Why Social Workers are Obligated to Defend Reproductive Justice

Since the inception of the social work profession, social workers have fought on the front lines for reform in the United States. In fact, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics identifies “social justice” as a core value of the practice and demands that social workers “challenge social injustice…particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people”[1]. In recent months, reproductive rights have been under attack across the United States and it is social workers’ ethical imperative to stand with the pro-choice movement.

The fiercely anti-choice Trump-Pence administration has emboldened states to pass some of the most draconian anti-abortion legislation since the historic decision made by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. In Alabama, new legislation prohibits individuals from receiving abortion care, even if those individuals are victims of rape and/or incest. In Louisiana, pregnant persons will be forced to undergo an ultrasound before getting an abortion. If a fetal heartbeat is detected (a development that often occurs before an individual knows they are pregnant), any Louisiana doctor that performs an abortion faces up to two years in prison[2]. In Georgia, individuals that have abortions could face the death penalty. This criminalization extends to individuals that obtain abortions out-of-state, which effectively designates their bodies as state property.[3].

Although these new laws have been making headlines, restricting abortion access is old news in the United States, especially for vulnerable individuals and People of Color. For example, in 1977, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment to the Medicaid appropriation, which bars the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion with few exceptions[4]. The amendment, not unlike recent anti-choice legislation, disproportionately attacks People of Color and low-income individuals. The Hyde Amendment thus violates the NASW Code of Ethics, which demands that social workers “challenge social injustice” which includes “issues of poverty [and] discrimination”[5].

The NASW has publicly condemned the new anti-choice legislation, stating that Alabama’s restrictions in particular “punish women for their personal health care choices” and have “problematic implications in terms of racial disparities”[6]. In fact, the NASW’s official position is that abortion is a vital aspect of family planning, and thus compels social workers to include abortion when consulting with clients about their healthcare choices and family planning needs[7].

As social workers, we are obligated by our Code of Ethics to educate, support, and advocate for all of our clients. It should go without saying that this stipulation extends to our clients that can become pregnant — and this includes their right to terminate a pregnancy without government interference. The very first ethical responsibility outlined in the NASW Code of Ethics is “Commitment to Clients”, which further requires that “clients’ interests are primary”. Social workers also must “respect and promote the right of clients to self-determination”, which clearly includes a client’s right to make choices about their own reproductive health. Thus, the right to bodily autonomy intrinsically aligns with our ethical standards as social workers.

So what does pro-choice social work look like in practice? Even if you are not in direct practice, or do not work with pregnant clients, there are still ways that you can support the pro-choice movement as a social worker. Lead the Way, a resource developed by The University of Buffalo School of Social Work, offers several suggestions and action items for social workers that want to destigmatize abortion. Consider joining Social Workers for Reproductive Justice, a network of social work professionals devoted to promoting reproductive justice through advocacy and education. Look up your local abortion fund and donate if you can, or attend fundraising events (you can find your local fund at https://abortionfunds.org). These funds are invaluable in every state now that restrictive bans are pushing pregnant individuals to cross state lines for abortion care. Finally, you can advocate for pro-choice legislation in your state or local legislatures and support pro-choice candidates.

At the heart of the social work profession is an obligation to fight oppression and protect human rights. During these tumultuous times for reproductive justice, social workers must lead the way in defending abortion and advocating for bodily autonomy. This fight is not only codified in our ethical standards, but also inherent in the mission of our profession.

[1] Read the Code of Ethics. (2017). Retrieved July 1, 2019, from https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English

[2] Law, T. (2019, June 4). Here Are the Details of the Abortion Legislation in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Elsewhere. Retrieved July 1, 2019, from time.com: https://time.com/5591166/state-abortion-laws-explained/

[3] Stern, J. (2019, May 7). Georgia Just Criminalized Abortion. Women Who Terminate Their Pregnancies Would Receive Life in Prison. Retrieved July 1, 2019, from Slate: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/05/hb-481-georgia-law-criminalizes-abortion-subjects-women-to-life-in-prison.html

[4] American Civil Liberties Union . (2019). ACCESS DENIED: ORIGINS OF THE HYDE AMENDMENT AND OTHER RESTRICTIONS ON PUBLIC FUNDING FOR ABORTION . Retrieved July 1, 2019, from ACLU: https://www.aclu.org/other/access-denied-origins-hyde-amendment-and-other-restrictions-public-funding-abortion

[5] Read the Code of Ethics. (2017). Retrieved July 1, 2019, from https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English

[6] National Association of Social Workers (NASW). (2019, May 23). NASW condemns Alabama’s passage of nation’s most restrictive anti-abortion law. Retrieved July 8, 2019, from socialworkers.org: https://www.socialworkers.org/News/News-Releases/ID/1959/NASW-condemns-Alabamas-passage-of-nations-most-restrictive-anti-abortion-law

[7] National Association of Social Workers (NASW). (2015). Family planning and reproductive choice. Social Work Speaks: The National Association of Social Workers Policy Statements (10th ed.).

The political leader of the pro-choice movement in Maryland.

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