"Our Bodies, Our Selves"
UUMH Chatham January 23, 2022
“Our Bodies Our Selves” Rev. Tracy Johnson
It was in 1969 that a group of Boston area women attending a “female liberation conference” participated in a workshop on “Women and Their Bodies” where they shared about frustrations with the medical system and their own lack of understanding about their bodies and how they worked. They formed a group to learn more about their bodies, their lives, their sexuality and to share what they learned. This was the forerunner to the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective which published first in a stapled newsprint version a rather revolutionary and quite accessible discussion of women’s sexuality and of abortion, which was at the time illegal, entitled “Women and Their Bodies.” In 1973 the first mainstream version of the book, Our Bodies Ourselves, was published. I was disappointed as I perused my shelves to find that I must have given my copy away! So, I ordered the latest version from 2011 – about three times the size of the original, revised and updated. There had been a second version in 2005. The book has been translated into 34 languages and has served women internationally as they move through a world rife with paternalism. The Collective worked with women in different cultures to adapt the information into ways it would be most useful for them. And they were early in understanding the contexts of women as vital to women’s health and therefore their empowerment. They have been a force for advocacy and change now for about 50 years. While the Collective itself decided in 2018 that it could no longer operate as it had, it instead formed a volunteer non-profit focusing on advocacy for women’s health and social justice and providing some technical support to global partners. They have partnered with Suffok University’s Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights and are developing a new platform – Our Bodies Ourselves Today, featuring updated and inclusive information about women’s health and sexuality. The site will launch this year.
Yesterday was the 49th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade and I am saddened and angered that this may be our last opportunity to celebrate such a vital piece of our history. The Court, in the Roe decision, determined “that carrying a pregnancy to term so fundamentally affects a woman, that her decision, made in consultation with her physician, to terminate her pregnancy is protected by the right of privacy recognized” by the court in its earlier Griswold decision and that it should be free of governmental intrusion unless the state has a compelling interest, usually associated with viability. There have been arguments which continue today about grounding this decision in privacy versus equality, but the latter is not likely to carry the day as a means to a similar end.
Both of these parallel occurrences came about in an era of broadening women’s consciousness and in a time when choice about our bodies and our lives was being challenged by women whose place in our culture had always been determined by their associations with men. They served to break open the conversation about who has the right to make decisions for another, about power constructs and about the dynamics of relationships. My husband, wisely on his part, has always said that men have no business inserting their opinions into or making demands on women’s choices about their bodies. And I would expand on that a little to say that no human being has the right to so insert themselves into the choices of another with regard to their bodies. Because, as the title of the book indicates, our bodies are our very selves, the vehicle in which we live and move and have our being.
Practically since its adoption, Roe has been challenged by those attempting to impose as many restrictions as possible on the right to an abortion, which has resulted in actual access diminishing greatly over time. In the past five years alone, states have passed over 200 such restrictions. Along about the twenty teens of this century the Unitarian Universalist Association devoted some time and attention to a Statement of Conscience, ultimately adopted in 2015 after the requisite four years of congregational study, a statement on Reproductive Justice. Unlike the choice argument, the justice framework broadens the scope of advocacy for women, making it more inclusive. It argues that the choice framework doesn’t begin to answer the reproductive oppressions that affect the choices that women of color have faced in their lifetimes – things like the sterilization of Native and other women, the lack of adequate sexuality education in marginalized neighborhoods, the deportation of immigrant mothers or the lack of legal rights afforded LGBTQ parents. The reproductive justice movement says that the government should have a central role in eliminating these inequalities, that because the needs of marginalized communities in the US – immigrants, people of color, the young and the poor and the disabled – are rarely addressed by our current political system, that changes in our overall cultural and political power structure are called for. Our larger association has partnered with organizations to work for changes in cultural, political, economic and structural constraints that limit women’s access to healthcare. In using a human rights-based frame, reproductive justice promotes the right of people to have the children they want to have and to not have those that they don’t, to raise their children in safe and healthy environments and to express their sexuality without oppression.
This approach is an intersectional one that takes context into consideration and acknowledges the many overlapping contexts of peoples lives. I read this week about Selma James, a 91-year-old activist whose recently published book of essays, Our Time Is Now: Sex, Race, Class, and Caring for People and Planet. Born into a working-class family in Brooklyn in 1930, she grew up in a multiracial community where learning from people different from oneself created a value system for her that honored the unique contributions of all people to the whole. She is the cofounder of the international movement, Wages for Housework, which is based on the principle that adequate financial compensation for the caretakers in our midst would raise millions of women out of poverty and reduce domestic violence and other forms of abuse based on power dynamics. The organization is in its 50th year. James addresses the divisions of race, nationality, income, age, gender, sexuality, and disability, saying that the more we address these issues, internally and with others, the less we are divided by them, resulting in the power of each becoming a power for all. The Rev. Rob Keithan writes that because as Unitarian Universalists we care about people and their dignity, we are called to understand how overlapping identities affect both individual lives and communities, and to see the world through the lens of those on the margins. Our tradition asks us to define choice – to consider what that really means at its root. Our goal is not limited to choices around abortion, but is much larger including health and justice; access to resources needed for a healthy and responsible life. We are a pluralist rather than a moralist faith that encourages people to explore their own values and beliefs and make their own decisions. We acknowledge a diversity of viewpoints and see this as a means of enriching all of our lives. The fact that we hold these beliefs about ethics and morality before us as a religious tradition places us on par with other religions whose stance may be different. Keithan suggests that as long as the only religious perspective on sexuality and reproductive justice is a conservative one, moralism will rule the day. The Rev. Joan Javier-Duval says, “To use religious dogma that proclaims the sanctity of life as a guise for restricting personal agency and legislating other people’s bodies is bad theology.” We cannot on the one hand extol the sanctity of life and on the other ignore the plight of children dying at the border, the murder of transgender women on our streets, the defunding of public education or the ecological disasters we face. Our interdependent web is based on these intersections in our world.
A colleague of mine shared a story about serving on a national abortion hotline, about ultimately sending a woman to a Unitarian Universalist church in her area because it was the nearest thing in her mid-Western town that might be of help. She did so because she grew up in a UU church that provided her with quality sexuality education, because her childhood minister had talked about being part of a network pre-Roe v. Wade that assisted women with safe abortions, because UU’s have been more supportive of legal abortion than many unaffiliated groups and because the legal case in Roe v. Wade was forged in the basement of First Unitarian Church in Dallas, TX. She didn’t think twice when she suggested the call.
The concept of reproductive justice goes beyond the legal right to terminate a pregnancy and moves us into a consideration of access to healthcare and resources, tools with which a real choice can be made. It calls us to focus on the lived realities of women and the complicated interdependent web of circumstances that need to exist for her to exercise those rights. Things like childcare, safe neighborhoods, and good education all play into the decisions women make. It is easier for some to reduce the decision to one about termination or taking a pregnancy to term and then, in many circles, to cast judgement on the person for their decision – easier than fostering necessary changes in our society. What role do we play in ensuring that choice can be made equally across contexts?
We are designated as a Welcoming Congregation, having spent considerable time in study on what that means, especially in terms of LGBTQ inclusion. I wonder how we might take that designation a step further as we support LGBTQ folx who struggle with social support as parents, forced to mask their identities to prevent discrimination, or transgender parents who risk losing their children. The intersection of race and sexual identity only increases the risk of discrimination one might experience. And because of the disproportionate barriers to work, housing, education, and healthcare that LGBTQ people face, their access to choices many of us take for granted are seriously limited. What does being a Welcoming Congregation ask us to do today?
This is just one example. We could look at any of the areas of social justice we focus on and make a connection to reproductive justice. None of these issues operates in a vacuum. On this anniversary of Roe v. Wade; perhaps the last time we can honor its existence as it hangs in the balance, what might we think about doing to ensure access to just and equitable reproductive choices in the lives of those most affected by the oppressions of our culture? Perhaps our role has to do with making connections – pointing to the intersections and to the need to work in concert across issues. Each of us will decide what makes sense personally. Is it possible to do something as a whole? Because the right of each person to control the destiny of their bodies is a fundamental human right that we can never take for granted. As a people that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person and acknowledges the interdependence of our existence, we owe it to those whose voices are silenced by oppression to side with them in whatever ways they need to ensure their humanity is not held down or glossed over or demeaned. This is the definition of choice. This is what justice is all about. May we be one with all of humanity in this quest.
Blessed be and Amen.