New efforts to criminalize substance use and pregnancy repeat racist history

My latest article for Colorlines is about the new efforts to criminalize pregnant women for substance abuse. Sadly these kinds of efforts are not new, nor are they actually helping moms or kids.

The main problem with these kinds of stories, and prosecutions, is they do nothing to address the very real substance abuse and addiction issues facing many people in the United States today. Despite decades of incredible spending and increased incarceration in response to the war on drugs, addiction and substance abuse continue. Some policy makers have acknowledged this reality and begun looking for a different ways to address substance abuse. “We’ve really tried to reframe drug policy not as a crime but as a public health-related issue, and that our response on the national level is that we not criminalize addiction,” said Michael Botticelli, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “We want to make sure our response and our national strategy is based on the fact that addiction is a disease.”

There is no evidence that incarcerating women who use drugs during pregnancy will do anything to improve their health, or their children’s health. In fact, these criminalizations actually worsen the health of the newborn, and make access to appropriate drug treatment for the mom unlikely. Mallory Loyola, the woman charged under the Tennessee law, was in jail for at least three days before being released on bond, just two days after giving birth, during which her child was in custody of Child Protective Services. Kylee Sunderlin of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), an organization that works closely with women charged under these types of laws, explained that when a baby is diagnosed with what’s called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome—or, the constellation of symptoms that reflects substance exposure inutero—established treatments for it include skin to skin contact with the mother and breastfeeding. That treatment is next to impossible if the mother is incarcerated and her child is in state custody.

Read the full thing here.


On the 10th Anniversary of the March for Women’s Lives

Via NLIRH facebook page

Today marks ten years since the major March for Women’s Lives, held in Washington DC on April 25, 2004. While I wasn’t yet part of the reproductive rights/justice movement in any paid capacity, I was at that March, and my presence there set in motion much of what I’ve done in the ten years since.

I attended along with a group of maybe 100 students from my college in Pennsylvania. That semester I was super involved with feminist and pro-choice organizing on campus, helping to lead two groups, one of which coordinated a school bus full of Swatties (the nickname for students from Swarthmore College) to head down to DC for the march.

It was my first big political rally or march, and it had a huge impact on me. I remember reaching the mall and seeing the hundreds of thousands (reportedly close to a million people attended that day) of people there, and being overtaken by the fact of being surrounded by so many likeminded people. I even ran into a high school friend who I didn’t know would be there, but had come up from North Carolina for the march as well. It was one of the first times I palpably felt like I was part of something approximating a movement–something that was much bigger than me and my small campus organizing.

But the biggest thing about the March that shaped the last decade of my life were the bilingual signs that I saw dotting the crowd. I was so excited to discover a Latina presence, and to see signs in both my native languages. I had never heard of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health before, but I was glad to know that someone represented the cross-section of my identities and interests. I bought a bright yellow t-shirt that day that read “salud, dignidad, justicia.” Two years later I would move to New York City and start my first post-college job working with them as an organizer–and if it weren’t for that March I’m not sure I ever would have known they existed.

Learning about NLIRH led to more than just a job–it led to learning about a movement, and a framework, that felt like home. Reproductive justice has helped me connect the dots between all of my identities and the issues I care about. It’s helped me see what it means to center the experiences of the people in my communities, and other communities who are most impacted by the struggles we face. It helped me see that there was a world beyond my own campus organizing, which I eventually left after just one semester, partially because of burn out, but also because most of those involved were white and straight, and it just didn’t feel like the right place for me.

Years after the March I learned that behind the scenes, the organizing was fraught with what I’ve come to know as typical battles: struggles between the groups with the most resources and visibility, usually white led, and the smaller groups with less resources, usually led by women of color. While I felt a sense of unity and collective power at attending the March, I know now that the dynamics we’re often working to confront show up within our organizing as well. It’s been tough to see so much of that firsthand in the last ten years, but it’s also simply a testament to the ways power and privilege operate as incredibly entrenched dynamics even within progressive organizing.

While it’s been a challenging place to call home, I remain grateful for discovering this community, this framework, this vision for what might be possible. It’s hard to imagine where I’d be without it.

Remarks from SQUATfest: Birth activism as part of the movement for reproductive justice

In early August I had the honor of speaking at the SQUATfest conference. It was a first of its kind gathering that brought together doulas, midwives and other birth activists interested in radical politics. It didn’t have a central theme, but I knew that it was going to be a unique space.

I gave the talk below to the attendees on the morning of the second day. I have a lot more to say about the gathering, and the topics I addressed below, which I’ll do in follow up posts. Makeda Kamara gave an absolutely earth-shattering and life-altering keynote address the following day. I don’t believe that it was recorded, but if you ever have a chance to read Makeda’s writing or see her speak, you have to do it. She has incredible wisdom about midwifery, as well as racial justice movements in the US and abroad.

The gathering was inspiring, but it was also another reminder that there is much work left to do, even within the “radical” parts of our movement, particularly around questions of racial justice and dealing with white privilege.


The reason I started my blog, Radical Doula, in 2007, was because I couldn’t imagine a room like this one existing. I had been a doula for a few years, and as my own identity and politics developed, I looked around me and felt alone.

I felt alone as a queer and genderqueer person. I felt alone as a Cuban-American, a Latina, a child of immigrants. I felt alone as a reproductive justice activist and someone who supported access to abortion as well as access to homebirth and midwives. I felt alone as someone who approached my work as a doula as social justice activism.

I remember one of the first, possibly the very first, conversation I had with another doula who felt similarly. Christy Hall, who is here today, and I met at a reproductive justice conference, and the memory of crouching in the corner with her, infant in arms, talking about being doulas with radical politics is seared in my brain.

So very much has changed since that first conversation all those years ago. The fact that this gathering is happening at all is a major testament to that change.

Needless to say, I no longer feel alone. Instead I’m in awe of the incredible growth in the doula movement, and particularly in the movement of doulas who see their work as part of a broader social justice vision. For so many of us, this work isn’t just about improving a few select people’s experiences with pregnancy and birth–it’s about changing the systems altogether.

This is no easy task. And while the growth and expansion of the doula movement is really good news in many ways, it also presents its own unique challenges.

What I wanted to talk about today is how I see our work as birth activists as part of the broader reproductive justice movement.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, reproductive justice is a movement that was established by women of color in the reproductive rights movement who wanted a framework through which to see their organizing that better mirrored the lives of the people in their communities. It’s an intersectional framework that acknowledges the complexity of people’s lives and the many issues that affects them.

One way I describe it is building a world where everyone has what they need to create the family that they want to create.

While abortion still tends to most of the attention in this work, I think birth workers, are also perfectly suited to be part of this movement and to utilize the framework to support our own efforts.

So what does it really mean to understand our work as doulas, or midwives, or birth activists, as part of the movement for reproductive justice?

First it means we put at the center of our work those who face the most challenges.

Continue reading

Reflections from the Strong Families Summit

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Strong Families Summit, hosted by Forward Together, a group I’ve worked with as a consultant over the last year or so.

My role with their work has been strategy and media outreach for their mama’s day campaigns. I’ve written about those two efforts here and here, but this last one was a particularly fulfilling success, the e-card tool we created was used almost 5000 times.

The summit was my first chance to be in person with their coalition partners, a vast group of organizations who have signed on to be part of the Strong Families initiative.

What I like about their work is the attempt to build a big tent that can hold all of the issues that impact the health and well-being of families. While centered on a reproductive justice frame, the work goes even broader than that, encompassing many issues that I feel are central to my political vision. Everything from birth activism to LGBT families to environmental concerns to racial justice. Reproductive justice can hold all of this as well, but something about using language that seems even bigger is powerful to me. We need a big tent–we need a broad vision for how we’re going to achieve our goals.

The organization also relies on a practice called Forward Stance, which in very simple terms is a mind/body practice that grounds their work as organizers and advocates. The video below explains the practice in more detail.

In my work as a doula, and in our work as support people, I’ve been thinking a lot about the integration of mind and body. I know for me, as a writer, it can be a struggle to leave the realm of thinking and be more connected to the realm of feeling. But I also know that in my work as a doula, it’s not often that thinking really guides my work. It’s often something much less mental, and more intuitive. It’s also often more about presence and physically being there with someone than it is about intellect and thinking. I’m excited by the potential to bring the physical and spiritual into our work in social justice, to bring us closer to ourselves and each other. Last week was my first time trying the practice.

For more about Forward Together and the Strong Families Initiative, go here.

A message for lawmakers

This poem really hit me hard. What a true message, what an amazing reveal of the emptiness of all of these rules, that say you can’t do this, or you must do that, but leave pregnant and parenting people high and dry in the times that really matter.

I’m struck these days by just how political this whole business of reproduction is. It’s always been this way, but this is the first time in my short political memory that it has been so wholly the focus of political attention. How many hours, how many millions of dollars have gone into this project? This nasty project of turning bodies into politics and health into controversy.

In my post from yesterday I talked about how no person should be criminalized for failing to guarantee a healthy pregnancy outcome. When I say “criminalized” I don’t just mean going to jail, I also mean subjected to demeaning and non-medically based practices and procedures. What are these rules if not punishment?

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the decision that gave single women access to contraception. Maybe when we realize that it was only 40 years ago that we gained the right to control our fertility regardless of marital status, we’ll understand why we’re fighting these battles today.

The California Pregnant and Parenting Youth Guide

I’ve written before about the problem with teen pregnancy programming that relies on stigma.

Cover of new guide called "California Pregnant and Parenting Youth Guide"

Well here is an amazing alternative that shows what a true educational tool that provides resources looks like, the California Pregnant and Parenting Youth Guide.

Awesome! The guide is online and available in downloadable form. It’s in Spanish and English. It talks about options for pregnant teens (like abortion and adoption) without any of the scary shaming stuff about how if you choose to have a child it will end up in prison because you are a teen. It talks about resources, insurance programs, how crisis pregnancy centers are anti-choice. It talks about immigration! It’s written at a level teens can understand. It talks about legal rights for teens and parents, issues with custody, tips for parenting. There are cartoons!

Okay, obviously I’m super psyched about this. Cause I am. This is what all teens need. Keep your stigma, and provide resources instead.

The only criticism I can provide is that they don’t talk about birth options in terms of doulas or midwives. But otherwise? Incredible.

You can view the guide and download it here.

Why it’s time for us to reclaim “values”

I just got off the phone with a reporter working on an article about religion and spirituality in connection to home birth. Our conversation got me going, particularly when she told me of the Christian midwife who said that she doesn’t think pro-choice people should be doulas or midwives. That it’s a contradiction to work with birth and hold pro-choice beliefs. It makes my blood boil.

People often assume that radical politics go hand in hand with atheism, or a rejection of religious beliefs. The Religious Right in this country has furthered that idea by claiming the realm of religion, of God, of spirituality even, as their own. They promote the idea that being religious means certain things about your political beliefs and actions.

My doula work is about providing non-judgemental support to a person during pregnancy. Period. Just like I don’t bring my judgements about how the birth should happen, what tools should be used, or even how or when the pregnancy should happen, I don’t bring my judgements about the choices the pregnant person makes about their pregnancy.

I know that many of you who identify as radical doulas bring a sense of spirituality to your work, and I want us to claim that. I want us to reject the idea that radical politics (which, by the way, in an ideal world wouldn’t be so damn radical) are inherently atheist, or anti-religion, or anti-spiritual. Inherent in that rejection is that we get to claim, rightfully, that a belief in God or some sort of higher power doesn’t go hand in hand with anti-choice views. Anyone who studies the Bible, the Old Testament, knows that the beliefs that the Religious Right holds up as so clear, so self-evident, are not. It’s all about interpretation.

I want us to talk about values. I hold dearly the fact that my VALUES as a doula are based in the principle of non-judgmental support. My values are that I don’t know what is best for anyone but myself, and as a doula I serve folks during pregnancy by remembering that, always, and simply searching for the best way to validate and support someone’s experience.

I wholeheartedly reject the idea that family values are based in principles of hatred, discrimination, non-acceptance and judgement. Those are the anti-choice, anti-sex, anti-woman and anti-gay family values are being promoted in the US.

I’ve got my own version of family values—helping people build the families they want to create, however they define family, in the most loving and supportive environment possible. My family values include empowering every family member to make decisions about what’s best for them—whether those decisions are about how to dress, when and how to begin romantic relationships, how to be sexual, what to do when they are pregnant, what pronouns to use, damn even what food to eat every day. Again, I don’t know what’s best for anyone but myself. My values center on creating an environment where everyone can make the absolute best, educated and supported decisions about their lives.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a shit ton of opinions. I’m a blogger! But my opinions stop where your choices begin. I can express them from here til kingdom come, but YOU know what’s best for you. Period.

I’m sick of the left being painted as rational or logical but values-less. That’s complete and total bullshit. I’ve got an incredible set of values right here, and I think you do too. We just need to start talking about them.

Birth(ing) Justice

At the most recent Sistersong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective conference in Miami, I heard a number of midwives and doulas talking about birth(ing) justice. A few people called it birth justice, others called it birthing justice.

The articulations of what this term means vary from person to person, but I understand it as a way to frame our work for a better culture of birth and reproduction within an intersectional politics.

I’m really excited about the people behind these movements. Similar to the history of reproductive justice, it seems birth(ing) justice is being pushed and developed by women of color in the birth activist community. Three groups that I connected with in Miami connected to this birth(ing) justice work: Mobile Midwife in Miami, Florida, Black Women Birthing Justice in Oakland, California and Black Women Birthing Resistance in Atlanta, Georgia.

All three have different focuses, different projects, different collaborators–but seem to share a vision for centering birth work in the context of social justice, while centering the experiences of marginalized populations.

I am beyond overjoyed to see such energy around birth activism, in particular by and for women of color. Also to see birth activism articulated within a much broader political framework is exactly why I started Radical Doula over four years ago–because I felt alone in my politics and passion for changing the culture of birth.

I am so glad to be able to say that I am no longer alone.

More information after the jump about each group.

Continue reading

Help a radical doula with her dissertation research

An awesome doula and activist who I had the pleasure of meeting last year, Monica Brasile, is working on her doctoral research about the doula community. She’s looking for folks to take 20 minutes to fill out her survey.

I hope you will participate in my study about doulas. I am a practicing childbirth educator and doula, midwifery activist, and graduate student in the department of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa.

I am currently doing research for my doctoral dissertation about the role of doulas in the culture of the childbirth and reproductive justice movements in the U.S. I invite you to take my survey to help bring attention to the exciting work that doulas are involved in! All doulas are invited to participate.

I am particularly interested in the work of those who identify as radical or full spectrum doulas, and those doing community-based or volunteer work.

Link to survey here!

Celebrating Mama’s Day

This year I’m working with the folks at the Strong Families Initiative on their Mama’s Day campaign. Mama’s Day is about turning mother’s day around and focusing on the moms in our communities who often get left out of the celebrations, particularly young moms, immigrant moms, queer moms and low-income moms. Not only do these mamas often not get love on mother’s day–in today’s political climate, they get scapegoated and targeted.

As doulas, our work is just that: to provide love and support to all the mamas we work with, regardless of who they are or what phase of pregnancy they are in. That’s why I support this campaign.

We’ve also got a ton of blog posts from these Mama’s here, as well as some beautiful images like the one below to show your support to the mamas in your life.

Babies need love, Moms do too. Tell an immigrant mom, "I stand with you."

Check out the campaign on facebook and twitter to learn more.