A Proactive Vision for Reproductive Health and Rights

More than 160 of the nation’s top reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates and legislative champions from across the country gathered in Washington, D.C. to share a vision and strategies for advancing reproductive health policy in every community across the United States.

“This year has been a battle. But not today! Today, we are going to explore strategies for a proactive agenda to secure access and services for women in our communities.” With those words, Lourdes Rivera, Senior Vice President of U.S. Programs at the Center for Reproductive Rights, kicked off the 2018 State Leadership Summit.

The Center held the first State Leadership Summit in 2015 to showcase promising legislative accomplishments taking place at the state and local level. Although allies from a range of reproductive rights organizations participate, the Summit focuses on equipping elected state officials to lead proactive policy development and secure passage from legislative bodies.

The 2018 Summit took place as a steady stream of headlines point to restrictive abortion laws being passed in state after state. The agenda, devised with contributions from the Leadership Advisory Council, included implementation of a number of recent legislative victories such as Maryland’s contraception bill, Oregon’s comprehensive health equity bill, and Illinois’ Medicaid coverage for abortion bill. But the Summit also provided space for frank testimony from women whose personal experience motivates their professional aspirations.

The Summit began with a panel on maternal health. Speakers detailed the state of maternal health in the United States, how values guide work on reproductive health, the importance of robust and diverse maternal mortality committees, and how to advocate for policies aligned with positive maternal health outcomes. Chanel Porchia-Albert of Ancient Song Doula Services provided a first-hand account of what a doula is and the physical and advocacy support doulas provide through a community-based model of care. “Community-based, full-spectrum doulas are not just addressing the whole person but going above and beyond to address social structures,” Porchia-Albert said. “We are the gatekeepers on the battlefield of life and death in the delivery room.”

Nan Strauss of Every Mother Counts pointed out that it’s not enough for policymakers to just hear women’s experiences — they have to really listen. Strauss cited the experience of Serena Williams who, despite being a wealthy world-famous athlete, had a maternal-health emergency and had to insist that a doctor take her concerns more seriously. While Wiliams eventually received the care she needed, argued Strauss, her case is indicative of a larger maternal health problem in the United States. Black women in the US are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications.

“What we hear in maternal mortality or severe maternal morbidity cases is women saying ‘I knew something was wrong but no one was listening.’ We need to make sure people are being heard and listening.”

In a political climate where visibility and representation matter, the Summit’s keynote speaker, Renitta Shannon of the Georgia House of Representatives, serves as an openly bisexual representative. In her remarks, Shannon chose to share her own abortion story. Coining the phrase “respectability politics,” Shannon offered that such a posture hurts everyone in the fight for reproductive justice. “Respectability politics is when you prioritize getting mainstream acceptance over fighting for and advocating for your group’s unique needs.” Shannon implored the audience to speak up: “We must eradicate the stigma of abortion by telling our stories.”

The Center’s Lourdes Rivera returned to end the day with a message of persistence. “We know that anti-abortion activists aren’t giving up,” Rivera said. “But we also know that we will never give up. The stakes are high, but we are persistent. We’ll keep persisting together and fighting back against unconstitutional attempts to restrict access.”

To get an inside look at the day, check out our online gallery of event photos.