Pictures of a pale woman, handcuffed, wearing an orange jumpsuit and being led by a uniformed guard were shown on the projector.
The woman, Bei Bei Shuai, is held without bail in the state of Indiana after attempting to commit suicide. While pregnant, Shuai was overcome with a severe bout of depression and decided to end her life by taking rat poison.
Her friends rushed her to the hospital and her baby was delivered via caesarean, eight days after she had taken the poison. However, the child died due to complications of a cerebral hemorrhage four days later.
She is now being tried for what the prosecutor called, “attempted feticide and murder.”
Shuai’s was one of the many stories heard at Reproductive Justice, a panel discussion part of the women’s studies program’s annual Virginia Frese Palmer Conference on March 19 inside the Student Union.
Seven speakers discussed the role of women’s reproductive health and social justice, ranging from filmmakers and attorneys to academics.
“While deciding on the topic of the conference last year, we could not have known how timely it would be,” said Joyce Warren, chair of the women’s studies program, referring to recent developments in policies toward women’s health as well as Rush Limbaugh’s scathing attack on law student Sandra Fluke.
The panel began with Faith Pennick, a documentary filmmaker who showed clips from her film, “Silent Choices,” about African American women and abortion.
For Pennick, it was very important to discuss the role of women of color in reproductive rights and justice research because they “had been shamed into silence for too long.” African American women have become so objectified in the media, Pennick said, that they feel shame to even talk about their bodies, both personally as well as socio-politically.
“It’s not as simple as ‘my womb, my choice,’” Pennick said, referring to the lack of discussions amongst African Americans about abortion. “It’s more organic than that.”
City College professor Iris Lopez also discussed women of color, talking about the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women from 1930-1970 through United States sponsorship.
By 1965, one- third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized, according to Lopez. This occurred through means of subordination and population control, she said.
Another powerful point of discussion was maternal rights versus fetal rights. Speaker and attorney Lynn Paltrow, founder and director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, called on statistics saying, “61 percent of women seeking abortions are already mothers.”
While discussing personhood bills, Paltrow emphasized the importance of understanding the distinction between being “pro-life and being pro-lives.”
Paltrow discussed the case of Shuai as well as Angela Carder, a woman who, while stricken with cancer, was forced to undergo a life-threatening C-section in a failed attempt to save her fetus. She was only 26 weeks pregnant.
This, Paltrow argued, is part of society’s punishment of pregnant women with the use of “junk science and misinformation about pregnant women,” and the formation of feticide laws, used to arrest pregnant women.
Each of the panelists discussed a plethora of issues facing women’s reproductive health today – including eugenics, the idealization of motherhood, the intersectionality theory of discrimination and inequality, and even pop culture.
Among the panelists were Loretta Ross, the co-founder of SisterSong, a reproductive justice collective for women of color and other ethnic groups, Eileen Geil Moran, who served on the board of directors of Catholics for Choice for more than 20 years and Rickie Solinger, a historian and curator whose most recent work deals with the politics of reproductive health.
A common thread flowed through each of the panelists’ discussions: reproductive rights being equated with human rights.
Karen Weingarten, assistant professor of English at Queens College, ended the discussion by bringing the focus to liberal notions of race and individualism, a comment echoed by Paltrow.
“We can’t have a culture of life without honoring the women who give that life,” Paltrow said.