Meet your neighbor: CMC Professor Dionne Bensonsmith

Professor Dionne Bensonsmith poses for the camera.
CMC professor Dionne Bensonsmith shares how her past experiences influenced her involvement in the reproductive justice movement. (Corina Silverstein • The Student Life)

“Simply put, reproductive justice [is a movement] that was coined by 12 Black women in 1994. The basic principles in the movement are the right to parent, the right not to parent and the right to parent our children in an environment where we can ensure for our economic, our environmental and our social well-being of the children. Reproductive justice is our right to make decisions on behalf of our children, and the affordability of making that decision in an economically safe and environmentally safe system. Then, the last [principle] is the right to sexual pleasure and the right to my own autonomy as an individual. [These principles are] based on human rights principles. It is, in my opinion, one of the most revolutionary concepts, movements and frameworks to come about having to do with reproductive rights and reproductive health. 

I went to Catholic school. I went to a Catholic university … [and] all of these principles are not part of a traditional Catholic ethos. I came to [reproductive justice] really out of my own personal experiences. I was experiencing some reproductive health problems, and I had problems with fibroids. Fibroids are something that overwhelmingly affects African American women. So African American women are three times more likely to suffer from fibroids than any other population, and we get fibroids earlier. [The fear of] fibroids … for me interfered with my fertility [and] everything from fertility, all the way [to] quality of life. I was approaching a point where my fibroids were so problematic that I needed to get some serious medical attention … At that point almost every doctor said that the answer to the fibroids would be a hysterectomy since I’ve already had one child. I didn’t want to have a hysterectomy, and I found myself sort of at a loss. I was arguing with my GYN, and I felt like this was just totally unfair, that this is the only choice that is offered to me.

Luckily, long story short, I wound up with a great doctor at the Mayo Clinic who offered me the opportunity to have a fibroid immobilization. In the process, we started talking about my work on welfare and her work that she was doing in terms of [working] with African American women doing work on fibroids and really trying to look at alternatives — like [a] hysterectomy — and if you need it. If it’s an emergency, it’s one thing, and if it’s your choice, but that was not my choice. That was a constrained decision … I started researching and that’s when we came across Professor Ross’ video on reproductive justice and my world just went like, ‘This is a frame. This is exactly what I had been experiencing.’ This is not just what I’ve been experiencing with respect to fibroids, but as I dug deeper, I read more and I talked to more people, this is also what I had been experiencing in a range of issues around my reproduction. So a lot of what reproductive justice does, in particular, is looking at forms of reproductive oppression. That is the ways in which … as Black women, our labor is co-opted, our bodies are co-opted, our agency is co-opted. [These are all] forms of reproductive oppression … I came into the movement because I was lucky enough. This is one of those kind of odd, sadly serendipitous moments in life.”

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