Speaking of Women's Rights: Loss of a Hero, New Heroes for a Changing World

Monday, August 31, 2009

Loss of a Hero, New Heroes for a Changing World

Petri dish

Seems like everybody’s talking about heroes these days. It’s natural just now, of course, with the passing of Senator Edward Kennedy. But even before that tragic loss, I was noticing that the theme of Legal Voice’s annual auction, “Heroes,” was echoed in various media and community events. (Don't forget to join us!)

I’ve been enjoying thinking about just why I or others view someone as a hero – courage in the face of danger? Standing up for others? The ability to articulate a vision others can only dimly glimpse? All of these, I think, and last week I was lucky enough to spend time with two women whose work and lives fit in the last category.

It’s a truism that the law often (okay, usually) lags behind social and technological advances and challenges. We social justice and social change lawyers do our best to keep up and anticipate emerging issues, but let’s face it: we can’t always stay abreast of all these issues, let alone anticipate them. Here’s a sample of conundrums:

· How do we reconcile the needs of gay and lesbian couples and infertile different sex couples to form their families using assisted reproductive technology with concerns about the health of women who provide eggs or serve as surrogates?
· If we support the rights of women to do what they choose with their bodies (and we do), what should our position be about sex-selected abortion?
· Is there a meaningful distinction – practically, morally, ethically and legally – between the (permitted) sale of human eggs and the (prohibited) sale of kidneys?
· Should we as a society permit, prohibit, or regulate germline modification, which some people believe would lead to “designer babies”?

Questions of this type abound as technology and biotechnology surge forward. And they are extremely difficult to grapple with. That’s why two of my current heroes are Dr. Sujatha Jesudason, the founder and Executive Director of Generations Ahead, and Kathryn Hinsch, founder and Executive Director of Women’s Bioethics Project.

Generations Ahead works with social justice organizations around the country to expand the public debate on genetic technologies. Its work bringing together advocates and thought leaders on social justice, reproductive justice, the rights of persons with disabilities, and LGBTQ people and families for respectful, insightful discussions and analyses of genetic and reproductive technologies shines as an example of social justice in action. Sujatha’s leadership and scholarship have helped diverse communities, organizations and constituencies articulate shared values, important questions, and looming challenges in these and other areas.

Women’s Bioethics Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy think tank dedicated to ensuring that women’s voices, health concerns, and unique life experiences strongly influence ethical issues in health care and biotechnology. Since 2004 the Women’s Bioethics Project has identified, researched and commented on cutting-edge issues around stem cell research, end-of-life concerns, neuroethics, and women’s health. Kathryn has established herself and WBP as key participants in bioethics debates around the country, and ensured that a feminist, pro-choice, pro-science viewpoint is heard.

Kathryn and Sujatha understand (and embrace) the enormity of what they’ve undertaken, and they both approach their work in the spirit of inquiry as well as advocacy. Their leadership and their dedication to helping the rest of us understand the issues and develop sound policies around them make them my heroes of the week.

Well, except for the everlasting hero Teddy Kennedy. I hope – how I hope – that Congress responds to our enormous loss in the same way it did when his brother was assassinated: just as we owe the Civil Rights Act in no small part to the determination to honor JFK, we should have comprehensive health care reform that protects women - indeed, protects all people in our country, to honor Teddy’s legacy.