SisterSong is perhaps the single most formative reproductive justice organization in the U.S., and its Let’s Talk About Sex (LTAS) conference provides a powerful opportunity to connect with and learn from organizers, activists, advocates, health care providers, and attorneys who create much of the scaffolding the movement relies on. The conference returned in August for the first time since the pandemic began, and much had changed since the last gathering in Atlanta in 2019.
Notably, we no longer have a constitutional right to abortion, according to the Supreme Court’s June decision in the Dobbs case. It was an interesting time to gather in Texas for LTAS. Just as attendees poured into Dallas on Aug. 25 ahead of the opening plenary, the state’s trigger law went into effect, making it a felony punishable by up to life in prison to provide abortion care outside of very narrow exceptions.
Admittedly, I attended the conference for selfish reasons. I was desperate to spend time with people who cared deeply about reproductive justice and were actively fighting for abortion rights. I wanted to learn from grassroots organizers and activists and map out future reporting about their work. But I also just wanted to know how it would feel to attend the nation’s largest reproductive justice conference at a time when—to use a phrase I repeatedly heard at LTAS—“everything is on fucking fire.”
According to the conference app, more than 800 people attended LTAS. Outside of one editor, I wasn’t able to identify a single other media person attending in-person sessions.
Journalism is one of our most powerful tools for culture and narrative shift, and as the media organizer Alicia Bell says, “If we shift culture and narrative, we can shift our material conditions across all the issues we care about.” The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is one of the most important news stories of the year—and certainly an event that will affect the fabric of our country for decades. Each morning as I waited for the hotel elevator to head down to conference sessions, I would stare at The Dallas Morning News building from the window, wondering why the mainstream media—and by extension, the larger public—continues to ignore reproductive justice. This is true even now that it’s abundantly clear that the national pro-choice groups that received millions of dollars in donations and foundation support to defend access through federal courts never seemed fully prepared to actually accomplish this goal.
I think a lot about where we would be if leaders in the reproductive justice movement were given the same access and resources. What kind of culture change would be possible if we shifted out of the pro- and anti-abortion binary and instead embraced the human rights framework that is the crux of reproductive justice, one that accounts for all of the contradictions and nuances of being a person in the world? LTAS provides a space to imagine that world.
If you follow the work of SisterSong you know that the organization prioritizes narrative shift work and that you should expect the unexpected. While the conference came with a number of surprises—a panel discussion with actors from “P-Valley” and a very intimate performance from singer and activist Mýa, to name a few—what was perhaps most surprising was LTAS’ focus on movement wins.
The conference theme was “Our Blueprint for a Body Revolution,” and when SisterSong executive director Monica Simpson greeted the crowd during the kick-off plenary to Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul,” the message was clear. Any attendees who came to Texas looking to dissect the fall of Roe would quickly learn they were at the wrong conference.
During one morning plenary, Oriaku Njoku, the National Network of Abortion Funds’ new executive director, shared what was essentially a love letter to abortion funds, describing them as a series of autonomous organizations that provide mutual aid. In other words, they simply provide what communities need.
“Roe was the floor,” Njoku said. “And when the floor is rooted in heteropatriarchy and white supremacy, you have to tear the whole damn house down and build again on land fortified by the reproductive justice framework.”
There are plenty of examples from the reproductive justice movement of what this can look like in practice. During morning plenaries, Marsha Jones, the executive director of the Black-led Texas reproductive justice organization The Afiya Center, which co-hosted the conference, broke down how Black Texans have pushed back on reproductive injustice for decades. Rockie Gonzalez, the deputy director of the Austin Justice Coalition, described how the abortion fund movement in Texas went from being predominantly white-led to predominantly BIPOC-led in just a few years. Kimberly Inez McGuire, the executive director of Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE), discussed how relentless grassroots organizing led voters in Kansas to reject a constitutional amendment that would have banned abortion—a striking and unexpected win in one of the most conservative states in the country. Kwajelyn Jackson, the first Black executive director of Atlanta’s Feminist Women’s Health Center, discussed dismantling the white feminism that imbued the nonprofit and working to make reproductive justice “tangibly experienced in clinic care.”
One of the most moving things at LTAS was one of its most quiet offerings: a conference room transformed into the home of a person who self-managed their abortion. Created by Abortion On Our Own Terms, the “Stigma Free Zone” was an exhibit that guided attendees through what a self-managed abortion can really be like in a safe, supported, and private space. Children’s items littered the entry point to remind us that most people who have abortions are already parents. Strewn about the cozy and welcoming apartment were comfortable clothes, a teapot, a heating pad, and snacks, illustrating all of the things a person would need to feel nourished.
I walked through the space with a small group of women, growing emotional as I took in the details. It would take me a few days to figure out why I was so moved by the display: It was the opposite of the cold and clinical surgical abortion I had at 19. I remember feeling herded through the process, just another patient to get through that day. It never occurred to me that I could feel truly cared for while terminating a pregnancy. Natasha Chabria, an attorney with the organization All* Above All, described the space perfectly: “A physical manifestation of reproductive justice.”
Even a few minutes at LTAS makes one thing abundantly clear: Young women of color—and young Black women specifically—fuel the reproductive justice movement. Young people from across the country flocked to the conference, excited to learn strategies for talking to their families about sexual and reproductive health and for organizing their communities and college campuses. West Texas’ abortion fund, the West Fund, traveled to Dallas with a group of teenagers. One of them told me it was her first time leaving El Paso and that the conference opened up her world.
I’ve attended LTAS three times, long enough to watch young attendees, interns, law students, organizers, and volunteers transform into leaders in the reproductive justice movement. In other words, young people are the experts, and we have a lot to learn from them about demanding more and better.
If I learned anything from attending LTAS, it’s this: Post-Roe America is not a lost cause. This is a moment of opportunity. Reproductive justice has the blueprint for the future we all deserve, but are we finally ready to let this movement lead the way?