Health as Social Justice

Loretta Ross of SisterSong

Loretta Ross of SisterSong

Yesterday, we had the pleasure and privilege of attending an amazing conversation on women’s health as a social justice issue. It was amazing in part because it took place among a large group of representatives of a wide range of diverse organizations, mostly based in Louisville, all concerned with one or more aspects of the complex, intersecting problems of women’s health, women’s rights, health equity or health justice, social justice, reproductive health and politics, along with emphases on dimensions like race, religion, and class.

The meeting, billed as a community conversation on health equity for women, was a joint project of the Kentucky Health Justice Network, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research, held in the main conference room of the Center for Women and Families. It made clear to the attendees just how much is already going on in the area of health, social justice, women’s rights, and equity in the state of Kentucky, and how much opportunity exists for concerted action and partnership.

Distinguished visitor Loretta Ross of SisterSong, Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, led off the conversation with a discussion of the history of her organization, its central organizing principles (1, a woman’s right to have a child; 2, a woman’s right not to have a child; 3, a woman’s right to parent the child(ren) she has), practices (drawn from the discipline of “re-evaluation counseling,” a form of discernment of the emotional subtexts at work in a political or practical decisionmaking context), and insights.

The conversation produced a number of lapidary insights. Ross’s discussion of the imperative of considering the total context in which women make decisions, including decisions about reproductive health and reproductive life — relationships inside and outside the family, the state of those relationships, finances and work and job security, housing and its expense and availability, insurance and the availability of health care, among other contextual aspects — highlighted the way discourse around women’s reproductive decisions so often treats these decisions in the abstract. Ross credited her organization’s adoption of a “human rights” framework, based on the International Declaration of Human Rights, as having clarified both the organization’s mission and provided a framework for an intentionally diverse coalition of groups representing women of color to pursue the goal of persuading people to work together for common purposes rather than to agree on everything. That was an intriguing notion (which, I confess, reminded me of Augustine’s description of the City of God!).

The issue of experience and unintentional exclusions arose. How do we keep from forgetting about all the people we aren’t, don’t talk with, don’t spend time with — ? Ross’s answer — you can’t have another person’s experience, but you can learn to pay attention to your own experience, and share that with others — in the end seems to work out to “paying attention”, and to remembering that my/our experience isn’t universal. (That is: there’s no quick fix or shortcut for this. It takes giving up the illusion of my/our own universality, over and over and over . . .)

But one of the last words was both most poignant and most imperative, and that was: if you care about women’s self-determination, you have to care about poverty. Poor people have fewer options. Justice and freedom that doesn’t reach “the least” is incomplete, and no place to stop.

[OK, not new . . . see e.g. Ex. 24:14-15, or James 2:15-16 & 5:4 . . . but worth being reminded of again and again.]

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