Reproductive Justice and the Courts: Reflections on CLPP

Posted April 29, 2015 by Emma Halling

Purvi Patel

By Emma Halling, 2014 YP4 Fellow

Early this April, I convened with hundreds of other reproductive-justice-minded individuals upon Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts for the annual Civil Liberties and Public Policy (CLPP) conference. With a decidedly anti-reproductive justice federal legislature and many state legislatures similarly disposed, we certainly had a lot to talk about this year.

Given my work in Young People For’s 2014-2015 Courts Matter cohort, I was particularly concerned with the connections between reproductive justice and our nation’s judicial system. Many folks were discussing the criminalization of pregnant women given the very recent conviction of Purvi Patel in Indiana for having a miscarriage. Others were discussing the threat posed to reproductive justice by the school-to-prison-pipeline and the widespread convictions of youth of color to extended (and even lifelong) prison stays for minor infractions. Because the court system plays a major role in negotiating individuals’ bodily autonomy and ability to create and maintain families, courts deserve extra scrutiny when activists are creating a vision for the future in which all individuals and communities enjoy “liveable lives,” as Judith Butler would say.

While some court cases like that of Purvi Patel make national headlines, others go largely ignored except by those whose families and communities are devastated. In a workshop on the criminalization of pregnant and parenting women who use drugs, CLPP participants discussed the impact of laws criminalizing drug-using mothers on families and communities. State laws, some new and some dating back to the so-called “crack epidemic” of the 1980s, charge pregnant women who are found to have used drugs with crimes ranging from “endangerment of a child” to “assault.” Arresting and charging parents like Mallory Loyola of Tennessee separates families by relegating children to the foster care system and puts mothers in insurmountable legal debt. It also discourages pregnant folks from seeking pre-natal care if they fear being reported and arrested, which negatively impacts the health of a baby. Realizing a future where reproductive justice prevails means overhauling the court system to act as an agent of support and assistance for families instead of dissolving them, as it often does now.

Not only this, but “the law” is often antagonistic to very specific communities, including people of Color, immigrants, and the queer and trans* community. In another conference session about “radical lawyering,” we discussed the nitty-gritty of what it means to pursue a career in law while also employing a reproductive justice framework. How does one navigate being a member of one or many of these disenfranchised communities while also being a part of a legal system that actively targets said communities? The answers are unclear, and it is often personally difficult, as the panelists detailed while sharing their own narratives about law school and lawyering.

While the courts are often hostile to reproductive justice, they also are not going to disappear any time soon. Achieving wide-scale reproductive justice means eliminating the hostility of the courts towards marginalized communities and repairing the damage done by years of oppression. While this is a tall order, some measures – like registering folks in marginalized communities to vote and thus entering them into jury pools, restoring voting rights to felons, and diversifying judicial appointments – are achievable now.

Discussions of reproductive justice are incomplete unless they also include analyses of the courts’ role in society and communities. All too often, the courts have been a source of hostility and violence towards women, people of color, and the queer community. We must include a re-envisioning the courts in our reproductive justice activism in order to make our society more just for every body.

Image of Purvi Patel from The Independent.