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Western Reproductive Rights Organizations Are Failing Palestinians

“This moment has really illustrated that many people feel like they can be feminist while also supporting genocide.”

Palestinian woman Nour Bedwan, who gave birth at a Jerusalem school after being displaced from her home in Gaza during the Israeli attacks, feeds her baby in Rafah, Gaza, on November 28, 2023.

This story was originally published at Prism.

As Palestinians in Gaza suffer from a lack of reproductive care and a 300% rise in miscarriages as a result of Israel’s bombing of the territory, the silence of some of the biggest reproductive rights nonprofits in the U.S. has led pro-Palestine reproductive justice advocates and workers to question the purpose and commitment of many within the reproductive rights movement. Prism spoke to people working in the reproductive rights field who do not feel at liberty to talk about Palestine in their workplaces for fear of retaliation or termination.

International human rights organizations have been warning the world about the lack of reproductive rights in Palestine for years, but the current bombardment and siege on Gaza have significantly worsened the situation for people who need reproductive care. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), before Oct. 7, 94,000 Palestinian women could not access reproductive care. After Israel’s siege on Gaza escalated in October, the already precarious health care system in the territory has been further weakened, in part because of Israel’s continued targeting of hospitals. According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), an Israeli airstrike destroyed the only health center run by the Palestinian Family Planning and Protection Association (PFPPA) following an attack on an adjacent building. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza are in need of prenatal and postnatal care, while 15% of 180 women giving birth every day are likely to encounter complications that are being treated by a collapsing, overburdened, and under-resourced health care system.

As the situation worsens in Gaza after 129 days of Israel’s bombardments that have killed at least 28,300, injured at least 67,900, and left thousands more under rubble, pro-Palestine reproductive rights workers in the U.S. report that leadership is reprimanding them for talking about the genocide, and they feel unable to express their opinions on the subject. Workers have also noted power differentials within the reproductive rights movement. Anonymously, workers and advocates pointed to the silence of some of the biggest reproductive rights organizations in the country and their disappointment with the dissonance between the issue of reproductive rights and the ongoing genocide of the Palestinians. The Center for Reproductive Rights and the National Women’s Law Center were explicitly cited for their silence, while Planned Parenthood was criticized for the statement they released about Israel’s siege of Gaza.

For many workers and advocates who are women of color, this moment has exposed the hypocrisy of white feminism, where leaders of U.S.-based organizations are happy to keep working for reproductive justice while aligned with a democratic government that is supporting and aiding the annihilation of Palestine.

“Being a pro-Palestine reproductive worker in this moment is incredibly disorienting, and there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance,” said Kinjo Kiema, a reproductive rights advocate who has worked in the field since 2017. “This moment has really Illustrated that many people feel like they can be feminist while also supporting genocide, which I find contradictory and ridiculous.”

Kiema describes the dissonance between working in a human rights-based field and opening her phone to see news of murdered women and children in Palestine. Particularly as a Black woman, Kiema says the refusal of white feminists to speak out about Palestine reminds her of white feminism’s lack of solidarity and action with regard to police violence and other issues related to race and racism.

“We’re doing all this amazing social justice work to support people and fight for bodily autonomy and all the things we need and deserve; meanwhile, many people within the movement, white feminists in particular, feel like they can toe the line of not fully standing with Palestinians or being hesitant to support Palestinian human rights, while also saying that the leaders in the movement are really down for the cause,” Kiema said. “It just feels very exhausting because all this work for social justice feels like a drop in the bucket when I really look at the full scale of just the violence that my own government is enacting.”

Many workers Prism spoke to speculate that big organizations aren’t speaking out on the subject of Palestine because of political alignments with the Democratic Party and Zionist funders of reproductive rights organizations. This explanation, however, isn’t enough to justify the lack of engagement with what some see as a litmus test for social justice and progressive politics.

“By being silent and complicit, we are normalizing the idea that we can betray our values,” said one reproductive justice advocate who works at a nonprofit and preferred to remain anonymous. “Period. It’s really not that complicated; we either believe in reproductive rights everywhere for everyone, or we don’t.”

Internally, sources report that there have been conflicts in big organizations over whether to make a statement on Palestine. Organizations that have made statements on the reproductive rights crisis in Ukraine haven’t said anything about Israel’s genocide and targeting of the health care systems in Palestine. Workers who are pro-Palestine have been reprimanded for speaking out on the issue at work, felt like they can’t be honest about their pro-Palestine position in the workplace, and made their social media accounts private to avoid further reprimanding from management.

Identity politics in the workplace

Mariam, a reproductive rights worker who is using a pseudonym to protect her identity, is Middle Eastern and openly pro-Palestine. After some internal conflict in the abortion access organization she works for and after hearing of similar tensions in other reproductive rights organizations, Mariam became concerned about the precedent set by the House of Representatives in December of last year, when a symbolic resolution was passed equating anti-Zionism to antisemitism. The resolution was framed as an effort to combat rising antisemitism in America, but Mariam says the precedent could embolden legal action against and further silencing of pro-Palestinian organizations and individuals through the false equivalency between antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

At least three sources who spoke to Prism are Middle Eastern and noted the racial undertones of not being allowed to speak about Palestine. At the same time, pro-Israel perspectives in the workplace are not reprimanded and are understood as widely acceptable by management.

“We have seen as a movement that white and Jewish women have felt very comfortable bringing their identity into the conversation,” Mariam told Prism. “But most Muslims and brown people I know who feel connected to this fight haven’t been allowed to bring our identities to the conversation in the same way, even in progressive workplaces … We talk about bringing your full self [to work] all the time, but … [whenever I’d] point out, ‘The people who are dying look like me. I am the only one of this staff where I can relate to that, and the people who claim to support us are talking about us like we’re animals,’ as soon as I’d brought that up, it was an immediate shut down.”

This source also told Prism they know anti-Zionist Jews who have been reprimanded within the reproductive rights field for their pro-Palestine stance.

Another reproductive rights worker who is Middle Eastern noted a similar dynamic in their workplace. “Growing up, in the identities that I hold, I’ve always been very aware that Palestine was always off the table as a public conversation, and I think this is really showing proof of that right now,” they said. “If I don’t disassociate, I can’t do my job. But that’s not the case for people who are pro-Israel. There is a power differential in this political moment that has always existed, but in the workplace, people who are loudly Zionists are more able to say that than anyone who is not.”

This worker says they were reprimanded for their pro-Palestine position, and they have now made their social media accounts private to avoid further retaliation from management.

Anti-Zionist reproductive health worker Asher, who is Jewish and has been going to pro-Palestine protests, says they felt some tension when speaking to their Zionist Jewish manager, including comments where their Jewishness was dismissed because of their pro-Palestine position. Though Asher, who’s using only their first name out of fear of retaliation, hasn’t been formally reprimanded, they feel that reproductive health workers in their clinic aren’t allowed to speak openly about being pro-Palestine and attending protests in their area.

“After Oct. 7 happened, my manager pulled me aside and made this big thing about like, ‘Oh, I’m just checking in. It’s a really hard time right now,’ and I was like, ‘Well to be fair, as a trans person in [a red state], it’s always a danger to exist; this is nothing new for me.’ And she didn’t really like that answer; she wanted it to be this whole thing about how now we’re nervous about our safety.”

Reproductive rights versus reproductive justice

Access Reproductive Care-Southeast (ARC-Southeast), a reproductive justice fund that ensures people in the Southeast of the U.S. receive safe reproductive care, is one of the few reproductive rights organizations that has made a pro-Palestine statement amid the silence of the field. While internal conversations included a risk assessment for the possible online backlash the organization would receive and potential loss of donors, the staff of ARC-Southeast decided that being true to the central tenets of reproductive justice—that everyone deserves the right and safety to choose to have or not have children—meant speaking out about Palestine.

“At ARC-Southeast, we put political education into practice internally in as many ways as possible,” said Musa Springer, media and communications manager at the organization. “So the topic of Palestine and Palestinian liberation has never been off the table for us. We also operate under the assumption that solidarity is a lot stronger than corporate donors, so we did have a conversation about what potential backlash looked like. And the reason a lot of people are perhaps silent on this issue within the repro field could be because many of the corporate donors who give a lot of money to the repro field may also be funding Zionist projects and organizations.”

Springer clarifies that this divide in the movement is due to existing ideological splits between organizations that operate under the umbrella of the reproductive rights movement. While reproductive rights is a legal framework many organizations like Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the National Women’s Law Center operate under, the framework of reproductive justice is inherently internationalist, founded by Black women who wanted to have the right to the conditions to choose whether to have families and were consistently denied those rights by the U.S. government. The differences between these two ideologies within the movement are key to understanding why, for example, Planned Parenthood released a statement that largely played both sides of the issue and refused to mention Palestine specifically.

“As a communications worker, I can tell when a statement is itself a site of struggle and is the results of attempting to play both sides,” Springer said on the Planned Parenthood statement. “But it’s very hard to look at figures of upwards of 12,000 children having died now, 50,000 pregnant people in Gaza, hundreds of birthing people having C-sections with no anesthesia—that’s cutting through eight layers of tissue. It’s hard to see all these things and remain silent and not feel the desire to be on the right side of history.”

For some repro workers, the silence and both-sideism of the field are indicative of larger political disagreements within the wider feminist movement. White feminism and Western feminism were often cited by sources as lacking an international lens and privileging women who live in developed countries over liberation for all.

“Western feminists generally, not just in the U.S., they’re turning a blind eye to their sisters in the Middle East, and you have to ask yourself, why?” a consultant working on reproductive rights who prefers to remain anonymous said. “Feminism is all-inclusive, of all women across the globe, from all backgrounds, all intersectionalities, so it’s not really, ‘It’s feminism if you look like us, and if you don’t, well … ’ There has been a deliberate ignoring of women’s reproductive health needs in Gaza by some global reproductive rights NGOs, despite the overwhelming evidence noted by the U.N. and the International Court of Justice of serious harm, especially around significantly worsening numbers of maternal deaths and miscarriages since Israeli bombardment.”

The limits of a feminist movement that has consistently focused on the rights of white Western women are being exposed every day that the reproductive rights field stays silent on the issue of Palestine. This became very clear to a reproductive rights worker when they watched the video of Democratic voters shutting down calls for a ceasefire during a Biden speech in Virginia, many of whom the source recognized as higher-ups in the reproductive rights field.

“I’ve been a feminist my whole life, I would say I work as a professional feminist, but you still see all those seeds of white supremacy [in the movement],” Mariam said. “As soon as I saw that video of all of these repro bosses, who by and large are white, shouting down ceasefire protesters by saying ‘four more years’ for ‘Genocide Joe,’ that tells you who exactly we are. Those are the people who run our movement. Those are the people who shout down workers. Those are the people who bust unions. Those are the people who fire and demote my friends for talking about Palestine. That is the face and the institution of the feminist and reproductive rights movement, and that’s what they’re doing.”

While many workers Prism spoke to were disappointed by the reproductive rights field’s position—or lack thereof—on Palestine, most were not surprised. Women of color who work in this field have warned against the white supremacy that seeps into the movement through white feminism and political support from the Democratic Party.

“So many feminist spaces are so racist,” Kiema said. “And that really weakens our movement and our ability to really fight against our actual opponents. White feminists really don’t care if they leave the rest of us behind, and so it does feel like the differences between white feminism and intersectional feminists are growing more and more clear. And it also feels like a very unsustainable situation.”

For Sumeyye, a healthline coordinator at ARC-Southeast who is using only their first name for privacy, the daily work of getting abortion access to low-income women in the U.S. means she comes into contact with the lack of support networks for birthing people. Doing this work while watching the Biden administration spend billions of dollars in military aid to support Israel’s siege on Gaza demonstrates how the U.S. government could fund abortion care for those who need it. “I’m working with callers who are lacking access to transportation, access to housing, access to food. These are real circumstances that these people are facing due to the policies that the government enacts,” she said. “And it’s all connected because of how the government enacts oppression abroad and here.”

In an election year where the Democratic Party clearly expects to attract women voters through their position on reproductive rights, the internal conflicts in reproductive rights organizations cannot go unaccounted for. For one source, this issue and the workplace conflict she has had to navigate have completely destroyed her hope in the reproductive rights movement for women of color.

“If the ceiling is white women, if the approval chain ends with comfortable white women, then it doesn’t matter how many brown and Black people are hired at the bottom,” Mariam said. “If you don’t want organizers, if you don’t actually want these people’s lived experiences, then we’re just props. I have completely lost faith in my organization. I hope the future for workers is better, but for me—I’m out.”

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

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