming an “Innovation District” will do for Jefferson County Public Schools when recent reports are that more than 10% of the students in Jefferson County are homeless.

Because of our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of each person, we are called to create a world where every individual and every family can have access to what they need to thrive. In the United States, we say it is the role of government to ensure domestic tranquility and to promote the general welfare. It is not the job of the government to impose one set of religious views on everyone, but instead to protect each person’s right and ability to make decisions according to their own beliefs.

Reproductive justice is a complex issue that requires a complex response. To pursue reproductive justice means to ask many questions, like How do power structures limit individuals’ access to reproductive justice? Or How can eliminating racism, classism and sexism reduce the need for abortion and enable families to care for the children they do have? Our role is not to stand in judgment of someone in whose shoes we have not walked, not to pressure others to accept our views, but to walk with those in need as they find their own path. It is not acceptable when one group has it’s views written into law such that other people are denied the ability to make their own decisions. Instead, all people deserve to have the social, spiritual, economic and political means to experience the sacred gift of sexuality with health and wholeness. May it be so. May our justice seeking help to make it so.

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