Why social workers should care about reproductive justice

12 Dec

After mulling over future career options, I decided to take a break from the reproductive health world and go back to school. This fall I began a Masters of Social Work program in Boston and am working with elders in public housing. Each day I am reminded about the resilience and humanity inherent in each of us. To me, social work means that I have the luxury of not forgetting that we are all capable of extraordinary things. I am loving it.

I chose clinical social work for varied reasons: I wanted do work organized through a justice-oriented lens, assist people to navigate complicated systems, and shift power. I also (more selfishly) wanted a job not in an office where I could talk to people all day. But I worried that I would miss reproductive health. When I made the change, I was concerned about leaving my community, identity as an activist, and work I was passionate about.

Luckily, that hasn’t happened.

One of the first things a budding social worker learns is that, like many professions, we have our ownCode of Ethics. It’s fairly detailed and encompasses a lot, from being a competent and professional practitioner to an obligation to engage in relevant social and political action. Reading through the Code, I was struck by how relevant and similar the principles were to my values as a reproductive justice activist. There is an emphasis on social justice, yes, but also on human dignity, respect, and client self-determination.

In the reproductive justice and abortion access world, I advocate over and over again for people to be able to make their own decisions. Reproductive justice means fighting for people to be able to parent or not to parent and being able to make that decision with dignity and respect; it also includes pushing for logistical, financial, and legal availability of services in order for people to be able to make those decisions. It means acknowledging systems of oppression that disproportionately impact people on the ground, policymakers, myself, and the organizations and communities I work in and for. It is also a commitment to fight to overturn those systems.

Social work follows those same principles. It mandates understanding individuals within the context of their environment and working for multi-level change. I think that this is why I have felt at home in the profession, at least so far. Social work values are reproductive justice values.

The problem is that not all social workers are familiar with reproductive justice issues and how they affect clients. For example, a social worker working with a low-income mom who is putting off paying her rent to pay for her abortion might not understand why the mom is taking that course of action. Similarly, a well-meaning social worker might be the person who reports a client’s abortion self-induction attempt as child endangerment, or who questions a mom’s decision to have another child when she is struggling to feed her existing children.

Each of these situations are difficult to navigate, and it’s up to social workers to avoid getting bogged down with personal or political feelings. No matter how we feel about abortion, welfare, or parenting, we can’t make that decision for someone else. It’s of critical importance to reflect on the Code of Ethics when thinking about clients’ reproductive health decision-making. We need to meet people where they are and understand and support their decisions. If we don’t, we are working within an oppressive system and not against it.

This being said, I am optimistic that social workers will tackle reproductive justice issues in the context of the Code of Ethics. Social workers are in unique positions to advocate for clients, so I also hope that other reproductive health/justice advocates will invite us to the table. We have a lot to say and an obligation to say it. Don’t be afraid to call on us or call us out.

I am looking forward to seeing more social workers included in conversations about reproductive justice and health care access, and I’m excited about navigating my dual roles as an activist and a brand new professional. I am thankful that I have learned so much working in abortion access that I can carry over to my new career. I know my activism will make me a better social worker, and my social work will make me a better activist. I am looking forward to where this journey takes me and what I will learn next.

To learn more about social work/reproductive justice issues, you should check out Social Workers for Reproductive Justice.

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