Millennials Link Sexuality, Justice, and Faith

Sally Steenland interviews Samantha Griffin on Millennials' view of Roe v. Wade and how faith can inform and deepen conversations about reproductive justice.

Listen to the interview here (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 training and resources to faith-based leaders working on reproductive justice in order to strengthen and raise the visibility of their work. You can learn more about this project here.

Samantha Griffin works at the Black Women’s Health Imperative, where she manages research on the reproductive health access and choice of black women and Latinas. She also facilitates trainings on issues critical to women’s health such as HPV, HIV, sexual health, and breast cancer. She worked at the Young Women’s Project, where she recruited and trained youth educators and advocates. Samantha is a council member of Sisters in Serenity at Union Bethel A.M.E. Church and the vice chair of the Women’s Information Network, a pro-choice Democratic women’s organization.

Sally Steenland: A lot of people are talking about the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Some say that there is a generational split in the reproductive rights movement and that Millennials either don’t care as much about the issue as older women or are not as pro-choice. But the work you do seems to refute that notion.

Samantha Griffin: You know, Sally, this conversation is so interesting to me. I think some of it stems from the reality that Millennial women have not known a world without legal abortion in the United States. So there’s this concept that since we didn’t suffer in the same way and we were fortunate never to have to go to back alleys with any sort of regularity that we aren’t as protective of those rights. But I think that because of our blessedness that it’s the opposite.

We have always known a world where it’s legal for a woman to make choices about her pregnancy and her preparedness to parent, and we don’t want to go back. Some of the conversation stems from surveys that say Millennial women don’t know what Roe v. Wade is. I thought that was sort of amusing because when you think about the state of American education and our history classes—I mean, how many people know individual court cases? That’s just not what many of us are focused on.

But although the language may be different, we know it’s so important for a woman to have bodily autonomy and be able to decide what’s right for her, what’s right for her family, and we consistently show up when there are battles around choice.

We showed up for Planned Parenthood when it was going to be defunded. The fact that the organization is able to continue and not only provide abortion care but other reproductive services—including contraception and many important screenings—as well is largely because of the activism of Millennial women. We showed up online, we marched, we donated. Planned Parenthood funding went up because of us and because we care. I think we always need to be talking about intergenerational things, and that’s going to continue as long as there are progressive movements. But the concept that because in whatever survey they [the Pew Research Center] did of particular Millennial women, the women couldn’t identify a court case—I think that’s a bit off-base.

SS: That’s a very good point. You talk about activism, advocacy, online organizing, social media. What are some of the unique gifts that Millennials bring to this debate?

SG: I think we bring a lot, including the fact that we’re so comfortable with technology and can connect in ways that were unfathomable even 10 years ago. I could go and talk to a feminist in Egypt online if I want to. Right now, I could log on and do that. That connects us in ways that make it much easier to mobilize very quickly. We’re the most diverse generation that America has seen yet, and that’s only going to continue. We grew up in schools and in communities where we were in touch with people that were not like ourselves.

Many of us know the importance of inclusivity, and when we talk about reproductive justice, we are talking about more than abortion. That may actually get to your earlier question about why some of us may not identify with pro-choice. Millennials, we don’t like labels. We tend to reject anything that boxes us in. And so when we talk about reproductive justice, we’re talking about it in the broadest and truest sense. The right of every woman, in every family to control what their family looks like—if they’re going to parent, when they’re going to parent. We have gone beyond the choice model to include things such as gay marriage. We believe in transgender rights. And I think that’s incredibly valuable for the movement.

SS: I’m intrigued by your idea of clicking on your computer right now and chatting with a feminist in Egypt. That has huge implications. By connecting with women around the world, what does that do to the work at home? Is there a stronger global connection?

SG: I think it has huge implications for how we do our work. Say that I am interested in HIV education, for instance. I’m not just thinking of it from my office here in D.C. I can think about it across the country. What are other states doing? Are they moving toward a more comprehensive sexual-health curriculum? What are they doing across the world?

SS: Maybe we’re less likely to stereotype other cultures because they don’t look like us. Maybe we’re less likely to impose a Western or American model of feminism.

SG: Absolutely. I would very much agree with that.

SS: I want to ask about your job at the Black Women’s Health Imperative. You operate at the local and the national level. What are some of your top projects this year, and what are some of the challenges you are facing?

SG: Well, we are actually celebrating our 30th anniversary.

SS: Congratulations!

SG: Thank you so much. We’ll be celebrating in October. And I am not at liberty to release the details on that, but it’s going to be really exciting.

The Black Women’s Health Imperative was founded in the concept of reproductive justice. That is our grounding. It’s the idea that black women need to be able to control their bodies, their own wellness, and their own lifestyle—whether that’s sexual health and reproductive rights or something such as chronic diseases.

What we’re doing this year is getting back to that grounding in reproductive justice. We’re going back to the basics. We are specifically focusing on sexual health and reproductive justice as one priority issue area. The other issue area we’re focusing on is lifestyle change. And the two issue areas are working in tandem because as we know, in order to make choices about our families and our reproduction and our sexuality, we need to be in a well and whole state of mind.

SS: That sounds exciting. So we’ll be on the lookout for news this coming October. Happy birthday Black Women’s Health Imperative!

SG: Thank you, Sally. I’ll pass that on.

SS: I want to ask about the Leadership Institute that you’ve been a part of all of this past year. As you know, the Center for American Progress has a Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, and you’ve been one of the key leaders and participants. We’ve been talking about reproductive justice so far. Faith is another key component, but lots of times people don’t see the link between the two.

SG: For me, the link is inextricable. The story that I love to tell when questions such as this come up is that my first sexual education was actually in a Sunday school classroom. It was my mom. She was a youth minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church. And looking back, they were actually being very forward thinking and progressive. It was in the late 90s, when black churches decided that they needed to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic that was and still is doing damage in our communities. They decided to do a program called “Keeping It Real, What’s the 411?”

At the time, it was very “hip” language. It was really on point. And so in that class, I was taught that sexuality is a beautiful thing. And it is divinely sanctioned. It’s not this shameful, secretive thing, and it’s so unfortunate that many people don’t believe that their faiths and their realities as sexual beings can coexist.

My faith embraces the right of everyone to have pleasure and to also have bodily control over themselves to create relationships and family structures that are best for each of us. So when it comes to reproductive justice, if sex is a good thing, then the product of that is also potentially a good thing. And so whether a woman decides that should be a child, or whether it is intimacy and a relationship, that’s a decision that’s best left up to her and her God. We can’t intrude on that divine relationship. God created us to be sexual and to relate to one other in that intimate way. And that’s a good thing. So how can we shame women for needing to make their own decisions after having sex?

SS: That sounds absolutely right. You’re talking about something that’s divine and sacred, and intruding on that with politics from some outsider feels profane.

SG: To me, it absolutely does. Whether it’s government or society, to enforce something on a woman in the midst of this beautiful, intimate thing—I can’t imagine it. I can’t imagine being punitive in that way.

SS: There’s been a lot of talk about religious liberty lately, especially with the contraceptive-coverage mandate in the new health care law. Some religious groups don’t want to provide that coverage and are claiming that it violates religious liberty. But the way you’re talking now, it seems that for somebody to make those decisions is a core violation of your religious liberty.

SG: I completely agree. If we are going to be a true democracy and believe in the separation of church and state, then no one else’s church gets to have more importance than mine—or than someone who has a completely different set of values than mine. I think that faith is such an individual thing, and that’s a beautiful thing about our country. We should not ever change that—particularly when it comes to such a private, personal matter as my own family planning.

SS: Somebody’s free to say that they think you’re wrong or even to say that they think you’re a sinner. But what they’re not free to do is take that theological belief and make that a law.

SG: Absolutely. It’s important we bring these conversations into the public square. I think that’s one of the most wonderful things about the Leadership Institute. It gives us all an opportunity to air some things and talk about them. It’s great to learn. But it’s not great to take those beliefs and trample upon anyone else. America is this great social experiment. We’re still in the midst of it. And we have to learn to get along with one another.

SS: I have another Leadership Institute question. Around the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, you and your fellow leaders released a public statement on what you believe about faith and reproductive justice. You call for faith communities to be advocates on this issue. There are a range of things that faith communities and faith leaders can do in terms of their own congregations and in the public square.

SG: The Leadership Institute has been transformative for me in that it’s given me the concept of bringing my whole self to both to my faith work and the work I do in reproductive justice. I think one of the most important things that any person of faith can do is to come out about that. I know that coming-out language is usually used in terms of sexuality, but we can’t be quiet people of faith if we’re going to do this work with integrity.

It’s important for the people you work with—maybe at a clinic and you’re part of an escort program [which assists women entering abortion clinics while antiabortion advocates are staging a protest]—it’s important that they know you’re doing this work out of a place of faith. And by the same token, faith leaders who are clergy members—I think it’s important that they bring their progressivism and their beliefs in reproductive justice into the pulpit. I think that those are opportunities we’ve missed, and we’ve allowed regressive faith leaders to take the reins and define in this country what it is that people of faith think about women’s health and sexuality.

I’ve done work at my church’s women’s ministry. In the churches that I’ve belonged to, women’s ministries can be thriving places of communities. I would love to see more women’s ministries address the issue of sexuality and reproductive health and provide a space for women to talk about their experiences. I mean, statistically, one in three women have terminated a pregnancy. So that means in our congregations, in our pews, and in our mosques, there are women who have terminated pregnancies, and we should make our places of faith places where women feel safe.

It’s important validation for the decisions they’re making, if all they’re used to hearing when it comes to religion and their bodies is that things are shameful and dangerous, and pregnancy can be this punishment. I can imagine that would be very hurtful for a woman. So I would love to see women’s ministries become a place of healing—if that’s needed—and celebration about the choices we are making.

SS: This has been an inspiring conversation for me. And yet we know that there are obstacles to the work that you do. In states across this country, there are more and more laws making it harder for a woman to exercise her God-given rights in terms of parenting and children. So when you face these obstacles and the everyday grind, what gets you up in the morning and gives you energy to get you through your day? What gives you hope?

SG: The simple answer is relationships. Relationships give me energy, they give me hope. They remind me of the importance of the work, and coming from a place of faith, the most important relationship for me is with my God. So that is energizing. In addition to that, your question is timely because of an event last night at the Women’s Information Network, which is a community of pro-choice democratic women about 1,100 strong.

We had this amazing event that honored 48 young women who are pro-choice and Democratic here in the D.C. area and who are doing incredible work. Of course, that means that they’re Millennials, so we’re coming full circle. It was so exciting to hear about the work they’re doing. Women are organizing politically in their communities around labor issues and violence against women. They’re doing these incredible things, and to see them gives me inspiration.

It makes me want to keep going—and not only keep going but run faster. I’m so inspired by my peers right now, and today I’m just vibrating with excitement about what the world can be if women are given the opportunity—or more accurately, if women take the opportunity to continue to move forward and stand on the side of one another. So I’m energized by the women around me—and the men, in some cases.

SS: Well, that’s a perfect note to end on, because March is Women’s Month and March 8 is International Women’s Day. It’s a celebration of women around the world and in our communities. You just gave a great shout out to the women you work with. Thank you so much for your work. It’s really crucial.

SG: Thank you so much, Sally, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about it.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

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