On May 26, 2016, Human Rights in Childbirth held the second HRiC US Summit in Los Angeles, California. Activists and legal advocates from the nation’s leading reproductive justice and maternal health consumer advocacy groups convened for one day to share stories and information about the human rights concerns facing their communities as well as their strategies for solving those problems. The Summit worked through the day to develop the draft for a Consensus Statement on the human rights of birthing people in US maternity care, focusing on calls to action for ensuring that every pregnant person’s rights are respected and upheld in pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum. HRiC Executive Director Hermine Hayes-Klein gave the following speech to welcome the assembly at the start of the day.
Human Rights in Childbirth takes a human rights approach to solving entrenched dysfunctions and abuses in maternity care. We do so by elevating the voices of grassroots activists working to improve maternity care at the local level in cities and nations around the world, and by supporting their work with legal advocacy to ensure that birthing people’s human rights are legal rights that are enforced and protected in policy and practice. We are still at the beginning of this work, and there is a long way to go, because women’s human rights are violated with impunity during childbirth in most nations around the world. One of the ways that we pursue our mission is to organize summits and conferences like this, to bring together the lawyers, healthcare providers, community activists, and policy-makers working to advance human rights in childbirth at the regional level, in order to facilitate knowledge exchange and ongoing advocacy collaborations.
This is our second US Summit; the first was in 2013, where I met many of you for the first time. The focus of that Summit was the legal treatment of home birth midwives in the USA, and understanding how their persecution shaped women’s healthcare options and treatment in childbirth. This, our second US Summit, will focus on reproductive justice, and the intersection of race, sex, gender, and history in where US maternity care currently stands.
We all want to see a healthcare system, and a maternity care system, that is equitable, accessible, just, and non-violent. The challenge we face in creating that in the U.S. is the challenge that faces our nation generally. How do we help this nation move closer toward its constitutional commitment to liberty, equality, and justice, when the nation was constructed on a rotten foundation of genocide and slavery, which never exist without patriarchy?
This question has plagued me all my adult life. When I was a 19 year old college sophomore, I decided to write my college thesis on rape and the law. As I came into my own identity as a woman and into the enjoyment of my sexuality, I needed to understand how all women’s lives are circumscribed by the threat of sexual violence, and why the Department of Justice estimated that 3% of rapes end up with convictions. This meant that a rapist has a 97% chance of getting away with it—how could this still be the case, at the turn of the millennium? So I started reading. And what I quickly found was that I would not be able to write about rape in American law without writing about race. Historically, conviction for rape only really happened when a man’s property value in a female was violated through the rape. If you were daddy’s little virgin, and your daddy had power, and your daddy wasn’t the rapist, maybe you could get something like justice. But once a woman left the boundaries of what she was allowed to be, sexually—by where she went, what she wore, whether she drank, or whatnot—the law would refuse to enforce her right to bodily autonomy, so it was open season on her sexually. But for black women, there was no justice from the justice system. The nation’s economy was built upon the rape and exploitation of women of color. And if there was one circumstance in which men were falsely accused of rape, speedily convicted, and murderously punished, it was when the man was black, and the woman he was accused of touching was white.
So here was race at the heart of sexual violence and the law in the U.S. past and present. I did not feel qualified to understand and write about this complexity. So I was paralyzed on this paper for two years, reading but not writing, until I found my way to writing a paper about the role of empathy in this question, why do only 3% of rapes end up in convictions. Because another thing I found was that the words of the judges who wrote about rape showed that they ruled for whomever they empathized or identified with, something I have continued to find true in many areas of law to this day. It was easier for white male judges to identify with a man accused of rape, if that man was white, than with a woman who had been raped. Their perspective on the case was to ask, “How would I feel if I were accused?” instead of “How would I feel if I were raped?” People are generally comfortable identifying with, and empathizing with, those who have as much or more power than they do, and most people resist imagining themselves in the shoes of those who have less power than they do. So this conviction rate wouldn’t change, I concluded, until the fact-finders and decision-makers were people who could empathize with the victims of sexual violence, whether because they were “like” those victims in some way that enabled identification, or because they have the imagination that enables us to empathize with other peoples’ experiences, even if we haven’t had those experiences or those people don’t look like us.
Years passed, and I turned my attention back to sexual violence in the form of the disrespect and abuse of women in pregnancy and childbirth. I started this work while I was teaching international law in The Hague, grounded in the global community, in 2011 and 12. Then I came back to the U.S. and started to learn more about what is happening in maternity care here. And what did I discover, again? That the problem of universal justice in this area could not be addressed without facing the racial injustice at its heart. U.S. maternity care is a broken system. Birthing people’s rights to autonomy, privacy, and freedom from discrimination are routinely violated across the board. And then there’s this: black women are 3-4 times more likely to die in childbirth, and 3-4 times more likely to see their babies die. So how can we address the problems facing all women until we address the problems facing black women? We can’t. We must understand the experiences and address the needs of the most vulnerable communities in order to ensure that human rights are an accessible reality for all. That is what we are here to do today. To listen to each other, to learn from each other, and to hold hands in ensuring that no person is left behind as we work in solidarity to advance universal human rights for all.
The Black Lives Matter activist Ta-Nahesi Coates wrote an article on the parallels between that movement and the pursuit of justice for sexual violence, that applies also to our work for birth justice. He wrote, “Criminals flourish when no credible system exists to adjudicate the claims of their victims. Much like it is impossible to understand the killing of Tamir Rice as murder without some study of racism, it is impossible to imagine Bill Cosby as a rapist without understanding the larger framework. Rape is systemic. And like all systems of brutality it does not exist merely at the pleasure of its most direct actors. It depends on a healthy host-body of people willing to look away.
“It is always particularly painful to see those who have been victimized by a habitual looking away to then turn around and do it themselves. But what it illustrates is that the line between victim and victimizer is largely circumstantial. There was always some number of black men who invoked Trayvon Martin’s name simply because he was a black male, simply because it could have been them. ”It could be me” is a fine starting place for confronting the evils of the world, but a really poor conclusion. If no broader theory of sympathy and humanism emerges beyond one’s mean particularism, then all we really are left with are tribalism and power. … There is no virtue in being kicked in the face. The virtue is all in what you do after.”
As Mamas of Color Rising’s history and identity exercises will show us today, we are all carrying genetic memories as victim and victimizer. We have all been kicked in the face. So what do we do after? We tell the truth about what we have experienced. We listen to each other and we believe each other’s stories. We call out the disrespect, abuse, and discriminatory treatment of women in childbirth as the violation of those women’s human and legal rights. And we envision what the world will look like, and what maternity care will look like, when all human rights are respected. We draw the road map to get there.
Today will be Step One in drawing that road map. This Summit offers a chance for us together to truth-tell about what is happening in US maternity care and to call for the actions needed to transform the system and end inequity. Then there will still be much work to do. We will turn our record of what we discuss today into a document that can be used by anybody working to make these rights a reality. We will develop toolkits for the implementation of these calls to action. And then we will do the work of implementing this vision, in all our settings. In solidarity for our common values, even as we each tend to a wide and diverse variety of particular applications.
Thank you to the heroes and national leaders who journeyed here to do this collaborative work, though any of you could teach the rest of us all day and it would be time well spent. Each of you holds the stories of hundreds, if not thousands, of women who have given birth in the United States. We stand together for them, and for all the women whose stories haven’t yet been told, to demand justice for each and every pregnant person navigating her and her baby’s healthcare needs in the United States. It is a big responsibility, and one that I know we all take seriously. In the spirit of that responsibility, humility, service, and love, we step into this day together, and together we will change the world.