Taking Up Reproductive Justice: Unitarian Society of Ridgewood's Story
In 2000, Carol Loscalzo was hysterical that the election of George Bush would lead to the end of reproductive choice in the United States. Nearing retirement age after a lifetime caring about reproductive health issues and working as a nurse and then a clinical social worker she wanted to do something… A few months later she convened the first meeting of the Reproductive Choice Committee at her home congregation, the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood (NJ). At the first meeting five women long past childbearing age and two men who weren’t entirely sure they believed in choice gathered in Ridgewood’s Reeb house—named after the Rev. James Reeb who was killed in Selma. They met in a large conference room, sunlight streaming through the many windows. Carol looked around at the six people she had gathered and all of the empty chairs and thought, “We really need to get some people with functioning uteruses to be part of this committee.”
In the early days, the Ridgewood committee focused on choice and family planning—publishing a Roe Anniversary ad in the New York Times newspaper in support of Roe v. Wade with signatures from 50 congregants and educating themselves about the gap in UN funding Bush had left when he’d cut all international family planning grants. Carol and other committee members had also been attending some of the anti-racism workshops that the Ridgewood congregation was hosting. Carol started to wonder about some of the international family planning work the reproductive choice committee had been working on, “When does the push for family planning border on genocide for women of color?,” Carol said, “Out of that [discomfort] came a sense that we needed to look somewhere else and we’d started hearing about reproductive justice.” Earlier that year, a bus of people from Ridgewood had attended the March for Women’s Lives in DC and learned that women of color, some of whom were calling themselves reproductive justice organizers, had insisted the name be changed from the March for Reproductive Choice.
Searching for projects beyond international family planning, Carol suggested at a committee meeting, “there have got to be women who can’t afford abortions in New Jersey.” There were nods around the table and people agreed, “oh sure, that’s a great idea.” They held a panel with members from Naral pro-choice, Planned Parenthood, Cherry Hill Women’s Center and a volunteer from the NY Abortion Access Fund. After the event, several people—some UUs and some not—came up afterward saying “let’s start a fund!” A separate group of people formed to work on creating the NJ Abortion Access fund.
Mandy Restivo-Walsh, a 29-year-old woman and then director of the Women’s Center at Ramapo College, saw the announcement about the abortion access fund and joined the committee. The committee came together with the anti-racism committee to read Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice, the bedrock text of the reproductive justice movement. The committee was inspired by the vivid stories of scrappy grassroots organizations fighting for the rights of Native American children to live with their parents, for healing spaces for Black women, and legislative changes that reflect the lived experiences of women of color. THIS was an approach to reproductive work that encompassed the complexity and full humanity of people making decisions about children. One committee member wondered aloud if they should change the committee name from reproductive choice to reproductive justice. Margaret White, the anti-racism committee chair, said “Well if you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to talk to Lynn Roberts who’s a good friend of mine and serves on the board of SisterSong, a woman of color group that developed the paradigm of reproductive justice.”
Dr. Lynn Roberts, a professor at the CUNY School of Public Health, had already been involved in some of the anti-racism committee’s coalition work and had become friends with Margaret White through the Teaneck Community Chorus and the Bergen County Chapter of the People’s Organization for Progress which met at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood. Lynn was invited to a reproductive choice committee meeting where she explained the difference between reproductive health, choice and justice. The four pillars of reproductive justice are that everyone has a right 1) to have children, 2) to not have children, 3) to raise those children in a safe and healthy environment and 4) to express their sexuality and bodily autonomy freely. They discussed how the committee could reorient their work to focus on the four pillars of reproductive justice equally instead of focusing primarily on abortion with everything else as an afterthought.
When talking with Carol and Mandy, it is clear how much respect and appreciation they have for Lynn Roberts. That respect is mutual. For Lynn, working with Unitarian Universalists was a way for her to live out her own faith practice: “A lot of my commitment to this [work], particularly with the faith community is that I really believe in faith being a grounding place for reproductive justice work. I’m a Baha’i… and Baha’is believe in the unity of all the faiths so we really come from that point of view that it’s your spiritual duty to seek justice and to seek it with others who may have different beliefs or spiritual practice.”
As the committee planned new events they’d email Lynn and ask for feedback and suggestions on framing and the direction the group was going in. By that time Mandy had become co-chair. Mandy and Carol found that as new members joined the committee they had to continually refocus the discussion towards a reproductive justice approach. They would raise questions about how oppression fit into the topic they were discussing. In a discussion on having home births, Mandy asked, “How would this look for poor women or women of color?” They also sought permission from SisterSong’s National Coordinator, Loretta Ross, in re-naming their committee a Reproductive Justice Committee and became an ally member of SisterSong. In fall 2009 the Committee sponsored Dr. Marlene Gerber Fried, co-editor of Undivided Rights, co-founder of the National Network of Abortion Funds, and Director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College to address the Ridgewood congregation at one of their Sunday services where she was introduced by Dr. Lynn Roberts. By taking guidance from Lynn and taking on the work of educating the committee and congregation Carol and Mandy acted in solidarity with Lynn and SisterSong.
The Abortion Access subcommittee continued to work on creating an abortion fund which launched in 2012. One of the successes of the Ridgewood committee has been inviting speakers to speak on panels who then became important partners in further action. The abortion access panelists have provided valuable guidance on the most effective ways to administer the fund and have connected them with poor pregnant people in New Jersey who are struggling to cover the costs of having an abortion. In the past two years they have given out small grants to about 100 people each year. Additionally, with a growing commitment to reproductive justice and supporting women of color in their community, the committee has organized discussions on women in prison and hosted Mamas Day services on Mother’s Day.
Carol and Mandy brought Reproductive Justice to the 2012 General Assembly as a study action issue, gaining congregational sponsorship from their own congregation and participating in the voting, statement drafting and mini assembly process. During the CSAI time period, many congregations have taken the reproductive justice curriculum and brought in reproductive justice speakers, including Monica Simpson, Executive Director of SisterSong. The statement of conscience was adopted in 2015 and 2016 is the year of implementation.
Lynn Roberts is heartened by this progress. While organizations like Planned Parenthood and laws that affect abortion get a great deal of attention from advocates on the left, organizations led by women and other people of color are not getting the same financial support or people power. With the statement of conscience and a wealth of resources for engaging with reproductive justice, UUs can make a big difference for reproductive justice organizations and can challenge the reproductive rights movement to take up reproductive justice.