Our Bodies Our Lives Coalition for Reproductive Justice and Bodily Autonomy recently celebrated its first anniversary after a year filled with activism for reproductive justice on the South Coast. …
Our Bodies Our Lives Coalition for Reproductive Justice and Bodily Autonomy recently celebrated its first anniversary after a year filled with activism for reproductive justice on the South Coast. The Coalition was created in response to the June 24, 2022 Supreme Court Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which had established 50 years of legal access to abortion. The coalition works to bring together South Coast individuals, organizations and agencies to defend the freedom that is fundamental to every person — the right to control their own bodies.
Our Bodies Our Lives is co-chaired by Gail Fortes of the YWCA Southeastern Massachusetts and Andrew Pollock of the South Coast LGBTQ+ Network and is one of many social justice affiliates of the Women’s Alliance of Southeastern Massachusetts. Together these partner organizations work to assure that accessible, respectful medical care as well as quality education, housing, and employment opportunities are available to all people on the South Coast. Several committees shape and carry out the broad Women’s Alliance agenda of antiracism, intersectional feminism, and racial and gender equity.
Our Bodies Our Lives Coalition has worked towards a number of goals over the past year. The coalition held several information-sharing sessions with area reproductive health providers including Health Imperatives, Planned Parenthood, and other groups. An initial problem raised was the poor access of South Coast residents to local abortion services. As highlighted by the New Bedford Light on May 25, 2022, South Coast has been an “abortion desert” with the nearest services offered in Attleboro, difficult to access for South Coast residents without automobile transportation.
The coalition welcomed the June 2022 creation of an abortion access fund by Women's Fund SouthCoast with an initial generous gift of $25,000 from a Women's Fund Founding Mother. The fund facilitates safe travel, lodging, and childcare for South Coast individuals seeking abortion care. In the absence of comprehensive abortion services on the South Coast, the financial assistance of the Women's Fund is especially important.
To explore the availability of local resources, the coalition conducted a survey of local agencies and providers. The survey found that a variety of reproductive services are available to South Coast residents including counseling, education, and referral services. Agencies reported that they offer contraception, gender-affirming care, and support in cases of sexual assault. However, no local organizations offered medication or surgical abortion services. Several agencies mentioned the need for more comprehensive, affordable, and accessible services.
Our Bodies Our Lives was very pleased when one local agency, Health Imperatives, announced that it would begin offering medication abortion in July 2023 at each of its seven locations, including Howland Place in New Bedford. Those new services are a significant step forward for South Coast residents in access to reproductive health care, and the coalition congratulates and thanks Health Imperatives for this important provision of services.
To address the lack of surgical abortion services, Our Bodies Our Lives opened up a conversation with representatives of Southcoast Health, the largest provider of medical services on the South Coast, about the possibility of offering surgical abortions in its facilities. The coalition engaged with the Board of Directors of Southcoast Health as they interviewed candidates for their chief executive officer, suggesting questions to be raised in the interviews. In addition to abortion care, the coalition expressed concerns about accessible services for women of color with high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity. The coalition looks forward to the arrival of David McCready as the new head for Southcoast Health and anticipates ongoing discussions about reproductive services for area residents.
To strengthen local support in the South Coast, the coalition gathered statements from local religious leaders in favor of reproductive justice. A number of South Coast clergy have responded to the coalition's requests, noting the support of their denominations for the full spectrum of reproductive care without discrimination. Our Bodies Our Lives is grateful for the religious community's moral support for comprehensive reproductive care and welcomes additional statements from South Coast religious leaders.
Our Bodies Our Lives has partnered with several community groups focused on women's rights and reproductive health. Members have participated in many Saturday rallies organized by the Women's Alliance at the Hastings Keith Federal Building in New Bedford. The coalition joined in the Women's Alliance Rally for Reproductive Rights on July 9, 2022 that included a march from Buttonwood Park to the New Bedford Public Library. These rallies brought together South Coast individuals concerned by threats to reproductive care and have strengthened local feminist alliances.
In other community collaborations, Our Bodies Our Lives staffed an informational table at the October 2022 film screening of The Janes co-sponsored by Cinema New Bedford and the Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. The documentary describes an underground Chicago network that provided over 11,000 low-cost abortions in the era before Roe v. Wade. Coalition members took part in a lively post-film question-and-answer discussion after the film with one of the volunteer “Janes.”
Our Bodies Our Lives took part in International Women’s Day in March 2023 and several health fairs to share information and form new connections with individuals and groups. The Coalition joined with the New Bedford YWCA for Advocacy Day at the State House in May 2023 sponsored by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women. Among other pieces of legislation promoted by the Commission, Coalition members advocated for the Healthy Youth Act to improve comprehensive sex education in Massachusetts public schools.
Coalition members attended New Bedford Pride month events in June 2023 to support the local LGBTQ+ community. Our Bodies Our Lives has been alarmed at the rapid rise in anti-trans legislation across the nation, with multiple bans on gender-affirming care for young people. The coalition is deeply concerned that bodily autonomy is being eroded for some of the most vulnerable residents of our country. The right to control one's own body is a fundamental human right at the heart of the Coalition's priorities.
In response to high rates of US maternal mortality, especially for women of color, Our Bodies Our Lives members visited the June 2023 open house of Sacred Birthing Village, a support network for Black pregnant women located on Rivet Street in New Bedford. The coalition took note of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health July 2023 report that documented the dramatic rise in severe maternal morbidity in Massachusetts. Between 2011 and 2022, rates of maternal morbidity doubled, with Black women experiencing 2.3 times more complications during delivery than white women. The report underlines the need for more services for pregnant women in Massachusetts, especially in minority communities.
Pollock, who co-chairs the Our Body Our Lives Coalition, is also the executive director of the South Coast LGBTQ+ Network and the Coastal Neighbors Network.