The Emory Reproductive Health Association (ERHA) held its first annual conference at the Rollins School of Public Health this past Saturday, hosting speakers and panelists who discussed the conference’s theme: “Sexual and Reproductive Health through a Social Justice Lens.”
“Globally, when abortion is legal and accessible, women remain healthy,” said Willie J. Parker, an obstetrician-gynecologist, in his keynote speech at the conference. “When [it is not accessible], women die.”
Parker is one of three doctors who provide abortions for women in Mississippi. Two to three times a week, he flies from Alabama to Mississippi, where he conducts abortions at the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. This clinic, also called the Pink House, is the state’s only reproductive health clinic that offers access to abortions.
Parker makes the biweekly commute because he knows that there will be women waiting for him “who nobody else will help,” he said.
In an average day, the clinic will provide counseling and abortion services to between 20 and 120 women, according to Nursing School junior Kayley Scruggs, who attended the conference and works as a patient escort at the clinic.
One third of women will have an abortion by the time they are 45 years old, Parker said. Although these women are of all races and backgrounds, there remains a “preoccupation with race and stigma[s].”
Protestors gather regularly outside the Pink House, using race to rally against Parker’s abortion practices.
“What sickens me is that you’re a black man taking [black lives],” one protestor said in a clip that Parker shared during his speech. “All black lives matter.”
Some people have claimed that abortion is a form of black genocide, Parker said.
“There’s an allegation that Planned Parenthood is a racist organization … killing black women and black babies.”
Parker said he believes that no woman is obligated to have a baby because of her skin color or because of a fear that “the police are going to kill [her] off.”
Parker added that a woman’s zip code should not affect her access to sexual and reproductive health services. However, a woman’s wellbeing is often affected by her location, considering that Georgia’s abortion policies are more relaxed than those in Mississippi, Scruggs said.
“I still see patients [in Atlanta] stigmatizing their own situations, but it seems a little less influenced by external sources,” she said. “There’s still definitely a stigma here; I see tons of similarities in reactions to abortions and patients’ perceptions.”
One of Parker’s goals is to convey the interconnectedness of sexual and reproductive health issues. Some of the conference’s other speakers agreed with his approach.
Stu Marvel, a doctoral candidate at the Osgoode Hall Law School and a postdoctoral fellow at the Emory School of Law, said that people must think about the intersections between all sexual and reproductive health issues.
In doing so, people should consider the roles of social institutions, she said.
This includes the hierarchies inherent in many college campuses, Marvel said, especially those within the most prestigious and economically fortunate universities.
At Yale University, 34.6 percent of female students said that they had experienced sexual assault by force or incapacitation and at Harvard University, that same statistic was 29.2 percent, according to Marvel.
Marvel added that many universities have been slow to address sexual assault in the past.
She said that this might have been delayed because “white men overwhelmingly hold the most powerful positions, [including] presidents, provosts [and] professors.”
However, universities have begun to address sexual assault more effectively due to a widespread acknowledgment and rejection of rape culture, she said.
“Vulnerability is universal; it defines the human condition,” Marvel said.
Other speakers at the conference included Roger Rochat, Emory Research professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Hubert Department of Global Health; Pamela Scully, Emory Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies professor, African Studies Professor and assistant vice provost for Academic Innovation; and Lorrie King, Peace Corps program coordinator for the Rollins School of Public Health and founder of “50 Cents Period.” Each of them drew from their own work and experiences.
A three-member panel on sexually transmitted infections (STI) services followed the one-and-a-half hour speaker series. Dominique Doyle, senior health educator at Planned Parenthood Southeast; Saman Wijesooriya, CDC staff member; and John Blevins, associate research professor and acting director of the Interfaith Health Program, answered questions from attendees about health issues, services and misconceptions during the session.
Doyle compared STI-related issues on a global scale to those on a more local scale, discussing the importance of accessibility to STI symptom and service information.
“If people in the city of Atlanta don’t have access to [STI service] information like that, then think about [the information that women don’t have] in rural areas,” Doyle said.
Interactive sessions and a networking hour followed the panel session.
The goal in hosting this conference was to “bring together multidisciplinary voices from across Emory’s campus,” ERHA Co-President Ruvani Jayaweera said. She added that the conference was a success, citing its 130-member audience over the course of the day.
“I think we had people show up who were really impressed by the multidisciplinary nature of our talks and our speakers’ new ways to think about work,” ERHA Co-President Lasha Clarke said. Sexual and reproductive health issues apply to everyone, including “indigenous people, people of color, women and people with disabilities,” she said. “[These] are issues that impact each and every one of us here.”
Update (11/17 at 5:27 p.m.): In paragraph twenty eight, the article stated that nearly 100 guests attended the conference. The conference actually had 130 attendees over the course of the day.