Social Justice in Sexual and Reproductive Health

On Tuesday, November 18th, 2022, the Center for Ethics Education hosted a Zoom conversation on the topic of “Social Justice in Sexual and Reproductive Health.” This was the third installment of the Center’s Fall 2022 Webinar Series. The invited speakers, Associate Professor of Sociology Jeanne Flavin, PhD, Global Health Fellow Shameka Poetry Thomas, PhD, and facilitator Steven Swartzer, PhD, Associate Director of Academic Programs and Strategic Initiatives, engaged in a discussion on the ethics of reproductive and sexual health, health disparities, and systemic racism.

Jeanne Flavin, PhD

Jeanne Flavin is a Professor of Sociology at Fordham University. Her research and scholarship focuses on issues related to gender crime and reproductive justice. Dr. Flavin is the author of the award-winning book, Our Bodies, Our Crimes: The Policing of Women’s Reproduction in America, and more than two dozen scholarly publications. She served on the Board of Directors of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a reproductive justice organization which defends the rights of pregnant and parenting women. She was the recipient of a 2009 Fulbright research award and received the 2013 Sociologists for Women in Society, Feminism, and Activism award. She earned her BA from the University of Kansas, and her MA and PhD from American University.

Researchers at Pregnancy Justice have documented more than 1,600 women in the U.S. who have been arrested or otherwise deprived of their liberty during the period of 1973 until 2020. These women were arrested because of their actions or inactions while pregnant or birthing. Dr. Flavin reports that in a disturbing number of these cases, the initial disclosure of information that led to the arrest, forced intervention, or other punitive state action involved health care providers. Since then, that particular finding has been the focus of her research agenda.

According to Dr. Flavin’s research, in collaboration with Lynn Paltrow, child endangerment laws are being used as the basis for punishing pregnant people including those who intend on having their child. Child endangerment laws only require a “risk to the child” to be enacted, which Dr. Flavin argues could be anything a pregnant person does. Dr. Flavin explains that the use of drugs and other criminalized substances do not cause irreversible harm to developing fetuses despite media accounts once suggested they did. Yet, those who are poor, Black, or with a history of criminalized substance use while pregnant were reported the most by health care workers to police. 

Dr. Flavin argues the reports by health care workers may be misguided, unfounded, or rooted in racial or class prejudice. The more physicians and nurses become entangled in law enforcement, the more they resemble agents of the police, and that in turn undermines the trust that patients policing them. Dr. Flavin’s findings reveal that the policing of pregnant women is harmful and commonly placed in prejudice. She claims that we must insist that health care policies and practice are grounded in science, respect for patients, human rights, and dignity. 

Shameka Poetry Thomas, PhD 

Shameka Poetry Thomas is a global health fellow at Harvard University and the University of Ghana. Dr. Thomas is a medical sociologist, race, scholar, and reproductive health scientist, whose work focuses on the social determinants of adverse pregnancy and birthing outcomes as it relates to provider-patient interactions during the prenatal trimesters labor, delivery, and postpartum health. Her research is specific to the reproductive health experiences of Black women with genetic disorders in the U.S. She was an NIH intramural Postdoctoral fellow from 2020 to 2022. Dr. Thomas earned her BA from Spelman College, MA from Georgia State University, and PhD from the University of Miami.

Dr. Thomas began with a discussion of the history of medical harm and health disparities with respect to Black women. She described how J. Marian Sims, referred to as the “Father of Gynecology,” conducted infamous experimental gynecological surgery exclusively on enslaved Black women who were considered property. The history of the reproductive care, or lack thereof, for Black women in the U.S. gave way to their mistreatment in health care today. Dr. Thomas shared that women with sickle cell disease are 6 to 10 times more likely to die from prenatal difficulties in high income countries like the U.S., despite access to sickle cell treatment. 

In her research, Dr. Thomas focuses on black women to disentangle a group of women in the country that are often seen as monolithic or homogenized. In her study of 40 women, 20 with and 20 without sickle cell, Dr, Thomas found that a large majority of all the women cited unique issues they face regarding prenatal care. One participant said, “-this has been problematic for a very long time. It takes more work to be a Black woman, and this is not about treating us differently. This is about treating us the same.” Participants explained that as Black women going into a hospital, they are seen and treated as “drug seekers.” 

Dr. Thomas advocates for reproductive equity among women of all races and health predispositions. She argues for intersectionality within the healthcare system, and claims without this, we run the risk of perpetuating structural racism altogether. According to Dr. Thomas, racism, not race, influences social determinants of health and social justice is about applying anti-racist and racism approaches, but the key is to “do it willingly.”

Dr. Steven Swartzer

Dr. Steven Swartzer is the Associate Director for Academic Programs and Strategic Initiatives in Fordham University’s Center for Ethics Education. In this role, he directs Fordham’s interdisciplinary Master’s Degree Program in Ethics and Society, and interdisciplinary undergraduate Bioethics Minor. He is also the coach and advisor for Fordham’s Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl team. He earned a BA from the University of Minnesota in Philosophy and Political Science, and a PhD from the University of Nebraska in Philosophy.


Please visit the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education‘s Events Page for upcoming events and webinars. For questions on the series, please email Dr. Steven Swartzer, Associate Director of Academic Programs, at sswartzer@fordham.edu.

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