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“If/When/How” Event Week Kicks Off with Discussion on Reproductive Justice

February 27, 2020

Dr. Sekile Nzinga-Johnson stands against a background of slatted wood. She is smiling and wearing a black blazer.
Dr. Sekile Nzinga-Johnson

By Shanice Harris

Student organization “If/When/How” kicked off its annual event week with a talk on reproductive justice on February 10. Dr. Sekile Nzinga-Johnson, director of the Women’s Center and a lecturer in Gender & Women’s Studies at Northwestern University, spoke about the history of reproductive violence in the United States.

 “If/When/How” is a national organization working to transform law and policy around reproduction justice, with chapters in law schools across the country. The kickoff event was part of a week of campaigns to raise awareness around sexual health and women’s issues. This included a presentation on the decriminalization of sex work by Liz Velek, the education outreach coordinator for Sex Workers Outreach Project Chicago, and a panel co-hosted by organizers at American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood Illinois, Midwest Access Coalition, and Chicago Abortion Fund. It culminated with a screening of The Naked Truth: Death by Delivery, a short documentary on the rising rates of black maternal mortality.

“Our goal for this week was to highlight for law students that the reproductive justice movement is not just about abortion rights and access, which are hugely important, but also encompasses issues like black maternal mortality and the criminalization of sex work and other problems that inhibit women and trans women from making important decisions about their bodies,” said Terah Tollner (JD ’21), one of the student organizers. “It is important as future lawyers that we recognize the limits of the law, and the ways that marginalized folks, particularly women of color, are often left behind in a rights-based approach.”

Nzinga-Johnson began her presentation by posing a question: “How has your family or community experienced reproduction oppression?” One student said that topics surrounding sex were off limits in her high school. “[Sex education] was taught by our baseball coach,” she joked. Nzinga-Johnson seconded those sentiments, noting that “people are not getting the information that they need.”

Nzinga-Johnson shared the history of reproductive violence in the United States, including the practice of Eugenics (selecting certain genetics as an ideal) and sterilizing those who were not deemed “ideal” or “desirable”. Before the civil rights movement, poor white women and black women were being sterilized around the same rates. But as the ‘60s approached, black women and men were being sterilized at alarming numbers. “This was a legal U.S. state-sponsored program,” said Nzinga-Johnson. Today, the conversation around abortion needs to be nuanced when speaking about women of color, she said, because of that history.

The presentation stoked conversation around class and socioeconomic status. Even after Roe v. Wade allowed women the right to an abortion, that privilege lent itself to upper-middle class individuals, Nzinga-Johnson explained. “If you have no access,” she said, “you have no choice.” Today, she said, those same issues and obstacles remain.

Over the course of the week, the Law School’s chapter of “If/When/How” raised over $600 for the Chicago Abortion Fund.