Human rights and reproductive justice with Loretta Ross
By Brynn Svenningsen
“I didn’t come out of the womb thinking I was going to be a professional feminist,” Loretta Ross said as she addressed the crowded Kilworth Chapel last Friday. Ross, a gender studies professor visiting from Hampshire College, presented a speech on reproductive justice and intersectional feminism. She spoke of reproductive justice from the heart and shared her related personal experiences in a thought-provoking hour-long speech.
An event on reproductive justice and intersectional feminism holds a lot of weight. Walking into an event like this can be quite intimidating, but Ross’s laid-back yet passionate lecture had the audience laughing and engaging, all while considering the deeper implications of what she was saying as soon as she set foot on the stage.
“She was such an engaging speaker. She possessed a certain balance in her speech that completely drew you in; half humorous quip, half poignant phrase. … Her speech as a whole was fantastic. She made you feel like you were just having a conversation, not being lectured. She made you feel comfortable and safe discussing a topic that many people have, and still do, shy away from, and she made it look easy,” audience member Chlöe Brew, a Puget Sound first-year, said of Ross.
To start the speech, Ross spoke of her qualifications to talk about an issue like this. She explained how her experience as a survivor of sexual assault was her first introduction to reproductive rights. Ross was not afforded the reproductive rights she now advocates for, and was forced to continue with an unwanted pregnancy. She was forced into a position where she alone was responsible for her child and was not given a choice in raising the child. This was quickly juxtaposed against Ross’s first experience with an abortion as she gained the reproductive right to abort a child during her college years. The importance of giving one a choice was a critical and highly emphasized part of the lecture. At one point, Ross stated that reproductive rights should focus on three critical aspects: a woman’s choice to have a child, a woman’s choice to not have a child, and lastly, a woman’s right to raise her children as she chooses.
Ross also dove into her explanation of human rights, which she separated into eight categories. While sharing some of these categories, Ross explained that all categories of human rights are connected. Ross made a connection between civil rights as one category of human rights to other categories like environmental rights, which she then connected back to reproductive rights. Ross spoke of reproductive justice as a way of stating that it is impossible to focus exclusively on one right when the success of protecting all human rights is extremely interconnected and co-dependent.
The majority of those at the event appeared to be women and it seemed that this could have been due to the event having the title of “feminism” or “reproductive rights” attached to it. While I understand the draw for women to see this event, I was honestly hoping for a more diverse turnout of Puget Sound students. Firstly, a lecture on reproductive justice touches on issues that include everyone, not just women. Secondly, the lecture itself lent itself to a broad discussion on the intersectionality of all human rights.
Ross revealed that even she wasn’t always a feminist or an expert on reproductive rights. She was at one point inexperienced with these ideas and the speech asked for those of all different comfort levels to take the time to simply engage with this topic.
“It was pretty female-dominated from what I saw. I think it’s always powerful to talk about something that affects you or the people you are working for. This event did that as it literally implicates everyone but I feel like men might not realize that yet so that’s why women came,” Associated Students of the University of Puget Sound (ASUPS) cultural consciousness programmer Naomi Schroeter said.
This event taught me as much about the importance of reproductive justice and intersectional feminism as the importance of open-minded engagement with it. Throughout the entire speech, Ross kept her discussion very personal. This seemed to be partly due to her desire to explain her deep connection to the topic, but additionally to present her ideas in a way where they would not be attacked. Ross explained that often reproductive justice rights are affected by people’s views and are not considered with an open mind. She shared her ideas with a clear disclaimer that they were her ideas and that others will think differently from her.
“The importance of a lecture on intersectional feminism/reproductive justice is important for any campus, but especially for UPS. If we want to claim that we are aware of the issues in society as a community, we need to bring individuals who can educate us. Part of the reason we’re in college is to learn and better ourselves and we all chose UPS because we thought this institution in particular would help us achieve that goal. If we want to be considered a place of higher learning/education we need to give people the opportunity to do so. We’re a majority liberal campus that wants to engage in activism and social movements, so we need to know what movements are out there,” student Chloe Brew said.
Ross reiterated the idea that the underlying problem with reproductive, and even more generally human rights, is that people are continually encroaching on each other’s right to make individual choices.
“It’s our job to keep expanding human rights instead of just limiting them,” Ross said as she neared the end of her speech.
After finishing her speech, a short period of questions and answers occurred and a University of Puget Sound student spoke to Ross about her relationship with a close friend who had different, even sexist moral beliefs. Since both of them are black students on campus, this student felt torn about having solidarity with him despite these beliefs. In her response, Ross expressed that one can only do so much to change another’s beliefs. She supported the student in working with those who shared her beliefs, and if she could not change her friend’s values, to still respect his right to have them.
“There are a lot of reasons to have an event like this. A big one is understanding how it intersects with so many other things. … I liked how Ross said, ‘If you are fighting for reproductive justice but are also not fighting to break down neoliberalism and to break down white supremacy than you are not for reproductive justice,’ because those are all things that are helping to uphold the barriers to access to healthcare, and access to abortion, and to sexual education,” Schroeter said.