July marks the thirty-second anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, as it’s better known—the landmark civil rights law that promised equal opportunity and economic security for Americans with disabilities. As we’ve talked about a lot on this show over the years, as important as it is to celebrate how far we’ve come in the decades since the ADA became part of the fabric of American life, every time we hit the month of July, it’s even more important to acknowledge how far will still have to go to achieve the as-yet unfulfilled promises of the ADA.
And that’s why this July, Off-Kilter is once again spending all month long having conversations with leaders from across the disability community. (Catch up with Part One and Part Two in our #ADA2022 series.)
To continue that series of conversations, as we all grapple with the road ahead in a post-Roe v. Wade world, this week, Off-Kilter dives into the intersection of reproductive justice and disability justice—and the impact of the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision on disabled women and people who can become pregnant—with two powerhouse advocates who are also speaking at an upcoming virtual event on “Bridging Reproductive Justice and Disability Justice” being hosted at The Century Foundation next week. Vilissa Thompson is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, where her work focuses on the intersection of race, gender, and disability and she serves as co-director of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative; she is also the founder of advocacy organization Ramp Your Voice! And Laurie Bertram Roberts is the founder and executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund (MRFF), a reproductive justice organization that reduces barriers for access to abortion care.
You can find part one and part two of Off-Kilter’s #ADA2022 series here and here.
[bright theme music]
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas. July marks the thirty-second anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, as its better known, the landmark civil rights law that promised equal opportunity and economic security for Americans with disabilities. As we’ve talked about a lot on this show over the years, as important as it is to celebrate how far we’ve come in the decades since the ADA became part of the fabric of American life, every time we hit the month of July, it’s even more important to acknowledge how far we still have to go to achieve the as-yet unfulfilled promises of the ADA.
And that’s why this July, Off-Kilter is once again spending all month long having conversations with leaders from across the disability community. And to continue that series of conversations as we all grapple with the road ahead in a post-Roe world, this week, Off-Kilter dives into the intersection of reproductive justice and disability justice, and specifically the impact of the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision on disabled women and people who can become pregnant.
So, to do that, I sat down with two powerhouse advocates who are also speaking at an upcoming virtual event being hosted at The Century Foundation next week. Vilissa Thompson, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, where her work focuses on the intersection of race, gender, and disability. She also serves as one of my fellow co-directors of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative, and she’s the founder of Ramp Your Voice. And Laurie Bertram Roberts is founder and executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, a reproductive justice organization that reduces barriers for access to abortion. You can find the link to register for the event in show notes. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
Laurie, Vilissa, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. And, you know, in full disclosure, we were already starting to chat a little bit before we started taping, and I went, “Wait, wait, wait, wait! We have to be recording this!” Because you guys were already starting to get into it. So, I feel like this is take two, but we gotta share all this with the listeners. Thank you for being here!
LAURIE BERTRAM ROBERTS: So glad to be here. Yes, that’s basically what I was saying off, [laughs], off before the show is that I’m just so glad to be here with both of y’all. I was super excited when y’all contacted me.
VILISSA THOMPSON: Of course, of course. Gotta have the important voices in the room.
VALLAS: Well, I am nerdily, nerdily excited for this conversation for a lot of reasons, but also just to kind of continue some of the fangirling that was happening before we started recording. I love that this conversation came together the way it did, and that Laurie, you and I have not met in real life yet.
VALLAS: But clearly the universe has been trying to connect us because it was literally last week that Rebecca Cokley—who has been on this show many times, is a good friend of all of ours—was putting us together on Twitter!
VALLAS: Because you had something out into the universe being like, “Hey, have me on more podcasts.” And she was like, “You should be on Off-Kilter.” And then Vilissa suggested you for this episode separately, and it was like, all right, universe! It’s time!
VALLAS: Laurie’s coming on Off-Kilter.
VALLAS: So, I’m really excited for this. Yep.
VALLAS: So, let’s get into it. So, before we get into talking about what is, [chuckles] what is the road ahead for the disability community, and in particular, multiply marginalized folks in the wake of this trash Dobbs decision, Laurie, I wanna give you the chance to introduce yourself to Off-Kilter’s listeners, which is usually where we try to start these conversations. And V, I’m gonna let Laurie go first because you’ve been on the show before. So, Laurie, how do you come to this issue and to this work? In getting to get studied up on some of your incredible advocacy, I saw you call yourself in an article in The Guardian, “the abortion lady of Mississippi,” but also that you somehow got there after starting out as a pro-life fundamentalist Christian. So, I guess the right question to ask you as we start is, how did you go from being a pro-life fundamentalist Christian to becoming, in your words, “the abortion lady of Mississippi?”
ROBERTS: Yeah, it was quite a journey. I was raised in an independent fundamentalist Baptist church. You know, you don’t get a choice on [chuckles] who you’re born to and how they raise you. And as I got older, I just started questioning things. I mean, I questioned things as a kid, too, because I was like the only Black kid in this all-white church that preached against interracial marriage. And I’m like, “I’m right here. Maybe, maybe, huh? Like, I’m right here.” And as I got older, I just started realizing that a lot of the stuff that they taught us was not true. But then also, I had my own life experiences with reproductive stuff. I got married at 16 because Jesus, and then I was in a domestic violence relationship. But I also almost died at a Catholic hospital that sent me home while I was having a miscarriage because my embryo had a heartbeat, and then I almost bled to death. I hemorrhaged on the floor of my bathroom and almost died at my mom’s house when I passed out. So, all of these things started chipping away at my belief system.
And then I once found myself at an abortion clinic wanting an abortion and was a turn-away patient. And then again, when I ended up getting really kind care at Planned Parenthood, the place that I had been taught that, like, where these bogeybears that would take your money and give you an abortion even if you weren’t pregnant, which is the weirdest thing that I feel like anti-abortion people tell you ever, among other things that they tell you. And it just was like, I just had all of these other reproductive injustices that happened to me where I was denied getting an IUD. I couldn’t access birth control adequately, just the way the system, especially when you’re at the nexus of being Black and poor and young. And then it wasn’t until later that I realized that I’m on the autism spectrum. So, there’s some things I feel like I didn’t understand, even though I’m very smart. But the way that the medical community talks to you a lot of times is very condescending. And just all of these weird barriers to reproductive healthcare.
And so, I went to college. I came down to Mississippi to go to college right at the time that they were trying to close the clinic back in 2006. Didn’t get involved then. But then, when the personhood amendment came up, it just triggered my memory of almost dying in a Catholic hospital. And so, that’s when I got really involved. And then that led to me starting the abortion fund with two of my children. So, here I am. [laughs] That’s the long short answer.
VALLAS: Laurie, I love that. Thank you so much for sharing also, just the kind of the personal details there. And often, that is how people get into this kind of work. Vilissa, I wanna—and Laurie, I’ll note we’re gonna come back to a lot of what you just shared. We’re gonna come back to a lot of the pieces of that story, and we’re gonna pull on some of those threads, including some of your incredible advocacy and also what disability has to do with all of this—but first, Vilissa, I wanna go over to you to quickly bring you in. You have been on this show before, as I mentioned, and so I think folks are familiar with you. But remind Off-Kilter’s listeners how you come to this work, and in particular, because it isn’t something that folks have necessarily heard you talk about on this show before, how you enter and approach the intersection of reproductive justice and disability justice, which is really the meat of today’s conversation.
THOMPSON: Yes. Before I begin, I really appreciate Laurie telling her story because I knew bits and pieces. But just to hear her just share it all just really resonates with me because that’s so, so common, particularly for Black disabled folks in the South. And it’s one of the reasons why I enjoy Laurie’s work, because it is so Southern-centered, and that’s grossly missing in so many conversations, especially disability, about what’s happening here in this region of the country. But for me, you know, I have my own Southern roots here in South Carolina and just really seeing the landscape of what it means to have access here. I’m in a small town, which means that if you need something important, you have to go to the quote-unquote “big city,” about 30, 40 miles away to really get anything done.
So, growing up here, I saw up close what it meant to have a lack of access and how that can be exacerbated if you don’t have great transportation or reliable transportation or just didn’t know how to navigate these systems. So, with my own upbringing of being a disabled child here and having my own experiences with the medical system and what that means to engage with these systems that don’t always consider you as a person is very helpful. That really shaped my life experience, but also the experiences that I have professionally with my backgrounds in psychology and social work. Looking through those disciplines and those lenses and seeing the gaps that exist in those worlds and seeing how disability is also grossly missing in those conversations when we have important discussions about sex, sexuality, healthcare access, domestic violence, and so forth, what my colleagues are missing in the conversation, particularly if they do engage with disabled people and many folks in this community have rightful criticisms about case managers, social workers, therapists, and so forth as to how they engage.
So, similar to Laurie, it takes the lived experience plus the professional work that you do to really create a unique understanding as to where the gaps are, who is missing from the conversation, and what is missing in our communities that impede the quality of life that people have a right to have access to. And what does that mean when you have a true divide of the haves or have nots or those who are deserving or undeserving of resources and supports based on the identities they have and the locations that they live in and people’s perceptions of who they are and how they should or shouldn’t be treated. So, similar to Laurie, I definitely echo the sentiments of how all of these experiences shape you being somebody who’s very radical in being very vocal about the disparities that exist, particularly those who are of color, disabled, queer, women [unclear] and so forth.
ROBERTS: And can I—
VALLAS: I love that. And please go ahead, Laurie.
ROBERTS: I mean, to follow up on that, my first protest, my first action actually had nothing to do with my own stuff. Well, I mean, it was my own family, but it was because I was doing advocacy on behalf of my daughters who have autism. And so, I was fighting to get them into the school system for the adequate amount of time and for the adequate services that they needed. I kept getting the runaround from the preschool program, being told there wasn’t enough funding, but they were about to build this really unneeded big stadium in our city for the high school. And so, I started making myself a menace at school board meetings! And that was like my first—I was 18—so, that was my first big action in being a political nuisance [laughs], so like that. Yeah.
VALLAS: I love that. And we’re gonna need to add that to your affiliations in the show notes that you’re a political nuisance.
VALLAS: [laughing] I love that 100 percent! I see that as the best compliment that anyone could probably be given ‘cause it means that you don’t go away, right, until you actually achieve the goal through the advocacy, which is what it means to be an advocate. Someone we had on the show maybe a year ago or so said the definition of being an advocate is that you simply refuse to go away.
VALLAS and ROBERTS: [laugh]
VALLAS: I love that so much.
VALLAS: It’s the truth. So, since we’re putting cards on the table—and I’ve said this on this show before, but not in a little while—I’ll just go ahead and say the word as well. I have also had an abortion, and it is part of my life. It is part of why I’m able to be here today doing the things I am doing. And it also was not an easy process for me, even with about as much privilege as one can have in that situation and early on in an unplanned pregnancy. That was years ago for me but something that also is very much on my heart and in my mind in these conversations. And I find it so important for folks to come out of the shadows and to say the word, something I know we’re gonna talk about more in this conversation as well. So, just wanted to put that out there as we are bringing our whole selves to this conversation.
So, before we get into the trash Dobbs decision, which is what I’ve been calling it. [laughs]
VALLAS: Which overturns Roe and its many consequences, and that’s a conversation that’s been happening for weeks now at a fever pitch in ways that need to happen, need to continue, and only need to be dialed up. To be clear, part of what we wanted to get together and have a conversation about for Off-Kilter today is the intersection of reproductive justice and disability justice. And that’s not an intersection that gets talked about a lot. And I wanna put in another little plug for the event that y’all are doing next week that The Century Foundation is hosting. We’ve got all the info in the show notes on how to register and whatnot, but it is on the 21st of July. Lots more on this topic in that conversation as well.
But part of why the intersection of reproductive justice and disability justice and bringing a disability lens to a repro conversation is so important might actually be history that our listeners may not be aware of. And that’s where I think we need to start because to have a conversation about why reproductive justice matters so much to disabled people in this country, and in particular, as we’ll also get into, to multiply-marginalized disabled people, it has to do with another Supreme Court decision, another trash Supreme Court decision, from quite a while back, 1927 to be precise. That Supreme Court decision is called Buck versus Bell, Buck v Bell. And it is notoriously viewed, and rightly so, as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions of all time. But it’s also one that really, people outside of the disco, as we call it, often have never heard of it and aren’t even aware and are horrified when they hear what it held. Laurie, do you wanna give us a little bit of a quick like what happened in Buck v Bell and why it’s something we all need to know about as we’re having a conversation that has to do with, fundamentally, bodily autonomy?
ROBERTS: Yeah, certainly. And I actually, last night, I spent a couple hours just brushing up on my knowledge of Buck v Bell, because I think one of the things that gets lost in the decision is how she, how Carrie Bell, ended up in the situation that she was in, right? So, she was the child of a single mother, right? And she ends up in essentially like foster care, and she’s rented out to do work in these families. And she gets sexually assaulted by a member of her foster family. And she’s impregnated, and she has a child. And then because she’s a single mom now, they’re like, “Oh, she’s essentially, oh, we know that she’s feebleminded.” Okay. And we’re in a time when promiscuity, being a single parent, all of this is pathologized. So, they put her in a home for epileptics because also, epilepsy is seen as like so untreatable and shameful that people are put away in homes. So, she gets put into this facility, and they decide that they wanna sterilize her. And they wanna use her as the test case for their sterilization program. And that’s why it’s Buck v Bell, because Bell is the doctor who’s going to sterilize her. And he’s also the head of this organization.
And so, they hold that her family are a family of imbeciles, right? That her family, that there’s, they do this generational study that it’s not just her that’s immoral, it’s her mother. Her mom was a single mom, and her mom had kids by multiple men. And there’s all this evidence. Like, this is the evidence that they lay out. And Oliver Wendell Holmes, who is this legendary jurist that everybody holds up as legendary, says, “Three,” in this ruling, “three generations of imbeciles is enough.” So essentially, we should sterilize these people as a way to make our society better. These are the people we don’t want.
VALLAS: So, that in a nutshell is Buck v Bell, right? So, for folks who are listening and going, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. So, when did that case get overturned, right? Because that can’t still be enforced today.” Well, spoiler: That’s actually not a case that ever got directly overturned. That is still a Supreme Court case that is considered to be precedent. I also wanna be clear. It’s probably obvious, but Laurie, you’re using 1927 Supreme Court language—
VALLAS: —which brings in things like “imbecile” and “feebleminded.” This is the way people were talking back then. Hey, it’s still the way some people talk these days! Fewer people in public anyway. But I just wanna be clear that’s—
ROBERTS: It’s a great lesson in the history of ableist language.
VALLAS: It is! To read Supreme Court decisions from not that long ago, relatively speaking, in our nation’s history. But so, cutting to the chase, this was basically the Supreme Court in a majority opinion written by Oliver Wendell Holmes—as you noted, this guy that everybody learns about in history class or law school as the best thing since sliced bread on the Supreme Court in terms of Supreme Court history—it was a decision that said effectively, people with disabilities don’t have a constitutionally protected right to bodily autonomy. And in fact, the Supreme Court was totally down with eugenics, targeting people with disabilities. And that’s a case that is still in force in terms of precedent that has not been directly overturned. We could do an entire episode just on Buck v Bell, and maybe we should at some point. But I feel like that’s a really important place to start because then, Vilissa, bringing you into this same question, I think folks are probably starting to get the gist about why the intersection of reproductive justice and disability justice is so important to the disability community. What do you think needs to come after what Laurie offered in terms of that history there, Vilissa?
THOMPSON: What comes to my mind when I think about reproductive justice and the history in this country, it happens during slavery time where we see the connection between racism and ableism, particularly when it comes to enslaved mothers who may have disabled children—
THOMPSON: —when we’re dealing with people who have had children who are disabled and how those children are looked upon. And they’re looked upon as being defective. From some slave owners of that time, they considered disabled children to be a financial risk, a financial liability, because they could not contribute to the needs for slavery. And some others found ways to still exploit their Black disabled bodies through sending them off to exhibits to read the stories of enslaved mothers who were not considered to have any form of rights to try their hardest to get their children back, to get their children who they love, who they did not see as a burden, you know, back to not be exploited. Always burns in my brain as to how this country, from the very beginnings, devalued disabled people and how that devaluing continues throughout the course of our history. So, we had Buck versus Bell to even today, coming to like the times of the right to parent.
THOMPSON: That one pops into my mind now when we have this debate on so, there’s no quote-unquote “normal” access to abortion. Then how are we gonna support disabled people who becomes parents when we already have a system that discriminates against them for being a parent simply because they’re disabled? There’s so many connections here when you look at the history of this country and how we devalue lives and whose lives are considered worthless, useless, and easily discarded. So, when we have decisions like the overturning of Roe, it really makes me think about how there is nothing new that’s happening in this country. It’s just a new day on the calendar in which it is happening. And now it is our time that we’re moving through. And I think that’s why I’ve really been cynical the past couple weeks since the decision was handed down as to how it’s a never-ending cycle of devaluing people in this country. And those of us who are multiply marginalized as disabled people understand the true devastation that is brewing and will boil over as the days, weeks, months, sadly, years could come about if nothing is done to right the wrongs of this time.
VALLAS: Yeah. And I wanna bring another layer into this conversation as well, because as we’re talking about why this isn’t necessarily a surprising swing of the pendulum for folks who have already been marginalized, a lot of people seem to be shocked and saying, “This isn’t America!”
VALLAS: And there’s a lot of other people saying, “Uh…have you been here for that long? What’s your familiarity with America?”
ROBERTS: What America, right?
VALLAS: It’s all about which America you seem to know. The next lens that we need to bring in—and a big part of why I wanted to have this conversation with the two of you and a big part, Vilissa, of why you’re pulling together that event with Laurie and another one of your colleagues, Heather Watkins, next week for The Century Foundation on this topic as well—is just how incredibly important it is to also highlight the extra, extra scary consequences for multiply-marginalized folks, and in particular disabled women and people of color, which includes both of y’all. And we’ll get into that.
But I’m gonna start this piece of the conversation off with just a couple of statistics. I’m gonna rattle some numbers off mostly so I don’t make either of you do that! The National Partnership for Women and Families, who’s a close partner of all of ours, and I’m thrilled to have as a member of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative as well, they put out some research just a few days ago. They crunched the numbers. They took a look at what’s the picture for multiply-marginalized folks in the States, how many folks are likely to be impacted? And what they found is that of the 36 million women of reproductive age and people who can become pregnant of reproductive age who live in the 26 states that have already banned abortion or who are likely to ban abortion after Dobbs—a lot of those are so-called trigger states—2.8 million are women with disabilities or people with disabilities who can become pregnant, 12.6 million are folks who are economically insecure, 15.8 million are actually mothers with children at home, 389,600 are veterans. And then here’s the real kind of jaw dropper, I think, for a lot of folks: Nearly 15 million are women of color and people of color who can become pregnant. And that includes 5.8 million who are Black, 6.5 million who are Latinx, 1.3 million who are Asian, 34,000 who are Pacific Islander, 285,000 who are Native American, and 908,000—almost a million—who are multiracial.
So, to recap, nearly 15 million women of color and people of color who can become pregnant live in states that have already banned abortion or are likely to ban abortion in the wake of Dobbs. And so then, Laurie, bringing you back in, [chuckles] we’re trying to get our arms around this and get a sense of kind of how bad things are. But talk to us about what women of color and BIPOC folks who can become pregnant are facing in the states right now.
ROBERTS: I mean, oh, it’s the layers. Even if they’re financially or somewhat financially secure, it’s just the barriers of travel, right? So, right now, if you’re trying to get an abortion and you live in Mississippi, you’re either traveling to D.C., Atlanta, Illinois, Florida. It’s a long haul, right? And for a lot of Mississippians, they don’t fly. A lot of our folks have never flown. I’m just gonna be real. A lot of Black folks, we drive. I mean, we drive! We drive. And we do. We just drive. And I just feel like that’s a lot of working-class folks anyway. We’re just, we’d rather drive. And especially when we have a lot of folks that gotta take their kids with them. And who the heck is trying to get on a plane when you can still have the risk of COVID with a bunch of kids, and then there’s a lot of tickets? Like, it’s just a lot! And then you’re also talking about depending on what clinic you’re going to, there is a two and three-week wait ‘cause these clinics are getting inundated with patients.
So, even if you have the money, even if you have the car, even if you have the airplane access, you’re still facing wait times. You gotta take off work, if you know what I’m saying. You gotta get child care if you’ve got a child. If you are a caregiver for another family member, you’ve gotta get someone else to help you with caregiving. If you are a person who has a caregiver, you gotta situate all of that. There’s just so many things, to just leave the state to get an abortion is such an arduous process that that’s a lot. So, let’s say you choose to self-manage your abortion in the state. I mean, like, yes, you can do that. But obviously, we all know that the risk of criminalization is always gonna be higher for Black and brown women and Black and brown people. And so, that’s something else people obviously are mindful of. And if someone is forced to carry their pregnancy to term, then of course, sitting on the hearts, always on my heart, is how risky birth is for Black women in my state, right? That we are one of the most dangerous places for Black women to give birth in the country. And so, all of these things are happening at the same time.
VALLAS: Yep. And I really appreciate that you brought up criminalization, right? Because I feel like that actually isn’t getting enough attention. And it’s obviously, folks are trying to walk the line of not scaring people too much while also trying to fight the direction the tide is turning and at the same time helping people understand how bad this outcome really is. And that no, as we’ll talk about more in a minute, no, The Handmaid’s Tale is not fan fiction, right?
So, staying with you, Laurie, for just a moment, you’ve actually spoken a little bit about this to some news outlets as well in the wake of the decision, and I’m gonna quote you. This is what you told The Guardian: “Criminalization is going to disproportionately fall on Black and brown bodies because it always does.” And I’m just gonna give a big amen to that. But of course, that’s a piece of the picture here as well, because it isn’t just abortion access that we’re talking about. We’re also talking about, and particularly in the South, states that are also starting to take strides towards locking women up and people up who actually exercise any level of sovereignty over their own bodies. Is there any more you think folks need to understand about that? Or what would you say to someone who goes, “Oh, come on, that’s not really gonna happen”?
ROBERTS: Well, I think people one, need to understand the white supremacist goals of these laws, that the goal has never been, “Oh, we want everyone to have more babies and more healthy babies.” Like, that’s never…. [laughs] The goal is for white women to have more babies. And that I think people should be wary that there’s always gonna be a way to discourage the people who they don’t necessarily care if we have babies or not or if we succeed in parenting our babies or not to dissuade that or curb that. That’s one of the reasons I think Buck v Bell is so important because of how Carrie Bell, like how she ended up in that system, right? And how that can still happen. And how it’s interesting to me that so-called pro-lifers feel that Roe was the most egregious SCOTUS decision that needed to be repealed, but not Buck v Bell even though they say that they’re so, so, soooo invested in helping the disability community. Just throwing that out there.
ROBERTS: So, you can’t talk about the right to parent without talking about Buck v Bell. You can’t talk about any of these things without undoing the harm that is based on all of these things piling up on each other. And the fact that the criminalization of pregnant people is also linked to the War On Drugs and that those laws that they’ve been using to lock up people for their pregnancy outcomes rest outside of abortion criminalization. Like, they’ve already found that system of laws by misusing child abuse laws, by making people’s wombs a place where they can make endangered areas for babies, right? Those laws and that precedence already been set. So, I just think people should be very wary and very aware that Black women and BIPOC women and people who can be pregnant can already be criminalized in ways that have already been set up, right? And that there are already systems that can curb our fertility, and there’s already systems that can be reactivated and put in place. And I don’t wanna sound like a conspiracy theorist. I just know what history has shown us.
VALLAS: Yep. Yep, that’s right. And I think that’s sort of the point here, right? Is like, this isn’t folks’ first rodeo, [laughs] right? So, it’s not like this is some kind of hysteria of, oh, something that might happen, right? This is just it’s the same playbook. It’s just it’s old wine in new bottles, and that’s, I think, important for folks to know.
Vilissa, while we’re still on this, talk a little bit about why it’s so important to you and why you do so much work as you do trying to get folks to understand the importance of centering the voices of multiply-marginalized folks in conversations about abortion, which are so often very, very, very white women-led.
VALLAS: Yes. I think for me, it’s about access. It’s about access as to who’s able to get these things. And particularly as a disabled woman, I already know for me, getting the basic healthcare things done, such as a pap smear, such as a mammogram, there are already obstacles in our facilities and our hospitals and so forth where disabled people are not able to get these important tests done that can be lifesaving because they’re not accessible. They don’t have the right equipment that should be available for us to do so comfortably without many barriers. So, I think about that on that front alone. And then when you add the extreme limitation when it comes to abortion access, the closing of facilities, particularly in areas where there’s one for miles at a time, there’s already the barriers that Laurie talked about in trying to access them. It just really makes you think about how this is a tremendous healthcare failure on top of a existing healthcare failure that is going to kill people. And I think that’s a reality we’re really gonna have to sit with is that we are going to watch people die from this. We’re gonna watch people be harmed from this.
And I don’t think that we are fully ready for the generational impact that this is going to have on our society and the repercussions of that. And Black and brown women, we know especially what the gaps are in our own quality of care that we receive with the connection of medicalized ableism and racism, misogynoir, sexism that exist for us. And it just really makes me fearful of what does this mean now for those of us who may become pregnant? You know, those of us like myself who have no desire to become pregnant but may have to worry about will birth control continue to be accessed over time if a pharmacist wants to exert their own personal beliefs on what consumers can or cannot receive at their location? It’s just this trickle-down effect that we are not looking at fully that is going to occur.
We already see now the inability for disabled people to get their certain medications fulfilled because of the attitudes about what that medication can be used for. Even though they have particular uses for it, folks are saying that this could be used to try to terminate a pregnancy. So, I think that the ripple effect is going to be so tremendous, and it’s going to be tremendous not for those of us who are fully aware, but for those who think that they are cocooned from it, that they are shielded from it. And then if it comes into their world, they’re not going to know what to do. Because Black and brown women, we know what’s happening. We have been preparing for this for a long time. We have the networks. So, for, to put it out there plainly, for white women who have been coddled and sheltered, this is their rude awakening as to how they too will become a casualty in this whole situation.
VALLAS: Yeah. I love how you put that, right? Because there’s a very real gap between the folks who have, as you said, been preparing for this for quite some time and the folks who are going, “Oh, my god. How could this have happened?” There’s also another dimension, which is the folks—and I feel like they’re living in another dimension—but the folks who are saying things like, “Oh, the comparisons people are making to Handmaid’s Tale, that’s overblown. Handmaid’s Tale is fan fiction.” I mean, I mentioned it before, I’ve been hearing this kind of in lots of different circles. It’s certainly in lots of different circles on Twitter. I know y’all both have a lot to say to that strawman who wants to say, “Oh, don’t tell me that there’s any comparison to be made to Handmaid’s Tale.” I have to put my cards out there and say it’s not a show I chose to watch, not books I chose to read because I felt like it was too close to real life well before the leak in the Dobbs decision. And maybe I will go back and watch or read at some point. But I think our listeners are probably familiar with the gist, even if they have not seen it.
Laurie, you were actually quoted in a news article responding to those types of comments, saying, “Forced birth is going to kill people. You can’t force people to stay pregnant and then not expect that people are gonna die when it’s more risky to give birth than to have an abortion.” I feel like you put it incredibly well, which is why I wanted to center your words there. Talk to me a little bit about what you say to folks who say, “Handmaid’s Tale, eh. That’s fan fiction.”
ROBERTS: I mean, we know it’s not because the only thing that Margaret Atwood did is she took all of these things that’ve already happened in the world in reality, and she basically just put white faces on it. Like, most of these atrocities that already happened, primarily to women of color and BIPOC people or really marginalized white populations that nobody had been paying attention to, right? And then she just put middle-class white women faces on them so that middle-class white people would pay attention, hopefully! But like, yeah, all of this is, I mean, obviously, real things that could happen. And the thing that I keep trying to stress to people is that I feel like even though I saw it discussed not enough, there’s a reason why the ruling talks about the domestic supply of infants, right? And that domestic supply of infants ain’t Black and brown, right? Like, they’re not shooting for a bunch of— I mean, they’ll take us, but I mean they’re not looking for my kids. They have never been out here just looking for American Black kids. They’re looking for white babies. [laughs] I can’t stress this enough. They’re coming for low-income white women’s babies. That’s why they want them to get pregnant and hopefully be poor enough and without resources that they will have to give up their children.
And I can’t stress enough that, of course, forced birth is gonna kill people, specifically Black women, because we’re already dying in childbirth. And projections are saying that the Black maternal mortality rate in states without abortion care anymore could go up as much as 30 percent. And when I think about that in a state like Mississippi, it makes me cry. I do not want to bury any more Black women, and I do not want to bury any more babies under the age of one. My org has paid for children’s funerals. People think that all we do is fund abortion, but actually, we’re a reproductive justice org. And we fund people who parent too. And we have funded children’s funerals. We have funded children’s births. We help people keep their kids out of child protection services. And let me just say that most of the parents that we help keep their kids out of the CPS are parents with disabilities who cannot get adequate services.
VALLAS: It’s so important. And there may be folks who are listening who actually may not be totally up to speed on what reproductive justice even includes. It’s a phrase that gets used a lot these days, but often in terms or in contexts that are not entirely accurate. Does either of you wanna offer a quick definition of reproductive justice so that folks have a sense of the breadth? Laurie, that’s probably something I should ask you to do.
ROBERTS: Yeah. So, I mean, real quick definition is reproductive justice is the right to parent, the right not to parent, the right to parent in safe and secure communities with all of your basic needs met—safe water, safe neighborhoods, safe schools—the right not to get killed by state sanctioned violence, the right to have all of your medical care provided, and the right to not be policed by your government as far as being a parent, right? The right to parent is part of reproductive justice. The right to sex for pleasure, not just procreation, and the right to have your sexuality affirmed, and the right to full reproductive healthcare and reproductive education.
VALLAS: So, there’s a lot in there. There’s so many more items than just the abortion piece that I think folks are aware is there. I love so much the examples that you’ve been offering too, to help people understand how reproductive justice or RJ organizations work across that spectrum, and yours, which we’ll come back to, is very much one of those in Mississippi.
Vilissa, is there anything you wanna add to that? I threw up a strawman and said, “What do you say to folks who say that Handmaid’s Tale is fan fiction?” You are often someone who has a little bit of snark to throw at strawmen, so I figured you should get a chance as well.
VALLAS: Personally, I have never watched. I too have never watched this show when I realized the whitewashing of the history of the characters. But I think it’s, [sighs] I think my frustration is similar to what I saw, what we saw when it came to the 2016 election of seeing particularly white women before with the private part hats in 2016, 2017. And now we seeing them dressed up from the characters of the show. And I just really rage at the ineffectiveness of people who do that. And it’s like, what is the purpose of that? How is this getting us to have our rights protected by whether wearing those hats or wearing these costumes? You know, and I just wish people would be more conscious of how to be actually effective in this time and not just be reactive to the point to where it adds nothing to the conversation. So, I think that’s some of my frustrations with the show getting the energy it has been over the past couple weeks of just particularly white women just not getting it at all, not understanding the historical, inaccurate nature of the show. And then also their own selfish engagement with what’s going on in this time. So, I think that’s my only feelings about it is just the, [sighs] the telltale signs of who is actually doing something of quality and worth, and who is just doing something mainly for attention and just pretending to be utterly useless, but yet still get in the way.
VALLAS: [laughs] I love it.
ROBERTS: Yes, amazing [unclear] ever.
VALLAS: Yep, yep! This is why I love Vilissa the most of most humans. We gotta talk a little bit about who gets abortions, and in particular, who are the disabled people who end up needing to get abortions. There’s definitely a, I feel like we’ve been putting people in little categories, right? They’re not all distinct permanent categories. People can fall into lots of these categories at different points. And we would love for people to exhibit growth and leave one of these categories and enter a better one as awareness and education grow. But there’s a camp of folks who, in moments where we’re talking about abortion as a country, say, “Oh, that could never be me,” right? And that includes some folks who might even be supporters of reproductive justice but who think that they’re fighting on behalf of somebody else. What do you say to people who say, “Oh, that could never be me!” And who are the people who get abortions? Who are the people with disabilities who get abortions? Laura, you’ve got a great quote I love. You’ve said before, “People who get abortions are the people you know.” Talk to me about who gets abortions.
ROBERTS: Yeah, I used to be a person who said it could never be me, and then I ended up sitting in a Planned Parenthood [laughing] waiting to get my abortion! And then ended up going home ‘cause I was gonna have a miscarriage. But it can be you when it needs to be you! Like, who knows when it’ll be your time. You can start out with a very wanted pregnancy and end up needing an abortion. The people who need abortions are just like everyone else. They are your friends, they’re your neighbors, they’re your cousins, they’re the church lady that you sit next to at church, they’re your grandma and your great grandma, you know. They’re everybody that you know. They’re the trans friend that you have that you don’t know they had an abortion. They’re lesbians that you know. I mean, I love it when queer people tell me, “Oh, well, that’s not part of my community cause I’m a lesbian, and lesbians don’t get abortions.” And I’m like, [belly laugh] “I got news for you.” Or I have studs that tell me, “Studs don’t get abortions.” And I’m like, [belly laughs] “Yeah, they do.” There’s like no community I know of that doesn’t get abortions.
I had an anti-abortion protester tell me, “Well, you know, we do a lot of work with the Down syndrome community, and they’re very anti-abortion.” And I’m like, “People with Down syndrome get abortions. I don’t know how to tell you this. [chuckles] I mean, this is, I don’t know if this is revelatory to you, but whether it’s because of sexual assault or consensual sex, people have abortions! People in disability community have abortions!” And not for nothing. We are at a higher risk of sexual assault in our community. So, it’s very interesting that people love to talk about exceptions for sexual assault but then throw us under the bus [cracking up] as people who don’t need abortions. It’s a very strange thing for people to be like, “These are good abortions,” but also disability, like “Disability advocates? Why do you all need to come to the table except for, as like…as voices against abortion?” So, it’s very strange.
VALLAS: But Laurie, it’s because, like, how could disabled people possibly be having sex?
ROBERTS: Well, you know, I mean, obviously.
THOMPSON: Right, right.
VALLAS: Right?! [laughs] Sorry. I’m sorry. I just had to.
ROBERTS: Yeah, obviously. Because I sit down when I get around, that means my [bleep] don’t work that well.
VALLAS: [guffaws] Oh, lord! I love it.
ROBERTS: You know, it just stopped. It stopped working. It stopped working. The minute I became non-binary, I just cut it all off. Just no more [bleep] working. It don’t work no more. I just, the minute I had to stop walking, [laughing] it just [inaudible].
VALLAS: That’s how it works, folks. That’s how it works.
VALLAS: We’re obviously being very snarky here, but it does. It does. It needs to be said, because there are weird things in this society in 2022 about the way people understand disability. And for some reason, that includes that we’re all virgins.
ROBERTS: I mean, I respect the doctors who want test me [unclear]. I appreciate that because [laughs] the thing be thanging. But anyway!
ROBERTS: Moving on. But yeah, it’s so strange to me like, side note, I happened to have this conversation with my rheumatologist one day ‘cause I was like, “Listen, sir. Your lack of giving me adequate medication is really messing up my sex life.” And he really looked at me like he was confused. I was like, “What? You ain’t having sex?” I don’t know what. I’m not understanding. “Well, look, sir. I need you to fix my meds because you messing up my life. Thank you.” [laughs] But yeah. I feel like people think we’re these asexual beings, like, all of us are asexual. Not that none of us are ace, but that all of us are asexual, none of us have sex, and therefore, how can we possibly need abortions? You know, we’re whole parents out here. There’s lots of us that are parenting, and we’re all individuals. But I mean, there’s no group, I mean, that doesn’t, you know, that haven’t come across the need for abortion care that I haven’t met. I’ve arranged accessible transport for people. Yeah, there’s, I mean, yeah.
VALLAS: Yeah. And it’s no, I love it. And we’re laughing, and we’ve gotta laugh about this stuff sometimes ‘cause otherwise we would just be crying, and that’s a lot less fun. But also, and it probably goes without saying, but we should say it too, obviously, folks with disabilities have other stuff going on with our health than the abled community who maybe more often takes health for granted, and that also can complicate pregnancy. And so, that might already be something folks were thinking about as they’re hearing this, but it also needs to be said because it means that there are more situations where disabled folks who can become pregnant might be in a position of needing to make a decision about their own health and safety versus that of the pregnancy. And, Laurie, your story, a couple of the stories you’ve shared, have really helped to shed some personal light on that as well.
Vilissa, when you and I were talking about doing this episode—and I’ve been getting really excited about the event that you guys are doing next week to talk a lot more about these issues with a larger group of folks, including possibly some members of Congress. We will see—one of the things that you suggested, and I thought this was so important for the conversation that we have today, is we’ve gotta talk about what people can do right now. Because there is a lot of hopelessness. And most of the conversation we’ve been having up to now has been very, it’s been dark, it’s been depressing, it’s scary. We’re laughing at different points, but obviously, I mean, this is about as scary as a Supreme Court decision can get for women and people who can become pregnant for all the reasons we’ve been talking about, but we can’t leave it there.
So, V, you suggested, and I thought this was so important, to talk a little bit about what people can do right now, how folks can actually do something that helps us not feel totally hopeless. And what are the steps that we can be taking that are actually helpful right now as opposed to maybe things that might seem like they would be helpful, but which are really, really not actually what’s most needed in this moment? And one of those things folks have been talking about in some circles but which I think is really, really important to lift up is why it’s so critical to fund local abortion clinics and advocacy organizations like Laurie, the one that you run in instead of, say, the national organizations that have a lot of visibility and name recognition like Planned Parenthood, for example, but which are not where the dollars are most needed right now. All love to Planned Parenthood, as I say that, to be clear.
But Laurie, it feels like that’s a really good place for you to tell a little bit of the story behind MRFF, the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, which you started, which you run. Talk a little—you were talking a little bit before about the full gamut of reproductive justice that your organization serves—but talk a little bit about why this model of advocacy and community support is so important right now and what people can do. What can people do to not feel hopeless right now? What can people do? What should people do?
ROBERTS: Take it off, mute, Laurie. That helps. [chuckles] So, the story of MRFF is kind of simple. It came out of the fact that I stopped working ‘cause I was too sick to work at my job where I was on my feet all day. And my job didn’t wanna accommodate me anymore, and so I decided I would go back to doing more activism and be a professional pain in the butt [chuckles] or a non-professional, I guess, but be a pain in the butt at the state legislature every year and go sit and live tweet what was going on at the legislature and do community organizing until I could figure out a way to get paid for it, I guess. I don’t know. I just figured I’d go do advocacy ‘cause I could do it on my own time then. And then eventually, I started doing leadership in NOW, and then we founded MRFF.
And I think the reason that the way the MRFF does advocacy is so important now is that I believe in FUBU style organizing: for us by us, and that’s what it should be. And our org is definitely that. Everyone on our board are working-class and low-income Black queer disabled folks. Everybody has intersecting identities. They’re of the community because we want our work to be reflective of the needs of the community, and we don’t want it to be top down. And so, that informs why we have things like a 24/7 free pantry on our front lawn. That’s why we own property that we’re trying to make sure that we can make accessible to people in the future. That’s why we do things like give away diapers, including all sizes, including adult sizes. That’s why we have things like our period supply pantry. That’s why we do things like Christmas projects. And that’s why we don’t only support parenting for people with small children, but all the way through their life span. It’s why we support abortion and parenting. And we do all sorts of work, everything from helping people pay for their birth control to helping people pay for their STI treatments and their wellness checks and getting them connected to other services in the community. But yeah, that’s the work. That’s the work, is making things accessible for everybody, not just the most easily served people of the marginalized folks that you serve. That should not be your target goal.
VALLAS: Yeah, and V, same question to you. I mean, folks are feeling really hopeless right now. Maybe folks are feeling slightly more hopeful hearing Laurie talk about her organization and some of what they’re doing against all odds in the deep, deep South. But why is it so important for folks to be giving local right now on this issue? What should folks be doing? And for folks who are out there listening, thinking, “What’s the one thing I could do,” what’s your advice?
THOMPSON: I think it’s so important to go local because that’s gonna have the greatest impact on your neighbors, those in your community. How can we keep our access to these facilities, these current iterations, up and running still, despite the pressures to keep them closed? I think if you wanna see, people wanna see where that money goes, it’s going to go to the utmost use. It’s going to be utilized in a way that empowers members in the community who need this access, not just for abortion, but for all of the other medical and social and community needs that Laurie pointed out in what they do at her organization. And I think that’s something that we need to realize, is that there are people already doing this work and have been doing this work that was never on our radar. Now is the time for us to literally put money where our mouth is and give it to them. Give it to them so that they could continue to do the work, so they could continue to save people lives, save children, save access, giving people opportunity to still live the life that they want to live, whether they want to become pregnant and want to have a safe journey in their pregnancy or decide, you know what? I don’t wanna become pregnant because that’s not what I wanna have my life to be. And they can make that decision as well.
So, I think that for me as a social worker, my mind is always solution focused. What can I do in this moment? And if you’re feeling helpless, donate your money, your time, share the resources that are available. That is something. That counts so much. And I think that can chip away at that sense of hopelessness, that frustration that we’re all feeling right now. And it’s so easy to get swamped by that because we’re doom scrolling every day. We kind of figure out what is the next hiccup that’s gonna happen? And I think really, doing something that’s going to have the greatest impact like giving to these abortion funds, giving to these organizations that are really doing incredible work, makes us feel less helpless, less hopeless, and maybe finding some rare light in the hopefulness that can exist. So, I think that taking some control back is very key right now, figuring out what that looks like for you, and then sharing it with those that you know so that they too can not feel as hopeless, but feel empowered to do something that is worthy.
THOMPSON: And to continue to educate yourself on how to do that and not just say one-time donation. If you have the ability to be a monthly donator or a quarterly donator, to do that as well.
THOMPSON: It’s not just a one-and-done type of situation. This is not that at all. It’s going to be a continuous effort. And these funds that other institutions are going to need that support for the rest of this year going into next year and however long this fight continues for.
ROBERTS: Can I just—
VALLAS: I love it.
ROBERTS: Can I just add one thing?
VALLAS: Please, Laurie. We’re running out of time—
ROBERTS: I know. I’ll be really quick.
VALLAS: —but go for it.
ROBERTS: I just really wanna encourage everyone in the disco to think about learning about self-managed abortion and how to do, how people can do that safely. Look at the WHO protocols involving misoprostol in case you ever know someone who might need that important First Amendment-protected information just for, you know, curiosity’s sake, maybe. Or harm reduction’s sake. That’s information that we should be spreading around the community, so people have it in case they need it.
VALLAS: And one of the things we will have in our show notes is a link to resources for where folks can find where can they give local, where in their community can they give. That’s one of the most important things folks ask, is where can they figure out where they should be giving in their community.
Laurie, Vilissa, I wish we had another hour for this conversation, and I knew I was gonna feel that way before we got started. But in closing, I wanna actually borrow some of your words, Laurie, because I feel like they’re really the right place to leave this conversation and really the right note to end on. You have said, “One of the lessons that I learned is that we help us. It’s good to work on policy and within the system, but at the same time, we got us.” That really influenced the work I do now. So, hearing you talk about the story behind the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, MRFF, right, and also hearing you, Vilissa, talk about this moment and why it is so easy to feel helpless and hopeless while we’re waiting for the savior to our policymakers to come and do something, this is a moment to remember we help us. And that’s why connecting with our communities and bringing support in whatever way we can locally is the most important thing we can do right now as we hopefully work to swing that pendulum back and codify the right to abortion, which is no longer constitutionally protected.
Vilissa Thompson is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, where her work focuses on the intersection of race, gender, and disability. She also serves as my fellow co-director of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative and is the founder of Ramp Your Voice. And Laurie Bertram Roberts is founder and executive director, as you’ve been hearing, of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, a reproductive justice organization that reduces barriers for access to abortion care. Just a huge thanks to both of you for this conversation. This was amazing, and I’m just so appreciative of both of your work. And Laurie, we gotta hang out in person.
VALLAS: You are amazing.
ROBERTS: I can’t wait. I mean, honestly, we all have to get together.
THOMPSON: We do.
THOMPSON: I cannot wait either. Sending you both all good wishes in this incredibly challenging time and just a lotta love. A lotta love.
ROBERTS: Much, much love.
THOMPSON: Yes. Thanks for the space.
ROBERTS: Till next time!
VALLAS: And folks, we got more good disability pride ADA month content coming up all month long on Off-Kilter. [theme music returns] So, tune in next week as we continue this series.
And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.