Sunday, November 17, 2013

Reproductive Justice

The back story: the service at church today was about reproductive justice.  I am sitting now at a coffee shop with a cup of really bad coffee, and I'm going to try to sort out my thoughts.  To be honest, though, I'm overwhelmed.  I was hoping the coffee would help, but I'm going to be lucky if I can swallow this sorry excuse for something that slightly resembles coffee.  If this rambles, blame the bad coffee.

What do I have to do with reproductive justice? The immediate story is this: I feel a great deal of pressure to get married and have children.  In the eyes of many people close to me, it seems that this is how I will prove myself to be successful.  In spite of being a licensed, doctoral level psychologist at just-turned 28, it always feels as though I am somehow letting others down.  Like I'm not quite fulfilling my potential and duty as a woman.  I quite regularly have parents of my clients tell me that "it's time" for me to start having children.   I was told by a person close to me when I started graduate school that, if I met a potential spouse in grad school, I could not make him "wait for me."  It would be my "job" to drop out of school and start a family.

When I was in 3rd grade, I was the only child whose parent did not approve for her to take the "personal body safety " curriculum that is offered in Maryland.  I remember asking why, and I remember being told that it was inappropriate material that would scare me, and told me it was something I would never have to worry about.  Fast forward to eighth grade.  My homeschool "health/sex education" course consisted of being handed a copy of "What's Happening To My Body Book for Girls," with certain chapters -- the ones on sex, sexual assault and birth control, namely -- marked as "Do Not Read."  I was so embarrassed to read this book that I did it only in my bedroom, with the door closed, and I hid it under my mattress in between.  I did, of course, read the chapters marked "do not read," but because I really had no basic understanding of anything, none of the chapters really made much sense to me at all.  I didn't ask questions.  It was clear that this topic was not to be discussed.

And that is it.  Literally.  That was the extent of my sex education.  We never talked about dating.  I asked one time what abortion was when I saw it on a bumper sticker, and I got an answer equivalent to "it's an issue that a lot of people have a strong opinion about."  We never talked about our bodies, except for when my sister developed an eating disorder -- and even then, it was mostly in the context of disordered eating.  The idea of a comprehensive sex education...or even one that covered much beyond the bare bones basics...was completely foreign to me.  The concept of discussing reproductive rights and sexual health was so far outside of my reality, I don't think it was even on my radar.

Grad school, though, was a complete game changer.  When I was sexually assaulted in my third year of grad school, my perspective and awareness and everything changed.  Sexual assault was no longer something that just happened to others.  Issues surrounding women's rights, sexual health, reproductive rights, and sexual assault were no longer just abstract causes I cared about when I read something upsetting in the news.  Not caring and not acting is a luxury and a privilege few people realize they are afforded.

Each of these points has everything to do with reproductive justice.  In my mind, it should not be radical for a person to hear: "You have worth.  Your body is yours.  The choices you make are yours.  Your stories are yours and they are part of you and part of us.  You are whole as you are.  You are a person, and for this fact alone, you are whole and you are worthy."  In today's world, every person should know that they have the right to be with the person they love.  It should be a well-established fact that it is a person's individual decision to have children or not.  Each person should be able to make medical decisions for their own body.  Every person has the right to choose -- to choose to have children.  To choose to have an abortion.  To choose to never get pregnant.  To choose who can touch them, and when, and how, and where.  To choose when and how they will be educated on their choices.  To choose who they love.  These are fundamental rights.  This is justice.  And we aren't there yet. 

I can't understand why it is so hard to see that, when a person's right to choose is taken away by legislators,  or by doctors, or by husbands or boyfriends or strangers, the ripple impacts all of us.  I don't understand why it is so hard to see that, when one right to a choice is taken away, no matter who imposes it, every other choice is affected.  If male legislators believe they can tell me what I can do with my body, then is it a stretch to believe that some men will believe they can take away other choices as well?  Everyone is impacted by these injustices.  Every time.  Injustice is never just a single act -- its tentacles are long and mighty.  We are, indeed, part of an interdependent web. What touches one of us does, for better or worse, touch us all.

In spite of the fact that I know better, and in spite of the fact that I wrestle with this regularly, there is still shame felt in conversations about sexual assault.  There is still shame behind the words I write about this topic, and there is a tremendous amount of fear.  I know that, more often than not, when I talk or write or address this topic in any way, people say "me too.  I have a story about that, too.  That is also part of my lived experience."  When you make it even more broad and talk not only about sexual assault, but about people not being able to truly own and make choices regarding their own bodies, then the numbers go up even further.  And still that shame and fear is there.  It doesn't come from nowhere.  It's there because it is what we have been taught, or shown, or conditioned to remember.  It's there because it has to be: its function is to keep us safe.

So I try to fight the good fight.  I stand up when I can.  I write when I am able.  I make points in conversation and to others.  But I'll be honest: I get tired.  This fight occurs on multiple levels all at once.  You fight personal shame and fear.  You fight societal shame and fear.  In spite of hearing "me too" from so many others, you feel alone.  You feel alone in your fear, and alone in your shame, and you feel like you're the only one fighting.  You want the world to know your story -- whether your story be that of rape, or miscarriage, or abortion, or infertilityWe are not made to carry those stories alone, but you do, because it is what you have to do.

The point that hit me straight in my heart today was this: this issue of my rights, and my body, and my choices is important enough that my church would devote an entire Sunday to discussing it.  The fact that my body is a good body, and that my body is mine, and that my choices are mine, and that I am whole is something that is believed not just by a few friends in the congregation, not just by my minister, but by my faith community as an entity.  

What a beautiful, overwhelming realization that is, and what a beautiful, overwhelming privilege.  In a world where religion has shamed, blamed, silenced, and tried to change people's expressions of sexuality, gender, and self, my faith community chooses to stand on the side of love.  In a world where religion has taken away, restricted and inhibited women's choices and has shamed, abandoned and hurt so many in the process, my faith community chooses to stand of the side of wholeness and justice.  My faith community chooses to stand on the belief that reproductive rights are human rights, women's rights are human rights, and human rights are for all humans.

I didn't stick around to talk to people after the service today, and really didn't talk to many people at all while I was there, but I left feeling profoundly seen and whole.  I felt not-alone in a different, existential sense of the word.  It feels a bit like I've been hanging onto the high beam until all my muscles are shaking and achy, and my fingers are slipping and sweaty, and I'm barely hanging on...and then someone taps me on the shoulder and tells me to look down.  When I do, I see that there are people -- real, honest-to-goodness beautiful people, standing under me with a net and waiting to catch me.  They're there to remind me: this is not a war you need to fight alone.  "You can be tired," they say.  "We will keep on fighting." 

These conversations are essential.  These are the conversations that change the world.  These are the radical ways we fill one another and emphasize our wholeness.  These are the ways we grow in community, and we need all of our good bodies together to make that happen.  We need all of our stories, our pain, our resilience, our strength, courage, choices, and power together.  We are worth it. 
Our stories are worth it.  Our histories are worth it.  Our futures and our future generations are all just so worth it. 

So may it be.