How is faith called to advocate for reproductive and sexual justice?


Revs. Alisha Lola Jones and Calvin Taylor Skinner explore faith’s role in reproductive and sexual justice for Black women.

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Recently, at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in San Antonio, several activists, lawyers, pastors and scholars gathered for a forum to strategize in response to the Dobbs decision and its effect on reproductive justice. The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision was a landmark ruling that not only overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey but also ignited a firestorm of debates, protests, and cultural shifts. In stripping away fundamental abortion rights in the United States, the Dobbs decision was a startling reminder of the constant tension between religious beliefs and reproductive rights.

Reproductive justice, reproductive and sexual justice, abortion access, Roe v. Wade, Black motherhood, Black maternal health, Black maternal morbidity, Black maternal mortality, theGrio.comReproductive justice, reproductive and sexual justice, abortion access, Roe v. Wade, Black motherhood, Black maternal health, Black maternal morbidity, Black maternal mortality, theGrio.com

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Asked to moderate the panel, Rev. Alisha hesitated, less than energized by what seemed to be yet another opportunity to do the invisible, emotional labor of interracial social justice work alongside white women. At such a crucial moment in history, her priority was investigating the life circumstances and lack of options Black women frequently face without the stigma plaguing Black women’s sexual lives.

Thankfully, she nevertheless answered the call.

As experts from various racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds began to share their perspectives at the AAR conference, Dr. Toni Bond of the Collective Power for Reproductive Justice and Ms. Marsha Jones of The Afiya Center specified exactly what’s at stake for Black women in the ongoing conversation about reproductive justice. Evoking a womanist praxis that values resources found in storytelling, women’s stories were shared of navigating pregnancies at 12 and 16 years old, struggling to comprehend church homes that ridiculed them while leaving the men who impregnated them unscathed. One attendee divulged an all-too-common story of being “sat down” in her church while the father of her child was permitted to continue to preach from that same church’s pulpit.

As faith leaders, our response to stories like these — and the larger issues they reflect — are sorely needed. We believe faith can bring hope and empowerment in addressing these matters; however, even from our perspective as pastors, we confess the Black faith community has fallen short in removing the stigmas associated with this topic. Only recently have religious public figures even begun to disclose their reproductive and sexual justice stories.

Earlier this month, there was cause for celebration when gospel recording artist Kierra Sheard-Kelly and her husband, Jordan Kelly, welcomed their first child — especially because the road to growing their family wasn’t smooth or direct. Sheard-Kelly confronted the aforementioned stigma head-on after divulging at a conference in May 2022 a decision she felt compelled to make due to complications with previous pregnancies. She experienced two miscarriages — or what some medical activists call “spontaneous abortions” — one of which occurred while on tour and was navigated through life-saving surgery by a woman physician who listened to Sheard-Kelly’s concerns and provided a safe and timely space for her to use medical wisdom.

In telling her story, Sheard-Kelly was intentional, using language that destigmatized reproductive justice while sharing her logic and ethics with her theologically conservative fanbase. In her view, the procedure that saved her life is at risk of being discontinued due to Roe v. Wade’s reversal. As COGIC and gospel music family royalty, Sheard-Kelly’s testimony is potentially persuasive; many fans have watched her grow up before our eyes, granting us a sense of familiarity and protectiveness.

Thankfully, Sheard-Kelly found safety in wise medical counsel, which, as reflected in Proverbs 11:14, preserved her life and prepared her for a viable pregnancy. Though not all women will have or are even pursuing the same outcome, far too many women do not explore their options, fearing inadequate or judgmental counsel from those whose true role is to dispassionately and skillfully center our needs. However, faith urges us to craft a team that keeps our best interests in mind.

In what ways does our faith call to us to maintain and fight for our bodily rights?

Is there more room needed to expand perspectives on reproductive and sexual justice, especially when it comes to African-American women?

We will miss an opportunity to truly move this conversation forward if we do not decolonize our approach. While white spaces center abortion access and contraceptives, African-American women have always faced barriers to accessing those services. A genuinely inclusive approach to reproductive and sexual justice issues calls us to equally center matters that affect Black mothers’ mortality, morbidity, HIV/AIDS prevention and management, and even the parameters for Black women to maintain agency in their own pleasure.

Positions on reproductive and sexual justice are not monolithic, offering nuanced approaches to issues of reproductive and sexual justice. For Black women leaders, the call to respond to the Dobbs decision goes beyond ideological lines. It demands grappling with complex moral questions about the sanctity of life, bodily autonomy, and social justice that are situated in colonial legacies of chattel slavery in which Black people’s bodies were not our own but considered property, with no protections or autonomy upheld in the law. Due to structural racism, many in our community (namely women) are faced with making dire decisions about our bodies or for the sake of our families — not out of luxury, but out of necessity. We are literally dealing with life-or-death issues. And so, Black women must prioritize and speak for themselves in these intercultural and interracial conversations as they open up space for a more inclusive and empathetic dialogue.

When affluent women like Sheard-Kelly, Beyoncé and Serena Williams are at risk of dying while giving birth, we cannot simply point to Black families in lower economic strata as the most vulnerable. There is a critical cry and call to elevate our understanding and embrace, as expressed in John 10:10: “I came that, you may have life and have it abundantly.”

This text not only empowers us to be uplifted spiritually but also to accept that life lived to the utmost is a moral mandate, meaning neither spiritual nor physical existence should be impeded by structural barriers. With the tools and knowledge humanity has obtained to date, this should be realized — and in these intense contexts, faith and spirituality can provide valuable perspectives on sharing our stories within reason, with courage and vigilance. Faith can call us to emphasize empathy, compassion, understanding, and amplification of the disenfranchised in our discussions about reproductive and sexual justice. We can be mindful of the values of justice, equity, and dignity for all individuals, regardless of their reproductive choices.

As Jones of The Afiya Center urged, the conversation about reproductive and sexual justice should expand beyond the focus on abortion alone. Though the Dobbs decision has had a profound impact on abortion rights, it also draws attention to persistent, systemic concerns about reproductive health issues, including access to contraception, comprehensive sex education, and the right to make choices about one’s own body and sexual expression. Actual agency in reproductive justice includes acknowledging and celebrating the importance of sexuality and pleasure as essential aspects of the human experience.

These values are at the core of the Black women-led Collective Power for Reproductive Justice, an organization dedicated to addressing reproductive, racial, and economic injustice, and emphasizes the importance of centering those most affected by reproductive oppression. Spiritually, this approach resonates with many faith traditions that call us to prioritize the well-being and dignity of all individuals, especially those who have been historically marginalized or silenced.

At the close of AAR’s convening, we were reminded that the call to justice transcends ideological boundaries, instead inviting us to work together to create a society where everyone’s rights and dignity are honored.

The moral demand of spirit-led and justice-minded people to fill the gap and rectify the systems that create the socioeconomic and ideological dilemmas we face is critical. Within faith circles, the efforts to decolonize our faith also challenge those who maintain and benefit from the status quo to engage in frontline efforts to address policy and wellness training for healthcare providers in hopes of reforming our methods of serving one another in these tough moments. Simply put, it’s time for mainline faith leaders to put hearts, money and minds where the sacred text outlines what it means to facilitate life and prosperity, from the cradle to the grave.

In the Creator of the universe,

Bearing all attributes of justice and all attributes of Mother-being

May we find greater ease in the care of our communities capable of embracing our sense of what’s best for our lives and the lives we are creating.

May we have the courage and strength to dismantle all barriers that don’t bring about peace in reproduction and sexual justice. 

For without justice, there is no peace. 

Amen


Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones is a faith leader helping people to find their groove in a fast-paced world, as a consultant for various arts and faith organizations and professor of music in contemporary societies at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England. She is an award-winning author of Flaming? The Peculiar Theopolitics of Fire and Desire in Black Male Gospel Performance (Oxford University Press). For more information, please visit DrAlisha.com.

Rev. Calvin Taylor Skinner is dedicated to empowering frontline communities in Knoxville, Tenn. and the United Kingdom. He uses Faith and Policy to address energy justice, criminal justice reform, voter education/mobilization, electoral politics, and global affairs. Along with his wife, Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones, they lead InSight Initiative, a consulting firm focusing on capacity building and live events production.

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