Feminism for the 99% – The Fight for Reproductive Justice

Below is talk given by PSL member Kerbie Joseph at the Feminism for the 99% conference hosted by the People’s Congress of Resistance on March 23rd 

My name is Kerbie Joseph and the most powerful declaration I can stand here and say to all of you is that I am Black socialist woman. You cannot call yourself a socialist without calling yourself a feminist- but I’m not talking about whitewashed, bigoted, bourgeois feminism. Angela Davis said Feminism involves so much more than gender equality and it involves so much more than gender. Feminism must involve consciousness of capitalism (I mean the feminism that I relate to, and there are multiple feminism, right). So it has to involve a consciousness of capitalism and racism and colonialism and post-colonialism, and ability and more genders than we can even imagine and more sexuality than we ever thought we could name.” Capitalism will have oppressed peoples think- that not only do our experiences, our traumas not matter- but our bodies are not ours and belongs to this system- to be used by this system. And that while we have the right to mostly beg for our basic needs of survival- we actually don’t have the right to define our bodies for ourselves- nor define family for ourselves. The right to live or die seems to be based on capitalism not the people.

Over 63,000 homeless men, women and children, spend the night within the city’s shelter system where they remain unseen. In a city of 8.5 million people, nearly 1 in every 128 New Yorkers is currently homeless. Women and families represent the fastest growing groups of the homeless population in the United States. Approximately 34% of the homeless population are families with children. Among homeless families, 67% are female-headed. 40,000 are homeless LGBTQ youth. This, in NYC, where there is more empty housing than homeless people. According to the Census Bureau, 18.5 million people reported deep poverty, which means a household income below 50% of the 2017 poverty threshold. These individuals represent an estimated 5.7 percent of all Americans and 46.7% of those in poverty. 70% of the nation’s poor are women & children. Women in America are still 35% more likely than men to be poor in America, with single mothers facing the highest risk. Currently, 35% of single women with children live and raise their families in poverty. Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, this includes Trans women and gender nonconforming folks because of extreme poverty or abuse. But this system has always been set up this way.

From the beginning of this nation’s racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic history- oppressed people weren’t meant to survive. Our existence and our bodies have always been shamed, butchered, objectified and defiled. Control of our bodies has been left up to negotiation by this system’s needs- never ours.

Eugenics, also known as ethnic or racial cleansing, is an example of this. For instance, federally-funded sterilization programs took place in 32 states throughout the 20th century. Between the 1930’s and the 1970’s, approximately one-third of the female population of Puerto Rico was sterilized,  the highest rate of sterilization in the world. This happened without the women’s consent. EVER. Driven by prejudiced notions of science and social control, these programs informed policies on immigration and segregation.

More recently, California prisons are said to have authorized sterilizations of nearly 150 female inmates between 2006 and 2010. While California’s eugenics programs were driven in part by anti-Asian and anti-Mexican prejudice, Southern states also employed sterilization as a means of controlling African American populations. “Mississippi appendectomies” was another name for unnecessary hysterectomies performed at teaching hospitals in the South on women of color as practice for medical students.

North Carolina’s eugenics program, included stories from victims of forced sterilization like Elaine Riddick. A third of the sterilizations were done on girls under 18, even as young as 9. The state also targeted individuals seen as “delinquent” or “unwholesome.”

According to the CLWU Herstory Project, in Puerto Rico, 35% percent of women are sterilized. The Sterilization Campaign. According to Harriet Presser in “The Role of Sterilization in Controlling Puerto Rican Fertility”, sterilization was introduced into Puerto Rico in the 1930’s, by adhering to capitalism- telling women that “the operation” will allow them to work more and be better workers.

And I know, after hearing that, you’re saying “Kerbie, things have legally gotten better for reproductive and body choice right?” Well… Since 2011, there have been 336 laws that attack women’s reproductive health, specifically abortion restrictions,the most since the historic Roe vs Wade ruling that legalized abortion. These rights are regressing.

Currently, there are NO states that provide “total access” to comprehensive reproductive healthcare in the U.S. — meaning that there is no state in the country that does not somehow regulate abortion or hormone care.

Since 2016, 26 states enacted 56 anti-choice measures

What does that mean? Louisiana enacted the most anti-choice legislation in 2016, with seven measures. Mississippi follows with six measures, and South Dakota takes third with five anti-choice measures. These three states alone enacted roughly one-third of the total number of anti-choice laws enacted in the entire country last year. These measures include prohibiting organizations that provide abortion from participating in public healthcare programs and/or receiving certain public funds in Mississippi and Louisiana; a ban on abortion care after 20 weeks in South Dakota (with no exception to protect a woman’s health); a ban on D&E (dilation and evacuation), the most common type of second-trimester abortion procedure, in Louisiana and Mississippi; a ban on abortion if sought for reasons of fetal abnormality in Louisiana; and an extension of the 24-hour mandatory delay law to a 72-hour delay law before receiving abortion care in Louisiana.

One of the most common types of laws,  TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws set guidelines on clinics providing abortion services from dictating the width of hallways to the size of closets. This forces clinics to close down, leaving women without access to safe and legal abortions. In 2013, Texas passed HB2, a TRAP law that shut down over half of the state’s 40 clinics.  In 2016, laws were struck down in Alabama, Mississippi and Wisconsin, including HB2, but it’s so difficult to reopen after closing down, that only 2 of the clinics that closed in Texas have reopened as of 2017.

44 states have parental-notice or parental-consent measures that restrict minors’ access to abortion

Thirty states require parental consent, 19 states require parental notice, and five states require parental notice and parental consent. Two states (Georgia and Kentucky) passed their laws restricting minors’ access to abortion care.

With all of this, we know that reproductive justice includes everyone’s right to health care and to raise a family, include our trans family.  The Standards of Care or SOC for the Health of Transgender, and Gender Nonconforming People- require that all TGNC patients be referred by a mental health professional who has diagnosed the patient with persistent gender dysphoria. The Standards also require that the patient give informed consent, in other words, that they consent to the treatment after being fully informed of the risks involved.

Some LGBT health organizations (notably Chicago’s Howard Brown Health Center) advocate for an informed consent model where the patient must only prove that they understand the risk and consent to the procedure in order to access hormone therapy instead of adhering to a diagnosis that the individual may not have.

Some individuals choose to self-administer their medication because they do not have access to adequate medical care (either the available doctors do not have the necessary experience or the patient cannot afford care since transition-related procedures are prohibitively expensive and rarely covered by health insurance). However, self-administration of hormones is potentially dangerous. Individuals are seeking affordable physicians who are knowledgeable and willing to treat TGNC patients with dignity. But how often is that a common reality.

On December 26, 2018, in Portland, Oregon,  a comrade and activist- Jackie Mautner- checked her voicemail, expecting a message about scheduling a follow up from a recent X-ray on her fractured foot. At the end of the message, after the technician at Kaiser Health thought he had hung up, Mautner heard instead an extended conversation between the technician and his coworker on Jackie’s status as a trans woman.

This conversation involved degrading remarks about her appearance as well as sharing details from her recent and upcoming doctor’s visits, which included Jackie’s appointments like her routine physical or her dental cleaning which had no bearing on the X-ray screening and which the technician had no need to look at, much less share with a  coworker. Altogether this picking over of the details of her life, subject to the judgement of a transphobic stranger, lasted over four minutes.

This is the sort of experience trans people have to face in the U.S. medical system.  She also shared with Liberation News that although this was an extreme example, this is hardly the first instance of transphobia she’s faced with Kaiser. “It’s even the little things. Every time I go to the doctor, even if they call me by my name, there’s a pause, and they have to confirm it with me – you’re Jackie? That’s not a treatment cis people have to deal with.” This sort of microaggression is part of the reason Jackie often dreads going to the doctor, puts it off or avoids it altogether.

No one deserves to have this experience. All people have the right to go to the doctor and have their needs met.

The U.S. healthcare system is ranked on many measures as last in the “developed world,” that is- among the capitalist states. This is not due to the lack of advanced medical technology or a shortage of trained medical professionals. This is due to the healthcare system being a  medicalindustrial complex a network of corporations which supply health care services and products for a profit. These low rankings are a direct result of this for-profit healthcare system which puts profits ahead of people’s needs. I want to be perfectly clear in what I am saying family- our need for reproductive justice, our need for actual remedies instead of band-aid healthcare,our need to be listened to when our bodies are in pain, our need for affordable mental health services, our need for thoroughly explained, consent only treatment, our need for humane medical treatment- CAN NOT happen as long this system exists because our needs are NOT CENTERED. We only fit the profit making bottom-line- in the richest country in the world.  But what can people centered healthcare look like?

A poor country like Cuba that is building socialism- no matter your personal view Cuba- has outstripped the United States in many areas of healthcare, most famously maternal and child health, but also in care for transgender people.

Rather than hoping prejudices would die out and historical inequalities would right themselves on their own, the Cuban people have the support of their own government to carry out proactive campaigns to resolve these issues and to guarantee people’s rights.

In 1989 the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) was founded, with the mission of improving sexual education and fighting for the rights of gender and sexual minorities within Cuba. Bringing together the various state and civil organizations, CENESEX has been responsible for programs to combat HIV/AIDS, creating education programs for contraception and sexual health, and in 2008 pushed for the adoption of a measure to provide trans people with hormone therapy and gender-affirming surgery as part of the free national health plan. It is through the efforts of the Cuban people, free to develop without the pressures of capitalist exploiters, that they have been able to take such a leading role in gender and sexual liberation.

I also want to highlight for a minute the criminalization of poor and working class people who seek social services because of the lack of resources capitalism provides our communities. On December 7, 2018, Jazmine Headley was attempting to get her child care benefits reinstated at the Human Resources Administration building in Brooklyn, NY. Waiting for hours, Headley sat on the floor with her 1-year old son. She was told to move by a security guard. After Headley declined to move, the security guard called the NYPD and escalated the conflict. The police arrived and attempted to arrest Headley while she was holding her son. During the arrest, the police violently separated Headley from her son. The police also used a taser to threaten Headley and bystanders who showed outrage and filmed.

Following the altercation, Headley was held at Rikers Island and charged with resisting arrest, obstructing governmental administration and trespassing. While at Rikers, it was discovered that she had an outstanding warrant for credit card fraud in New Jersey. New York City dropped all charges, after outrage from the community, but she was still being held at Rikers to address the warrant in New Jersey. Headley’s son was put in the care of his grandmother and an Order of Protection was put in place against Headley.

This profit driven capitalist system, once again, exerted its violent force on the working class. Many workers are forced to rely on government agencies to meet their needs due to the hyper exploitation and oppression as we see in the poorest and most oppressed communities. These agencies use state violence to force people to conform to its requirements. When we demand human decency and respect, we are instead met with contempt and violence. This was the case for Jazmine Headley who wanted to access child care benefits so that she can continue to work and provide for her family and she was attacked by the biggest armed gang in New York- the NYPD.

Having said this- what is the solution to all of this? Well there is a common answer that the media and politicians will try to have us believe – voting will get us the results we need. Congress is comprised of a majority anti-choice membership. In fact Fifty-three out of 100 senators in the U.S. Senate are anti-choice and 243 out of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are anti-choice on both sides of the aisle. It is clear that we cannot rely on the kindness of a politician to move women’s rights, queer rights, Trans rights and family rights forward. A woman has a right to choose when to get pregnant, how, and under what conditions. Everyone has a right to raise a family if they choose to.  Everyone has a right to have a child and receive whatever healthcare services they need to make that happen.

In 2017, Trump came into power in this anti-choice context, a reactionary period of an offensive against reproductive rights, against voting rights, against unions, which was going on for many years before Trump announced his running.  He has expanded the right-wing offensive against people’s rights. Our challenge in the midst of this coordinated offensive is to not only react but also get on the offensive and truly think about what we need to build a movement that can win.

I want to remind us all of what the lesser of two evil votes options gives us. Hillary Clinton is a great example. A woman politician- who endorsed the crime bill, welfare reform- policies that her husband Bill Clinton enacted allowed for the continued destruction of Black America. Current 2020 democratic presidential candidate- Bernie Sanders- endorsed this morally bankrupt candidate after asking us to “feel the Bern.” How can we rely on these system’s political system- with its goal being to uphold capitalism at all times- WE CAN NOT. We want to bring poor and working people into a movement that will not tell them to just vote.

In the words of Black radical fighter and civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer – “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” And I know if I am- you all must be too. It’s time to not only resist this system but be organized to forge a new one, a socialist one because our lives depend on it. That is what our conference is about today.

When our bodies are under attack, what do we do?
When our choice is under attack, what do we do?
When our lives are under attack, what do we do?

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