Connecting Family Leave and Reproductive Rights

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the passage of the landmark Family and Medical Leave Act, which—while a major step forward—still leaves about half of American workers without any mandated leave at their jobs.

Since the Supreme Court’s gutting of Roe v. Wade in June, Shaina Goodman, Director for Reproductive Health and Rights at the National Partnership for Women and Families, has seen a surge of support for reproductive justice. Not only have ballot initiatives affirmed support for abortion in California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, and Vermont, but discussions about ways to advocate and win paid family and medical leave, strengthen protections for pregnant workers, and address racial bias in the delivery of medical care have brought unprecedented coalitions together.

These groupings, Goodman told Lilith, are taking their cues from Black leaders who have long pushed for the right to raise children in healthy and safe environments and are organizing to demand real pro-family policies: The right to high-quality pre-and-post natal care, available and affordable childcare, healthcare, and housing, nutritious and plentiful food, and access to abortion.

Goodman spoke to Eleanor J. Bader in late November about both the National Partnership’s work and that of the reproductive justice movement more broadly.

Eleanor J. Bader: You must have been heartened by the success of the ballot initiatives on abortion in the 2022 midterm elections.

Shaina Goodman: The elections showed us that the public does not believe that abortion should be decided by politicians. In red states, blue states, and those in between, when given the ability to vote on abortion, people are loud and clear in their support of reproductive choice.

Unfortunately, many states have already banned or restricted abortion rights. Not surprisingly, these are the same states that have limited the ability of people to vote. This is not a coincidence. Anti-abortion politicians know that their beliefs are out of step with the majority of people in their states which means that there is a serious mismatch between the laws they are passing and the will of the people. What these politicians are doing is unpopular but they can get away with it because of the way they are undermining voting rights through gerrymandering and other restrictions on voting.

As a consequence of that–and of the Dobbs decision–the country is now an abortion patchwork. The challenge is figuring out how to ensure access to care since people in the South and Midwest–where the majority of restrictions are clustered–often have to travel hundreds, or even thousands, of miles to receive care. Many of these folks are already parents so they not only need childcare but money to travel. Since they don’t always have paid sick time or paid medical leave at their jobs, abortion has been pushed farther and farther out of reach for them. Of course, the people who suffer the most are already those who are economically vulnerable.

EJB: How can these gaps best be addressed?

SG: Work can be done at both the state and federal levels. There are things that Congress and the executive branch can do to increase access. The administration can strengthen privacy protections through the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and can help ensure that hospital Emergency Rooms treat patients when they come in with pregnancy complications that require abortion care. They can use laws like EMTALA, The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, to require physicians and staff to provide care to pregnant people facing health crises and not send them home to suffer because they are afraid of antiabortion backlash or worse, prosecution. Given the results of the mid-term election, the Biden administration should be confident about supporting policies that protect patients and providers of reproductive health care.

EJB: Are there other pending policy changes that the Partnership is advocating?

SG: It’s pretty obvious that the rightwing does not care about the health of women or children. But many progressives do care and are pushing a number of bills that would benefit pregnant people and families.

The Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act, recently passed Congress and will take effect in late June. It will require most employers to provide accommodations to pregnant workers who need them, things like the right to sit rather than stand or take additional bathroom breaks. In addition, the Family and Medical Leave Act needs to be expanded to cover more workers and provide a paycheck so that leave is not unpaid. This would allow people to take care of their health, or the health of a family member, without compromising their economic security. Every worker should also have paid sick time.

Ensuring access to abortion care, providing paid sick time, pregnancy accommodations, and paid medical leave are mutually reinforcing.They give pregnant and parenting people the support they need to thrive. The reproductive justice community has always seen the ways economic justice, health, and reproductive justice are connected, but since the Dobbs decision eviscerated Roe, these connections have become clearer to the general public and to lawmakers. Voters clearly understand abortion as an economic justice issue since having and raising a child is one of the most consequential financial decisions a person can make.  

EJB: Tell me about the coalitions that are working to win these measures.

SG: People in the reproductive justice, economic justice, and health equity communities are working more collaboratively and building more coalitions than ever before. A few months ago, a number of reproductive health and legacy civil rights groups including the NAACP, the National Action Network, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights met with the Vice President to demonstrate the broad coalition that supports reproductive justice.

Likewise, abortion rights and LGBTQ+ groups are more aligned since the backlash to both movements comes from the same people.

And while different groups are taking on different aspects of the work, the intersections are clear; everyone is aware of the linkages and overlap.

At the same time, we understand that we don’t have the luxury of doing one thing at a time. Different organizations have different strengths and we are working in a coordinated way to do a bunch of things at once. Some groups are prioritizing state level work and ballot measures. Some are shoring up providers so they can ensure a high standard of patient care. Some are pushing the federal government to enact executive orders. Since people don’t live their lives in silos, we understand that we’re stronger when we work across issues.

Many previously uninvolved people are also stepping up. Since Dobbs, we’ve seen more and more people helping people who need abortions. For some, this means entering doula training. Doctors who’d never provided abortions are now doing so. Other people are donating to abortion funds, organizing ballot initiatives, or lobbying their statehouses. I’ve also been happily surprised by the number of lawyers who have volunteered. Many questions have arisen about the laws governing privacy rights. There are questions about crossing state lines and other legal issues that need to be investigated. What are the most effective protections for a Texan who goes to California, has an abortion, and then returns to Texas? How do we defend someone who is arrested for ordering abortion medication online? The threats of surveillance and criminalization are intensifying.

EJB:  The National Partnership believes that doulas have a role to play in reducing maternal mortality rates and in helping people navigate access to abortion care.  Can you say more about this?

SG: There is currently a ton of momentum around doulas. We know that they improve maternal and infant health when they support someone through labor and delivery, but they can also be valuable for people having abortions, not only as a source of emotional support, but in helping navigate post-Roe realities. They can help explain state laws to people, connect them to abortion funds, or offer other support.

As you know, this country is facing a serious maternal health crisis. It is devastating, shameful, and horrible that Black and indigenous women are three-to-four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. This speaks to deeply embedded systemic racism in our maternal healthcare system. Having midwives and doulas available is essential in addressing this crisis and we have to ensure that they are available and affordable to every pregnant person. Furthermore, providers need to be culturally competent. We need better postpartum care as well. Most importantly, we need to tackle racism at the root.

EJB: What sustains you in this work?

SG: I am very proud of the role the Jewish community is playing. For a very long time, when we talked about abortion and religion it was assumed that all religions opposed terminating a pregnancy. This was never true and I’ve been really pleased that the Jewish community, particularly the National Council of Jewish Women, has been so outspoken in claiming prochoice space and standing up for reproductive justice. Abortion is a Jewish value and I am proud that Jews and other people of faith are firmly behind abortion access and reproductive freedom.