When I became a mother, I felt a tiger wake up within me. I mean, I’ve always been concerned in justice, but once Nick was born there were certain news stories, certain ideas that would cause this tiger energy to just come rushing into me. This tiger comes out:
When I hear about children who do not have enough food to eat or a safe place to live,
When I hear about parents who are denied their right to parental leave after the birth of their child.
When I hear about parents who can’t afford good childcare and are forced to choose between putting food on the table and having a safe place for their child while they work.
When I hear about women who aren’t allowed to make choices about their own bodies during their pregnancies or labor .
when I hear about women sterilized against their will.
This tiger surprised me with ferocious need to protect the most vulnerable. I keep this as a symbol of that part of myself.
Last week many of us celebrated mother’s day with flowers, with brunch, with cards. And speaking for myself, I can assure you moms do love those things. But what moms all over the world really need is a tiger, who will defend their right to make choices about their own bodies, who will defend their children’s’ rights to a safe and healthy start in life.
Yes, motherhood is about playing patty-cake, and swing-sets, and stories at bedtime. But Underneath all that motherhood is about the choice to perpetuate the species through your own body. That is a pretty ferocious responsibility. That mild mannered woman in the pink sweater is actually a tiger. I remember one time a substitute taught our pre-natal yoga class, and she as these third trimester women struggled into some pose “oh you all are so cute!” And I felt my tiger rising -- here were a group of women who have chosen to face one of the most dangerous, courageous acts a human can choose, who are going to embody and face the gateway between life and death- and you are calling us cute? Biological mothers have made a choice to sacrifice their own body to the pains and changes of pregnancy and labor, have chosen to risk their own lives in the act of birth. And whether they birthed their babies or not, all mothers have chosen to put their own life between their child and life’s dangerous edges. Motherhood is about being a tiger.
Maybe it is because we are afraid of the power of that tiger that so many cultures seek to minimize mom’s power. We are so blessed in this culture that women have the right to decide when and with whom she will have a sexual relationship. We believe that both partners in any sex act should consent. We are lucky that we live in a culture where we don’t have to worry about forced sterilization. We are lucky that for the past 40 years we have had effective birth control so that parents can choose when they are ready to have children. As a woman who grew up in the 70s I have long taken these things for granted. I didn’t understand that for centuries women had been pregnant for most of their adult lives, that as soon as one child had weaned a new one was on the way. For some mothers this was a joy and a blessing, for others it was an inescapable struggle. I am so blessed to be part of a generation given the power of consent.
For those of us who growing up in a UU church in the 1970s, both our families and our church affirmed our inner wisdom and gave us an ethical compass for making decisions. They empowered us to make wise informed choices about our lives. Growing up I didn’t understand how recently some of these rights had been won. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t until 1965 in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut, that the U.S. Supreme Court decided that married couples could use contraception. Let me repeat that: the United States Supreme Court had to decide that a married woman could practice birth control.[i]
In an age where many of those rights I took for granted as a child are being challenged in states like Oklahoma and North Dakota which are considering laws that would make the birth control pill illegal, we need to stand up for a woman’s right to decide with whom she will mate, and if she choose to have children, when and with whom she will have children. As Dina Butcher, longtime Republican activist from North Dakota said in a recent story “this is not a legislative issue-- this is between a woman, her doctor and her god.” [ii]
That, my friends, is why we are talking about reproductive Justice this morning. We are a people who have covenanted to support one another in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. When people are verged on the most important ethical and spiritual decisions of their lives, they should feel they can turn to their beloved community. Whether or not we ourselves are parents, we have a responsibility to be allies to those who do propagate our species, we have a responsibility to be allies to all those who refrain from reproducing, and we have a responsibility to all the generations who follow us. I believe our responsibility is threefold.
First, it is our responsibility to provide for one another an ethical framework which supports us as we make these critical decisions about life. As a faith tradition, we have been allies in helping people, youth and adult alike, understand what it means to have a healthy, responsible sexual life since our first Sex ed curriculum “About Your Sexuality” in 1970. I took that class at my UU church in 1984. Today we provide this ethical framework through a Sexuality Education program called Our
Whole Lives which has curricula for everyone from Kindergarteners to Adults. It is built upon four core values:
Every person is entitled to dignity and self-worth and to his or her own attitudes and beliefs about sexuality.2. Sexual Health
Knowledge about human sexuality is helpful, not harmful. Every individual has the right to accurate information about sexuality and to have her or his questions answered.Healthy sexual relationships are:· Consensual (both people consent)· Nonexploitative (equal in terms of power; neither person pressures or forces the other into activities or behaviors)· Mutually pleasurable· Safe (no or low risk of unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, or emotional pain)· Developmentally appropriate (appropriate to the age and maturity of persons involved)· Based on mutual expectations and caring· Respectful (including values of honesty and keeping commitments made to others)3. Responsibility
We are called to enrich our lives by expressing sexuality in ways that enhance human wholeness and fulfillment and express love, commitment, delight, and pleasure. All persons have the right and obligation to make responsible sexual choices.4. Justice and Inclusivity
We need to avoid double standards.People of different ages, genders, races, backgrounds, income levels, physical abilities, and sexual orientations must have equal value and rights.Sexual relationships should never be coercive or exploitative.Being romantically and sexually attracted to both genders (bisexual), the same gender (homosexual), or the other gender (heterosexual) is natural in the range of human sexual experience.[i]
UUs are encouraged to use these values in decision-making concerning their own sexuality and relationships.
Second, we have a responsibility to protect the rights of all our brothers and sisters, so that they are free to make the decisions that their conscience, their bodies call them to make. Last June the delegates to the General Assembly in Phoenix, chose “Reproductive Justice” as our “Study Action Issue” for the next 4 years. It was up against many other critically important issues, but I believe that it won the our hearts and minds because we had seen too many congressional hearings where rows of men in suits testified that people like me should not be allowed to make decisions about my family any more. UUs across the nation realized that we can’t take for granted people’s rights to make their own choices about their bodies, about their sexuality unless we are willing to be tigers and protect those rights.
A number of folks have asked what this term “reproductive justice” means. It is a term that was first coined in the 1990s by a black women’s caucus, who developed an “intersectional theory highlighting the lived experience of reproductive oppression in communities of color.” I know, that sentence is a little jargony. What it is trying to express is the complexity of providing a supportive community for people deciding whether or not to become parents, and then to support those parents in being the parents they are called to be. The group “Sistersong” defines it this way: “The reproductive justice framework – the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments -- is based on the human right to make personal decisions about one’s life, and the obligation of government and society to ensure that the conditions are suitable for implementing one’s decisions.”[ii] So Reproductive Justice is a new framework for looking at this whole complex web of issues -- not just thumbs up or thumbs down on one particular piece of legislation, but the complex reality of trying to have a sexual life that affirms the Self Worth of every person, promotes their Sexual Health and Responsibility, and promotes Justice and Inclusivity for all. And being an ally does not mean deciding once and for all what is right, but empowering women and men to make good decisions, and making sure they have the support they need to live out those decisions.
This is our third responsibility – supporting the living out of those tough decisions. We have a responsibility to the actual physical well being of mothers and their children. Are parents really free to choose if they feel that they cannot provide a safe and nurturing environment for their children? If they are going to lose their jobs if they become pregnant? If they can’t put food on their table? If they feel alone and disconnected? Parents are not able to do this alone, nor were they meant to.
What does it mean to be an ally? My mom and my mother in law were allies there supporting me at the hospital through the birth, respecting my sometimes unusual choices. My husband was an ally when he stood by me we felt the doctors were not honoring my rights as a patient, and not honoring my own knowing about the process, saying “I’m busting you out of here- I don’t care if I have to body block orderlies on the way to the elevator.”
When I chose to start my family, my congregation was an ally. They not only provided me with paid maternity leave so I could recover and tend my child in his earliest days, but they had a tradition called the “baby café” where volunteers would come by every 2 days with home cooked meals to help us through the challenging transition of becoming parents. Really, I’ve never felt anything like that outpouring of support. Whenever a friend is expecting a child, I think of my mothers, my husband, my church who taught me to be a tiger, an ally.
Now that I am done making difficult decisions about my own family, that tiger inside me is called to defend those rights I have been so lucky to enjoy, whether that is the right to effective birth control, the right to have a say during labor and delivery, or the blessed relief of a community rallying around with casseroles in the challenging early days of parenthood.
In this age not all of us are called to be parents. Not all of us need to be parents. But we all need to be tigers. Or to put it another way, we are all called to be allies. Allies of mothers and fathers who become biological parents, allies of mothers and fathers who raise children who do not share their DNA and allies of people who refrain from becoming parents. We must be allies who defend the rights of all people to make decisions about their own bodies- when they will have sex and with whom. When they will become parents or refrain from becoming parents. We must be allies of children to make sure they grow up in a family that loves and cares for them, allies of children who make sure they have enough to eat, and access to a good education.
Let’s all find that tiger inside of ourselves. Not all of us are called to be parents, but all of us can be allies to the generations of children coming into this world, and to their mothers and fathers, so they can be the kind of parents this world needs them to be.