Interview: Jill Morrison
Meet Jill Morrison.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Morrison went on to attend Rutgers University and Yale Law School, where she edited the Journal of Law and Feminism and was president of the Black Law Students’ Association. Today, she’s Senior Council at the National Women’s Law Center, the DC-based organization that has expanded opportunities for women and girls through the law since 1972.
All this is well and good. But translated another way, and it becomes vital. Jill Morrison is on the front lines of protecting your health care access … access that includes comprehensive reproductive health services.
She’s doing so in a time of unprecedented challenges. The recent Gonzales v. Carhart decision in the Supreme Court upheld the Federal Abortion Ban, not even deigning to permit so-called “partial-birth” abortions for the sake of the mother’s health—revealing skewed priorities that value the fetus more than a living woman. And that’s only the beginning…
As Deborah Siegel said in last week’s interview, “it’s important to really know the facts about where women today stand.” If Morrison is about anything, it’s facts. Specializing in religious restrictions to reproductive rights, she co-authored “Don’t Take “No” for an Answer: A Guide to Pharmacy Refusal Laws, Policies and Practices, National Women’s Law Center,” along with several other publications. Likewise, she works on NWLC’s “Making the Grade on Women’s Health: A National and State-by-State Report Card” project, which identifies and grades key health status and policy indictors for women.
Morrison’s particularly committed to challenging STDs and HIV/AIDS, racial and ethnic disparities, socioeconomic status, violence against women and cardiovascular health.
We owe her big.
Here’s Jill Morrison:
You were once editor of the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism. How do you see feminism influencing, or being influenced by, the law?
Although the term is a political fireball, and some think it is passé at this stage in our history, feminism is simply the theory that supports’ women’s equal participation in society. Feminism challenges the law, which is generally weighed to favor the powerful.
How exactly does feminism challenge the law?
For example, lots of employers excluded contraceptives from their health plan, in part because of women’s secondary status in the workplace and the treatment of reproductive health as “other.” Corporations just left out coverage for contraceptives, despite the clear inequality of denying such coverage. Equity arguments, bolstered by the outrage of plans’ covering Viagra, moved this issue forward by leaps and bounds. Progressive courts have also been sensitive to the unique burdens that pregnancy places on women, not just biologically, but socially.
Much of your writing is dedicated to helping people—women in particular—use the law to maintain their access to health care. For example, you co-authored “Don’t Take “No” for an Answer: A Guide to Pharmacy Refusal Laws, Policies and Practices, National Women’s Law Center,” which was updated recently. How do you see your research and writing taking shape in real women’s lives?
What I’ve seen is that sometimes women think their problems can’t be solved; that they have no recourse. They may think, “It happened—I have to just deal with it,” because they never imagine that their rights may have been violated and there is something that can be done. My research and writing helps women see that they can use the law to right wrongs. Ideally, I would hope that even one opportunity to challenge injustice serves as a catalyst for women to question the injustices in other parts of their lives.
You particularly pay attention to religious restrictions to health care access. Can you describe what’s happening…and what we can do about it in our communities?
Generally, we are seeing religious beliefs used as a motive to deny people legal and medically necessary health information and services. This may range from an infertility clinic that doesn’t want to provide services to a lesbian, to a pharmacist that doesn’t want to fill a prescription for birth control. A health care provider has the duty (which comes with being licensed) to ensure that his or her beliefs do not result in the denial of health care. Providers can put protections in place to make sure that patients have access to the information necessary to make an informed decision and then make meaning referrals to providers who will perform the services.
The most important thing to do in communities is to know your health care resources. Ask your providers: is there anything that you believe in that would prevent you from giving me any services or information?
Can you describe the latest developments in the fight for full access for full health care?
States, with Massachusetts taking the lead, are really the laboratories for full health care access. The biggest development is that it is now a part of the national conversation, and will undoubtedly be a big issue in the presidential election. We put out a report on issues to look for in health care reforms, with a special focus on how these reforms will affect women’s access to healthcare.
There is a growing crisis with the uninsured that’s gotten much worse over the past 10 years. Everyone, including the once invincible middle class, is feeling the crunch.
What is better is the capacity to get information out to those who need it and mobilize them to channel their outrage. The web has completely changed our role as advocates.
What, specifically, has the web changed for you? What place does online writing have in the larger movement for social justice?
Our ability to get information from people who have been wronged is greatly bolstered by our website. It is easier for people to just click a link and tell their stories.
In May we started a blog, www.womenstake.org, and it seems that we are reaching a younger audience. We can also respond to events in a public way in a much shorter timeframe.
The National Women’s Law Center is a non-profit that’s been working since 1972 to protect women’s legal rights. Are today’s women challenged in ways that aren’t so different in the last thirty-five years, or do we have new battles that are peculiar to our moment in time?
As a relative newcomer, I may not be the best person to answer this question, but I have the privilege of working with one of the founding mothers of this organization. She constantly reminds us that we are fighting the same battles that she originally fought, only in different packaging. We certainly have new tools, including vitally important civil rights laws, but those are under threat and under-enforced.
What prize do you have your eye on? Considering your consistent work in law, health, and feminism, what kind of society do you envision?
One where reproductive health is reintegrated into health, and not seen as something to be sacrificed in political battles. I also envision a society where we’ve reached reproductive justice (see SisterSong) Every woman should have the necessary financial and social support to have a child, not have a child, and raise any child she bears.
What do you think of the larger movement for reproductive rights? Does it have enough organization and momentum to keep moving forward, despite—or because of—eight years under the Bush administration?
I think that we are moving forward despite a hostile administration. The blatant attacks on birth control have really raised awareness that there are no limits on the efforts of some to control women’s bodies.
How do you think feminism has affected many women’s attitudes toward health care access and reproductive rights, if at all?
I think its effect is profound but somewhat invisible. Our equal participation in education, employment, politics, etc. would not be possible without the ability to decide when and whether we will have children. Just think about how much harder it is for a woman to escape her abuser if she has children (or is pregnant) compared to if she doesn’t. Reproductive autonomy is crucial to women’s liberation. Because we are the caretakers and decisionmakers for our families, health care access clearly a women’s issue.
RESOURCES FOR WOMEN’S HEALTH AND LEGAL RIGHTS:
National Women’s Law Center
“Our mission is to protect and advance the progress of women and girls at work, in school, and in virtually every aspect of their lives.”
Feminist Law Professors
“This blog is an effort to build a stronger community of feminist law professors across geography, law schools, and scholarly subject areas.”
National Network for Abortion Funds
“We believe that the right to choose abortion is meaningless without access to abortion services.”
Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund
“The Collective was formed in 1997 … to educate women of color and policy makers on reproductive and sexual health and rights, and to work towards the access of health services, information and resources that are culturally and linguistically appropriate.”
Center for Young Women’s Health
“The Center exists to provide teen girls and young women with: Carefully researched health information at YoungWomensHealth.org; Special programs for teens at the Center for Young Women’s Health; Expert medical and surgical care at Children’s Hospital Boston.”
NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts
“Today, more than thirty years later, NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts is still leading the fight for choice on behalf of the women and families of the Commonwealth. With more than 20,000 members throughout the state, our pro-choice constituency is strong.”
Strong Women, Strong Girls
“By building communities of women committed to supporting positive social change, Strong Women, Strong Girls works to create cycles of mutual empowerment for women and girls.”
Pro-Choice Public Education Project
“PEP works to bridge the gap between organizations and diverse young women by both listening to young women’s stories, and by working with organizations to help them meet young women where they are.”
Abortion Conversation Project
“We recognize the transformative power of pregnancy and all its possibilities. We envision a world in which abortion is affirmed as a moral decision without stigma. We believe that open and honest conversations, in a safe environment, about the experience of abortion will begin to create this world.”
“Choice USA mobilizes and provides ongoing support to the diverse, upcoming generation of leaders who promote and protect reproductive choice both now and in the future. “
Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts
“At Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, we envision a future where there is universal understanding and support for the right of each person to responsibly manage his/her sexual and reproductive health.”