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Athens Reproductive Justice Collective Is About More Than Abortion

Vanisha Kudumuri (far right) speaks at a rally for reproductive justice Oct. 4 outside City Hall. Credit: Chris Dowd/file

Oklahoma passed House Bill 1102. Arkansas enacted Senate Bill 6. Texas made waves with Senate Bill 8. As of early October, states have established over 100 pieces of anti-abortion legislation—the most ever in single year since 1973’s Roe v. Wade ruling.

The Athens Reproductive Justice Collective (RJC) was established last February in response to Georgia’s 2019 “heartbeat bill” outlawing abortions after six weeks, which has since been struck down as unconstitutional but could be resurrected if the Supreme Court weakens or strikes down Roe in a decision on a similar Mississippi law next year. Their framework encompasses much more than abortion, though. It seeks to ensure equity in all sectors of health care, including the rights of both women who want to have children and those who don’t, and extends into all forms of activism. 

“Reproductive justice moves away from the conventional legal debate around having an abortion. It’s all about access,” says Vanisha Kudumuri, co-founder and policy chair of RJC. “Every single issue is a reproductive justice issue. Immigration justice, environmental justice, racial justice, these are all important issues that you need to address in order to be able to parent your children in safe and sustainable communities.”

RJC activists are vocalizing their alarm against this year’s legislation. In collaboration with the University of Georgia Period Project and the Women’s Health Support and Awareness Project, RJC led a march of approximately 100 downtown on Oct. 3 against Texas’ particularly restrictive policies. 

Later in the week, representatives from RJC appealed to the Athens-Clarke County Commission during public comment for the creation of a Reproductive Justice Commission. The proposed commission would consist of health-care and education providers tasked with giving advice and policy recommendations regarding reproductive rights to the ACC Commission. A similar commission exists in Atlanta, where the city has just finished appointing its body and is beginning to issue guidance. 

As access to STD testing, contraceptives, menstrual products, fertility treatment and sexual health education fall under the purview of reproductive justice, possible initiatives for ACC include paid parental leave for city employees, free menstrual products in government bathrooms and sexual health programming in the community.

“There’s a lot of attention right now on this issue. And that’s unfortunate, obviously, because that means people are not receiving the care they need, but that also in a way gives us a lot of political leverage to push for legislation that is relevant to this issue,” Kudumuri says. “I could go on forever about all the different things that reproductive justice entails. There’s just so much that can be done locally to increase reproductive health care.”

RJC also hosts speakers and maintains a reproductive justice fund for members of the community to request help with transportation and other costs associated with accessing reproductive care. 

Menstrual equity is another fundamental part of reproductive justice. UGA’s Period Project, which helped organize Oct. 4’s protest, centers their mission around expanding menstruators’ access to products.

“If you’re going to advocate for reproductive justice, you also have to advocate for menstrual equity,” says Areeba Hashmi, advocacy chair for the Period Project and RJC’s access chair. “It is a privilege to have menstrual products.”

Maxi pad manufacturer Always found that one in three families are worried about their ability to afford menstrual products since the pandemic began. In a Thinx study, more than 80% of teen menstruators reported missing class or knowing someone who missed class as a result of not being able to access a product they needed. People of color and first-generation and immigrant students, who make up much of Athens, are most likely to suffer from period poverty.

“We’ve gotten intense, hateful comments about the idea of us giving period products to people in the community. Like, ‘Anyone could buy a period product, there’s a Walmart down the street. What do you mean, people don’t have access?’” Period Project Co-President Sophia DeLuca says. “Seeing that reaction to our work, which to me was just such a simple and good thing, made me realize not everyone sees this as the issue it is. And therefore, it is my responsibility to help explain why menstrual equity and menstrual health is so important.”

Period Project provides 300–500 kits a month of menstrual products to community partners like Bigger Vision and Clarke Central High School. In addition to “packing parties” at which members create the kits, the project holds education nights and hosts speakers to discuss reproductive and menstrual justice. 

Where Period Project focuses on menstrual equity in the Athens community, its sister organization UGA Project Red works to provide menstrual products to UGA. According to Hashmi, who is involved with both, a survey last year revealed that almost 2,000 UGA students lacked access to products. 

Thirty states currently accumulate $150 million annually from taxing menstrual products, according to the New York Times. Project Red is advocating to exempt menstrual products from Georgia’s 4% state sales tax on the grounds that they’re health-care products. “This tax is something that is preventing so many people from having menstrual products, and if we were able to alleviate that, it would do really big things,” Hashmi says. 

Period Project spends approximately $600 on the kits that go into the Athens community. They rely on community donations given through their Venmo, @UGAPeriod. On Dec. 3 at 6 p.m., the project will host an Art Night featuring student-made artwork covering reproductive health, objectification and more. Located at Rabbit Hole Studios on Winterville Road, the project asks that visitors bring menstrual products to donate as an admissions fee. 

While Roe v. Wade is threatened by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that allowed the Texas law to take effect, reproductive justice is not an issue exclusive to federal policy. Many pieces of legislation, including Texas’ Senate Bill 8, started as city ordinances before gaining traction and being passed at the state level.

ACC commissioners are receptive to the idea of an RJC, Kudumuri says. Their primary challenge is identifying funding for staff to serve as liaison, but “we’re optimistic that something will happen, it’s just going to take some time for them to warm up to the idea.”

Kudmuri hopes the creation of a Reproductive Justice Commission will not just benefit Athenians, but reverberate around the state as a condemnation of restrictive policies. 

“It’s a unique point in time right now to be doing this work, because reproductive rights are uniquely under attack right now,” Kudumuri said. “Passing a Reproductive Justice Commission here would be another strong signal that we as a community condemn attempts to restrict access to care and will hopefully serve as deterrence for state legislators who are interested in passing more restrictive legislation.”