When people think of social justice in Richmond, it’s hard not to think of Delegate Jennifer McClellan. She is a vocal advocate for women’s rights and the rights of all people and has been outspoken in this legislative session regarding the controversial ultrasound bills, personhood, and voter ID bills, in addition to other important bills. What I think makes Del. McClellan so fantastic at advocacy is her passion, her practicality, and her ability to frame the issues in a way everyone can understand them. I have the utmost respect for her that was reinforced during our interview.
In what has become my standard first question, I asked her to talk about social justice and what it means to her. She responded that a lot of it was truly personal for her as an African American and a woman. She did not just fall into social justice; it has been a part of her family life for a long time. “Not that long ago we had issues of racial discrimination in my family” Del. McClellan explained. Coming from a family that has experienced racism, it’s no wonder Del. McClellan fought so hard against the voter ID bills, which would have required certain proof of ID to cast an official ballot (before the law was passed, you could sign an affidavit saying you are who you say you are under the pains and penalties of perjury). These laws disproportionately impact people of color, people in poverty, seniors, and women according to various studies done and testimony from experts at the General Assembly.
Del. McClellan also had a child not long ago, providing her with a “unique perspective that, quite frankly, has not been raised here before,” she said. During our conversation, the depth of impact that motherhood had on the Delegate was apparent. But if you watched any of her floor speeches, you couldn’t miss that influence. During one speech regarding the ultrasound bill, she (now infamously) pulled out the book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” arguably the most well-known pregnancy handbook in existence. You can watch that amazing speech by visiting http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENOxYiwrres.
Delegate McClellan became interested in politics reading about the Kennedy’s, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez, among others activists. She said, “their work wasn’t finished.” Her political influence didn’t stop at reading about activists; her father was an educator and a minister and her faith is vital to her policy opinions. Del. McClellan said she likes to “focus more on the social justice aspects that Jesus taught; that part doesn’t get out much.” She’s right about that, which is incredibly frustrating for activist Christians, especially when the “Christian” voice heard by the world is mostly from the Conservative, evangelical side.
Like the activists that Del. McClellan admires, she continues the fight, and the fact that she is working for the same social justice issues championed in the past does not escape her. Del. McClellan said that we are “refighting battles our mothers fought, and why?” Like the many women before her, the Delegate is working hard to protect a woman’s right to choose, which is important for all women, especially mothers. Our mothers and foremothers (and some men too) fought for us to vote, they fought for us to go to colleges and get an education, for us to play sports, for our work to be valued as much as a man’s and for us to be compensated equally (an ongoing battle). They fought for us to be able to take birth control so we weren’t forced into a life we didn’t want, and now even something as simple as access to birth control is becoming a heated issue, one dominated by male voices. They fought for rape to be classified as a crime and then spousal/partner rape to be recognized as rape. They fought for domestic violence laws to protect women (and men) from abuse. And yes, they fought for the right to choose. Choice isn’t about one life, it is, from the very beginning, about two. It doesn’t stop at two though, it goes on to society, to communities that are supposed to support women in their pregnancies and support struggling families. Instead, we cast her and her children out, we call her a “welfare queen.” We say she’s having more kids just to get more money, we make laws to limit how many children will be covered in our welfare programs, we cut funding to programs to help struggling families, and, to add insult to injury, we fund empirically ineffective abstinence-only programs so we can blame women who get pregnant by telling them they shouldn’t have had sex. Interestingly enough, we don’t tell boys and men the same thing after a woman gets pregnant. This is the war on women.
Apparently, the injustices listed above are not enough in Virginia. In Virginia, conservative women legislators introduced companion bills in the House of Delegates and the Senate for “informed consent” in abortion. The controversial bills, mocked throughout the United States and around the world, initially required that women seeking an abortion undergo a transvaginal ultrasound, be given an option to view the ultrasound images and listen to the fetal heartbeat, and then wait at least 24 hours in order to have an abortion. The atrocity of this proposal is profound, starting with the fact that transvaginal means “inside the vagina,” meaning a woman would be required by law to have a probe inserted in her vagina. I consulted with some lawyer friends and discovered that this does violate current “object sexual penetration” statutes in Virginia since the ultrasound has no bona fide medical purpose (you can draw your own conclusions as to what that means). The bill was changed due to political and media pressure to exempt victims of rape if they report the rape, and to make the ultrasound transabdominal instead of transvaginal. I can only assume that they thought this would be less invasive, which it is, but only slightly. A government mandating a medical procedure is abhorrent; even mandatory vaccines for public health have opt-out provisions (home schooling, religious exemptions, etc.). The version of the ultrasound bill that passed and was ultimately signed into law still has the provision of a wait period, which does nothing but add barriers to women with limited resources, punishing her further. Oh, and the woman has to pay for the ultrasound, not the insurance company (being non-medically necessary and all).
Thankfully, we have Delegates like McClellan who fought so hard against this legislation. We had a long discussion about abortion and women’s right to choose. She, an attorney herself, shared with me (and on the House floor in debate) that when a baby’s heart stops beating in utero but labor has not begun, the procedure to remove the fetus from the woman’s body is considered an abortion procedure. The new law applies to this situation as well. This means that every woman that has a wanted child die inside of her will be forced to undergo an ultrasound, be asked if she wants to view her dead child and hear the nonexistent heartbeat. Then she will have to wait 24 hours to have the procedure. I shared with Delegate McClellan that I heard from a close friend working at a religious hospital that this actually happened to a woman and because the religion governing the hospital did not believe in abortions in any circumstance, this woman was forced to lay in a hospital bed, with a dead child inside of her, until she naturally started labor or got an infection. These are not extreme cases, they are happening all over the country, frequently, but are being ignored.
Delegate McClellan was genuinely impacted by this issue and it was clear to see that her heart ached for women in these circumstances. Her empathy is strong and it motivates her toward change, a characteristic that all good social workers should strive for as well. In spite of all the challenges this session and the heartache that these issues bring, Del. McClellan remains hopeful. When asked how she keeps hope, she responded, “I tend to be a pretty optimistic person anyway. I remind myself that things that are worth fighting for take time. If others before us had given up because it took too long, we never would have achieved what did. Martin Luther King, Jr. could have given up when he was arrested and started getting death threats, but he didn’t.” She added that politics is a pendulum that swings in one direction or another, and until it swings to the political persuasion of those fighting for these rights, we have to fight for those who can’t, those with limited power, in the meantime.
Also in the meantime, perhaps we can learn from Del. McClellan and begin our own indictment of a system that sells sex as glamorous and exploitation of women as normal in every advertisement from print to video media, then tells women they aren’t supposed to have sex, blames women for unwanted pregnancies, and then attempts to make laws that limit her choices after she’s pregnant. When we condemn abortion in the name of life, we are ignoring the pregnant woman’s life. We are ignoring what an entire system has done to force women to give birth, yet ignore her and the child afterwards, unless she does something wrong or socially unacceptable and the system wants her rights taken away or wants to shame her. We have not created a system that supports pro-life, we have created a system that is pro-birth and then pro-don’t-give-a-damn-about-you-after-you-are-born. Of course not all components in our system are like this, but enough are to make this a systemic problem needing systemic solutions.
Contrary to the belief that choice is all about abortion and, from some perspectives, killing babies, choice goes beyond giving a woman a right to terminate a pregnancy. Choice is about giving women the right to choose when to have children. It is about giving them options to have a career or a family or both. It is about giving women the opportunity to not have her body inhabited and go through the painful (emotional and physical) process of giving birth. It is about letting a woman whose child has died inside of her grieve without continuing the pregnancy, instead of making her womb a tomb.
As a (soon to be, assuming I graduate in a few weeks) social worker, I’m inspired by Delegate McClellan’s passion, faith, empathy and courage. Her passion to fight for justice at a time in our Commonwealth where injustice is celebrated and expanded is nothing short of astounding. Her optimism gives me hope to continue the fight. Her faith guides her toward moral governance and aiding in the creation of a common ethos where people are cared for, share power, and freedom reigns. Her empathy for the people she represents and for all people struggling with injustice helps me to know that politics is not all about power, it is also about heart. And finally, her courage to speak out on the issues, to be vulnerable, to keep fighting, should prompt all social workers (and hopefully others) to speak out, organize, and stand up with those who need a voice, who need to find their power.