Building Community and Seeking Justice for Women

An Interview with Kyle Meerkins

This interview with Kyle Meerkins is part of a series profiling leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, a project of CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative conducted by Sally Steenland.

SOURCE: Kyle Meerkins

Listen to the interview (mp3)

This interview is part of a series profiling leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, a project of CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. The Institute provides faith-based leaders working on reproductive justice with training and resources in order to strengthen and raise the visibility of their work. You can learn more about this project here.

Kyle Meerkins is the operational manager at Pro-Choice Resources, a grassroots organization that provides a range of reproductive health services. In his job, Kyle has worked on the Birds & Bees Project, a sexual health and education training program where he designed activities to identify power and privilege associated with sexual identity, race, class, and gender. He is currently working on the abortion assistance fund at Pro-Choice Resources, where he helps women increase their access to abortion and post-abortion counseling and support.

He previously worked in Fargo, North Dakota, serving as a community leader of the Fargo MoveOn chapter during the battle for health care reform and at the Red River Women’s Clinic where he assisted with patient services and was an escort. As an undergraduate, Kyle served as the co-commissioner for his campus ministry. He was raised in the Lutheran Church.

Sally Steenland: Kyle, tell us about the work you do at Pro-Choice Resources. Do you work directly with women?

Kyle Meerkins: I talk with women on the phone every day who are seeking abortion services but have financial barriers, concerns with travel, problems with Medicaid or health insurance. We connect women to resources and also provide grants and loans from $150 to $350.

SS: I’ll play devil’s advocate and say that abortions should be hard to get. Why are you giving women money? That’s the rhetoric of opponents. What is the reality for a woman who’s decided she can’t continue a pregnancy?

KM: There’s this perception that making abortion rare is preferable to comprehensive access to reproductive health services—that by making something go away, we’ll be addressing the problem. The people saying abortions should be hard to get are often the same people saying women should pull themselves up by their bootstraps—even though they may not have boots.

SS: What other services do women need in terms of contraception, child care, decent pay, and so forth? How do these factors influence a woman’s decision about continuing a pregnancy?

KM: Someone who has two children or is unemployed, is a student or unable to afford insurance—when we look at all these layers, we see more clearly what reproductive justice means. If someone doesn’t have $500 to pay for a first-trimester abortion or doesn’t have access to a credit card or friends and family able to offer assistance, there are services she needs that go beyond whether to continue a pregnancy or not. The ability to decide when to become a parent and under what conditions are human rights issues.

SS: You’re a person of faith raised in the Lutheran Church, and you work on abortion issues. Many people of faith would land on the other side of the abortion issue. They might say, “A woman should pray for strength rather than kill her baby.” As a person of faith who is an advocate for women facing situations that are morally complicated, how do you fit together issues of reproductive justice and faith?

KM: When I think about faith, the church’s foundations, and the messages of Jesus, I think about approaches to injustice at the hands of power. It’s about liberation and freeing people who are facing oppression.

The impulse to separate a pregnant person from a fetus and pitting the rights of the fetus against the rights of the person carrying it takes away from the holistic way people make decisions. It’s as though this pregnant person is not able to comprehend her needs, or that they’re not part of a complex ecosystem.

We need to figure out how not to dictate morality but to support someone in decision making around the whole picture of their life.

SS: We need to look inside our own hearts and realize we’ve all faced complicated decisions where we have to ponder and discern and do some hard work to figure out what to do. We want to be trusted to do that work. It’s a matter of trusting women, wouldn’t you say?

KM: Absolutely. Sometimes when we make sweeping moral decisions, it limits the potential for communities and families to see how morality, values, and faith fit together in someone’s life.

SS: I want to ask about the work you did in Fargo, North Dakota. The Red River Women’s Clinic is the only clinic in the state, and you were a clinic escort there. Why did you do that, and what was it like?

KM: I escorted at the clinic for one year and then was on staff for a couple of years. The hope of protesters was that by targeting the clinic they would somehow make North Dakota an abortion-free state—that they would win by being out on the sidewalk and protesting against people entering the clinic.

The escort is a response to that. We provide safe transport from a vehicle to the door of the clinic. A lot of people are yelling at you, claiming to represent the same values, faith tradition, and morality that you claim. Escorts provide critical support by acknowledging there are people from all different walks of life who genuinely trust that you know the best decision for yourself. We’re going to make sure you’re safe getting into the clinic and that the people outside harassing and protesting have only limited access.

That experience showed me how much shame can flare up. People are making a difficult decision, sometimes due to stigma, needing to be secretive—and you can have a powerful impact on someone’s life, being on the frontlines.

SS: North Dakota is a big state. Red River is the only clinic in the state, so a woman may have traveled long distances to get there. Maybe the woman believed abortion was morally wrong and she’d never have one, but then found herself in a situation where that becomes the best decision for her. So she’s dealing with the hurdles of travel, of shame, of a morally complex decision.

KM: Overcoming these hurdles and then experiencing a final hurdle of protesters—including those wearing crosses to say what you’re doing is wrong—that is all very difficult.

SS: I want to broaden the conversation to the Birds & Bees Project, the sexuality education program you worked on. One way to reduce the need for abortion is to promote comprehensive sexuality education and access to contraception. What’s your sense of whether kids in schools are getting a healthy comprehensive sexuality education? Do values and morality fit into these programs?

KM: We’re seeing a trend in sexuality education to focus on comprehensive sexuality education curricula that are shown to reduce pregnancy and transmission rates of sexually transmitted infections. These things are very important. The work we do on sexuality education at Pro-Choice Resources explores things that much of traditional sexuality education doesn’t address—including how values, morality, and faith fit into sexuality education.

We’ve found that a lot of the skills someone would need to negotiate their sexual health decision making are the same skills we hold up in communities of faith. We value building trust, healthy relationships, and healthy decision making.

We have these pendulum swings where we move toward abstinence-only, then toward comprehensive sexuality education. We go back and forth. We’re trying to slice through the middle of that. Our sense is that skills training is going to support young people in making decisions that are right for them. This relates back to our work with women and supporting them to make the decisions they know are best for them.

SS: You’re a Millennial. I don’t want to overgeneralize but is there anything distinctive about the way Millennials see reproductive rights and justice issues that may be different from Gen X’ers and baby boomers?

KM: It’s important to address generational differences in approaching reproductive health and justice. There has been an impulse to say, “Where are the young people? Why don’t they care?  They don’t understand what it was like pre-Roe v. Wade, before abortion was legal.”

There’s a sense that a lack of experience means a lack of ability to understand. For reproductive rights and justice, we as a younger generation stand up for justice in multiple, different ways. Someone who takes up the issue of homelessness, for instance, can learn why reproductive health care and abortion access is important, not because they started out as a reproductive rights activist, but because they saw the ways in which multiple systems were working to oppress an individual.

We have to deepen the conversation rather than assume that because someone is not raising their hand when asked “who cares about abortion rights,” that’s the end of conversation. When we go deeper and draw connections—when we have bigger conversations about how abortion access and reproductive justice fits into the whole picture of oppression, there’s room for a really rich conversation. We can go there, and people will be at the table.

SS: We’ve had some interesting conversations in the Faith and Reproductive Rights Leadership Institute that you are part of. As part of the Leadership Institute, when you look at the landscape of reproductive justice and faith, what do you think needs to happen, not just in the political realm, but culturally and spiritually as well?

KM: I want to say, it’s relevance. People are looking for a way to feel connected, whether that be in spiritual communities or in communities that would not identify as spiritual. People are looking for places where they feel a sense of welcome and belonging.

Our advancing technology and ability to connect via a lot of different media are amazing and should be celebrated. But we still need to address the real needs that are met being together with people.

SS: In terms of the work you do every day, what’s exciting? What gets you up in the morning? 

KM: Being the person I am, and having had access to education, family support, community support, and more brings a lot of privilege and also responsibility. Not just responsibility to stand up for someone who has not experienced the same opportunities, but also to challenge a system that privileges some over others and find places of empowerment.

The thing that excites me is the opportunity to build deeper networks for people in even the tiniest ways. I don’t claim that funding an abortion is leading to systemic change, but there are ways we can approach abortion funding or our work with women that can start to create systemic change. We can leverage our work for one individual into something larger and rethink how this work has historically been done. We can start to build a deeper sense of commitment and a more comprehensive movement that represents the people being served by our work. That’s what excites me—the opportunity to figure out ways we can build deeper support and deeper networks. We can work in the background to make systems and services as accessible as possible for individuals seeking them.

SS: It sounds like you’re doing justice work and basic health care work. You’re building community and seeking justice for women who need it most.

KM: That’s the hope. Whether or not that always comes through every day, I don’t think we can necessarily say. Moving forward, that’s where we want to go and where we need to go. Administering services for abortion funds has been happening for quite a long time and is really important, but we also want to look at the systems and circumstances that put someone into this situation. How are they being supported and held by their community? What is our responsibility to help? And how do we get to a place where $100 isn’t a barrier to accessing a medical procedure, where child care and transportation isn’t going to keep someone from having the health care that they need?

SS: Thank you so much. Thanks for the work that you do and for talking with us today.

KM: Thank you so much, Sally, and thanks for all the work that you do as well.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative