UTSA welcomes reproductive justice activists Dána-Ain Davis and Deirdre Cooper Owens – The Paisano
As part of the commemoration of Women’s History Month, UTSA organized an event entitled “In Search of Reproductive Justice, a conversation between Dana Ain Davis and Deirdre Cooper Owens.
Davis and Cooper Owens are both reproductive justice activists and scholars, and they discussed their reproductive justice work and research as part of the conversation.
According to her biography on the university’s website, Dána-Ain Davis “is Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College and a PhD faculty member. Anthropology and critical psychology programs. She has written several books throughout her career that deal with reproduction and racism.
Davis explained that when starting a new job, she highlights the story of a particular individual.
“When I write ethnography or articles, I often start with a person’s voice and a person’s story and it’s kind of like who’s going through me right now…there’s a voice, there is a presence – something that comes to you.” Davis said.
Davis, an anthropologist, explained the inability to include many experiences due to interpretative saturation.
“I haven’t included all of the stories or experiences of the people I’ve spoken to, and in part that decision was driven by the fact that I don’t think everything should be included, but also, that people said reached an interpretive saturation point. There was a kind of internal validity that was reached, where people were saying the same thing over and over again,” Davis said.
According to Davis, deciding how much detail to “understand the poignant moments that allow… to reflect on how we can move forward to make change,” was also a challenge.
“I wrote two monographs, and the first was about battered women. And it was when I wrote about this that I had to make a decision about how much detail I wanted to give because I was actually… doing my research at a battered women’s shelter, so the things I saw and the things I heard were obviously horrible. And so, I had to make a decision about how much I wanted to share the finer details of each person’s life,” Davis said.
Cooper Owens, “Linda and Charles Wilson Professor of History of Medicine and Director of the Humanities in Medicine Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,” further discussed interpretative saturation from the perspective of the historian, emphasizing that it was important that there “is not a saturation of all brutality.
Cooper Owens’ work focuses on “African American historical experiences and reproductive justice.” Through her work, she tries to emphasize the enhancement of women’s voices.
“As far as voices coming out, I wanted women to be at the center of it all. And so, even though I’m using sources written by men…I’ve pulled enough from them to at least be able to construct this person’s life and experience as accurately as the information allowed me. And so, I really wanted their voices to be featured as best I could,” Cooper Owens said.
Cooper Owens also pointed to the influence of popular culture in depicting topics like slavery with a “tied red bow at the end”. She explained that often, audiences tend to have unrealistic expectations because of this portrayal.
“I think the way people learn about slavery in this country, in particular, comes from TV and movies – popular culture [which is] meant to entertain. And so, people really want a red knot tied at the end. And I’m like I have to stick to the accuracy of the sources as best I can, and so, there’s not always going to be a bow tie,” Cooper Owens said. “It’s been a challenge, I think, for me – trying to teach it in a way where I don’t want people to be depressed, I want them to see that it was about human beings at multi-level and three-dimensional… but also be very clear like ‘You might not get the happy ending you want.’
In the case of Cooper Owens and Davis, their research topics developed naturally from the information they learned along the way.
Davis’ research initially focused on the proliferation of NICUs, which led her to investigate the link between this proliferation and abortion restrictions in many US states. Eventually, Davis went from “looking at NICUs and doctors to looking at people whose children have been admitted to NICUs”, after meeting a woman at a conference.
“So I ended up changing my project because of her to focus on the meanings and interpretation of black women of their medical encounters following their pregnancies, labors, deliveries and care. postpartum,” Davis said.
Cooper Owens, on the other hand, began to take an interest in the history of medicine, and it wasn’t until she started working at the University of Mississippi in 2009 that she began working in the area of reproductive justice.
“When I was recruited to do this kind of work, it started to dawn on me that the work I was doing filled in some of the gaps and also showed how these institutions had been built on the very bodies of black people and black women… it made sense by the time my book came out in 2017, in the midst of a black childbirth crisis, that I would be able to use my voice as a teacher to advocate for reproductive justice – especially in terms of program design,” said Cooper Owens.
The two authors also explained their methodological approach in connection with their various projects.
Cooper Owens emphasized putting patients first, while Davis described her approach as a “black feminist approach.”
“I find oral history to be one of the most profoundly elegant ways to collect data. For people to open up and share their personal stories with you – it blows my mind and I revere people who do that,” Davis said.
Davis and Owens concluded by talking about things they hope people will unlearn about their field of study.
Cooper Owens pointed out that it’s important to unlearn misinformation when looking at the history of things like anesthesia. She explained that misinformation often hinders the ability to accurately understand history.
Davis expressed the hope that people would unlearn several things, including assigning class to results, as well as relying on the complex of medical technology to answer questions.
“One of the other things that I hope we will think about is that as we continue this ongoing conversation about racial disparity, which is marked by an interest in prevention, I hope we can deploy some sort of radical caring for people rather than this kind of objectification and elevation of outcomes…as a statistical symptom of racism,” Davis said. “So in other words, we need to be thinking about caring and not only [focus] on the numbers. We need to think about the care people need, the care people want, the care people deserve and make that the driver of any kind of change in… the medical field – not just the numbers.