(Editor's Note: This article is part of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER's "What Every New Social Worker Needs to Know About..." series.)
Since the United States Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade in 1973, there has been a war on women’s sexual and reproductive health. From the most recent Amendment 26 (also known as the “personhood” bill) vote in Mississippi, the Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) mandate that health insurance companies cover birth control without co-pay, to the Food and Drug Administration’s recommendation that Plan B (also known as emergency contraception) be sold over the counter (and HHS’ subsequent veto of that recommendation), countless legislation has been introduced on the state and federal levels to limit women’s access to adequate and much needed medical services, including birth control options and abortion. More than ever, social workers are needed in the fight to make sure that women’s sexual health and reproductive justice is not compromised.
I’m new to social work, but have been involved in various aspects of the sexual and reproductive justice movement for nearly 10 years. What drew me to social work were the limitless possibilities to help others, from working one-on-one in a counseling session to being an executive director of a nonprofit. I have found social workers in a variety of positions, and it always amazes me. Reproductive justice recognizes the intersections of social, political, and economic structures that work to empower women to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality, our families, and our communities. Social work compliments this, because we advocate for our clients within these structures, and bringing more social workers into the reproductive justice framework will further bring women’s reproductive rights to the forefront, as well as highlight social work as a whole.
In 2010, we saw the beginning of efforts to restrict access to medical and social services, including much needed services such as breast exams, cancer screenings, abortion, and birth control. Instead of focusing on more obvious matters, such as job creation and the economy, lawmakers across the country introduced 1,000 bills, including the Stupak Amendment, which sought to undermine women’s health. The year 2011 also saw some awful bills focused on women’s sexual and reproductive health, and with the 2012 election season underway, so much is at stake. How we collectively advocate for women can have a positive or negative impact on the future of women’s sexual and reproductive health.
The National Association of Social Workers has provided several recommendations, including defining our role as social workers within women’s health, educating more social workers on women’s health and how discrimination affects how women access sexual and reproductive health services, supporting policies that advocate for positive women’s health objectives, and advocating for federal and state funding for research that can better connect social work with women’s health. We can use the NASW’s recommendations to advocate for sound policies that help women to make knowledgeable decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health. We can go out into our communities and into the communities of the populations we serve to bring awareness to the importance of healthcare and the importance of being informed about policies that are set to derail a woman’s right to make the best decisions for her health. We can make lobby visits and speak with legislators on key policies that affect women’s health (as well as thank those legislators who support legislation that makes sexual and reproductive health care accessible for all women). We can develop programs and interventions in our agencies and practices to provide women and girls with strategies to keep their sexual health safe, as well as educate our staff on sexuality, sex education, and advocacy.
As social workers, we often are on the frontline, combining our responsibility to social justice and the ethics of what social work stands for to advocate for a wide array of causes for an even bigger array of populations. It is especially evident in underrepresented communities, where poverty, inadequate access to healthcare services, discrimination, and the “isms” (racism, sexism, and heterosexism, among others) create multiple barriers to having an adequate quality of life.
In 2012, we have to hold fast to our ethics and vision for a better country for women to live in. Women deserve to live in a country where our sexual and reproductive rights are no longer trampled on, where young women receive the best and medically accurate information in order to make the best decisions for their health and lives, and legislators are not constantly finding ways to limit women’s choices. As social workers, we are in a perfect position to be the best advocates for women’s sexual and reproductive health.
Nicole Clark, MSW, lends her expertise as a consultant with nonprofits and community groups who want to improve their approach to developing culturally relevant and youth and/or gender-positive programming, campaigns, and initiatives. She has a B.A. in psychology from Spelman College and a Master of Social Work degree from the Columbia University School of Social Work. Based in New York City, her Web site is http://www.nicole-clark.com .
From The New Social Worker, Winter 2012, Vol. 19, No. 1.