A Call to Action for Social Workers in Response to Tennessee SB 1391 

By Katherine Bisanz and Maggie Rosenbloom, SWRJ Co-founders

(eds note- we have used gendered language in this post following the language and terms used in the bill.)

As we speak, the law in Tennessee is turning against women and families. The General Assembly has approved SB 1391, a bill that would turn pregnant women and new mothers into criminals.

SB 1391 takes a law that was intended to protect pregnant women from violence and instead turns them into assailants. The law would permit prosecutors to charge women with assault for losing pregnancies, or giving birth to babies with health problems at birth. The targets of the law are women who are in the most need of support: largely women who struggle with narcotic addiction during pregnancy.

This is all happening under the guise of “finding a solution” for neonatal abstinence syndrome according to the State of Tennessee. They claim that the law is a way to use misdemeanor charges to get women into treatment. Anyone aware of the criminal justice system in our country knows that assault charges can heavily impact the course of a person’s life. A prison or jail sentence could mean that women will be unable to be present to care for the families they already have or sustain the employment necessary to support a family and get through a treatment program. In a nutshell, Tennessee lawmakers seem to believe that they can “keep babies healthy” by punishing their mothers and don’t seem to grasp how terribly backwards and simply unrealistic this idea is.

It is clear that no evidence-based information is backing this law being that research around the issue of child health have shown that babies are healthiest when pregnant women are treated with care, and when babies are kept close to their mothers after birth. Even women who struggle with addiction love their babies, and can have healthy pregnancies if they can form supportive relationships with their maternity care providers say Connecticut Affiliate of the American College of Nurse-Midwives.

Groups like National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) have made clear inpast cases that punitive measures are the wrong approach in dealing with the “decades-old” question of how to handle pregnant women who take drugs. As opposed to taking a punitive approach that scares women away from seeking help, the state should treat pregnant drug abusers as addicts with medical problems, NAPW states.

Given their role as gatekeepers and mandated reporters, this law could have serious implications for the roles of social workers in the lives of their substance-abusing clients in Tennessee.  Social Workers we are trusted to protect clients self-determination and strive to work with clients to empower and better their lives and this bill could compromise our ability to fulfill this imperative and not to mention obligatory aspect of our work.  Despite Rep. Weaver’s (R-TN) comments to the contrary, it’s hard to believe that child abuse allegations akin to those that have popped up in years past won’t arise in some form and in turn question social workers role as mandatory reporters.

This law will also erode choice as it relates to pregnancy. This law may be used by those who wish to prevent a woman from having an abortion who can now just report their concerns that a pregnant woman is using illegal narcotics in order to have her arrested so she will not be able to access abortion care.

Furthermore, this law may pressure some women into having an abortion they do not want in order to avoid prosecution under SB 1391. One study reported that “two-thirds of the women [surveyed] who reported using Cocaine during their pregnancies … considered having an abortion… (Jeanne Flavin, Our Bodies, And Our Crimes: The Policing of Women’s Reproduction in America 112 NYU Press 2009.)

Additionally, while the bill appears race-neutral at first glance, prosecutors and judges will wield the law against Black women more so than white women, based on a long tradition and culture of deeply embedded racial stereotypes about Black motherhood and drug use. The law would likely lead to Black women being thrown in jail for up to 15 years for aggravated assault should they choose to carry a pregnancy to term while struggling with an addiction to illegal narcotics. Should social workers be mandated to take part in this, they would directly be violating the discrimination clause of the NASW code of ethics, which includes the responsibility to racial justice and gender justice.

The NASW Code of Ethics states that, “Social Workers should act to expand choice and opportunity for all people… (NASW 2008).” If SB 1391 is signed into law it will limit choice and opportunities for all Tennessee families. We strongly urge the National Association of Social Workers and its Tennessee chapter as well as individuals who identify as social workers across the nation to speak out against TN SB 1391.



Social Work School Separates from National Association of Social Work

By Sarah Meharg, MSW Catholic University of America Class of 2013

Catholic University of America’s (CUA) National Catholic School of Social Service (NCSSS) has long been a well-respected social work program, with the Gourman Report placing it in the top 11%. Its web site states: “Our commitment to supporting traditional social work values while responding to today’s educational and practice developments continues to make ours a highly regarded program both within the academic world and the practice community.”

Despite this statement, NCSSS’s new dean, Will C. Rainford, LMSW, Ph.D. announced in October that the school was severing ties with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the largest membership organization of social workers in America, basing his decision on what he referred to on Twitter as an “overt public policy position that social workers should advocate for access to abortion.”  A Google search for NASW + abortion brought up two hits; arguably a less than overt position. The announcement was made without either informing/meeting with students and/or alumni to discuss the implications of this step. Confusion regarding concerns such as accreditation has inevitably ensued.

It is unclear what prompted this action since NASW issued their Family Planning and Reproductive Health policy statement in 2006: “Self-determination means that without government interference, people can make their own decisions about sexuality and reproduction. It requires working toward safe, legal, and accessible reproductive health care services, including abortion services, for everyone.”

The press release on NCSSS’s web site boasts that its newest Dean was NASW-Idaho Social Worker of the Year with his CV adding that he also served as a member of the same chapter’s Legislative Advocacy Committee between 2005 and 2007. Given Dean Rainford’s previous affiliation with NASW it is hard to believe that he was not previously familiar with the 2006 policy statement, making his stated motivation for NCSSS’s resignation from the organization questionable.

Dr. Frederick Reamer, a highly respected professor of ethics at NCSSS, wrote in Social Work Values and Ethics that NASW is not a pro-abortion organization; rather it is a pro-choice organization (2006). The NASW Code of Ethics does not directly address abortion; rather it states that social workers have an obligation to foster self-determination. However, Reamer writes that the Code of Ethics does state that social workers should refer clients to other professionals when they are not able to provide assistance or be effective.

It is difficult to understate the significance of this membership organization and the state chapters within the social work profession. The NASW Code of Ethics, sacred to the practice of social work, is integrated into educational curriculums. It helps practitioners learn the difference between right and wrong as well as to help them apply that understanding. NASW adjudicates when social workers violate this code and applies sanctions when necessary.  Although state licensing boards do not require membership in NASW, they do require adherence to the NASW Code of Ethics. An education that excludes this code clearly puts future practitioners at a disadvantage.

NASW also accredits CEUs; an annual necessity for licensed social workers. NCSSS itself offers CEU workshops throughout the year and it is unclear what impact no longer being affiliated with NASW will have on these continued education opportunities. Discounted CEU workshops have also traditionally acted as an incentive for field instructors to take on students in field placements and if discontinued may impact the field placements NCSSS is able offer.

To understand the motivation behind seceding, the school of social work must be placed within the context of CUA as a whole. CUA isn’t the average regularly religiously affiliated school, it is a pontifical university established and approved by the Holy See and governed by the Pope. It was established in 1889 with the mission of the instruction of Catholicism and human nature with the goal of furthering strengthening the Church via scientific and humanistic research as informed by the Catholic faith. Since 1889, tremendous advances have been made in science contributing to mankind’s understanding of both reproduction and the prevention of disease including the scourge of HIV/AIDS. The intrinsic humanistic benefits of this progress have been ignored by a Church still dwelling in an era with a primarily agrarian economy and high infant mortality rates.

With this decision, Dean Rainford has shown not only poor judgment but poor timing as well. Pope Francis has reinvigorated many who felt the Catholic Church was no longer relevant, recently writing that the church has grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, putting dogma before love. Although remaining anti-choice, Pope Francis has conceded that the church has done little to help women who were in need of it. However, the Vatican also recently distributed a survey designed to assess the difficulty of practicing the church’s preachings in a modern world, asking Catholics about their use of contraceptives, feelings on homosexuality, and divorce. This is remarkably progressive for the church and while it has taken a step forward, NCSSS has simultaneously taken a large one back.

Dean Rainford has also potentially tarnished the high regard in which the program has been held by assigning it more of a religious mission and less of a social service one. Religious schools are not legally required to be accredited. Lack of accreditation has typically been associated with schools that award degrees with little to no coursework to any “student” who can pay the price. Should NCSSS slide down this path, it is sure to devalue the substantial financial investment associated with getting a Master’s degree.

The process of NCSSS’s resignation from NASW can be seen as a metaphor for the arguments over reproductive rights. Those who hold the power (the administration at NCSSS), have made an important decision on behalf of those do not (the student body).  Self-determination, so prioritized in this field, has been ignored by the administration at NCSSS. As Dr. Reamer wrote, if a practitioner is unable to assist a client, they should make an appropriate referral and excuse themselves.

15th Annual International Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) November 20th, 2013

It’s been a long while since we’ve posted anything (we are busy altruistic social workers-our time goes fast) but tomorrow is the Trans Day of Remembrance and it was just reported that a suspect in the murder of Islan Nettles has been released on bond. The complete lack of justice for trans individuals, particularly trans women of color leaves many (if not most/all) trans people feeling as if their lives do not matter, that society at large doesn’t even few them as human. Sadly they have a lot of evidence to back this up. This is why it is so important for social workers to be trans inclusive in their practice, actions and lives. It is important for us to remember what they are unable to forget.

I have a lot of feelings and anger about the treatment of trans people but as a cis-gendered person what I have to say isn’t that important and my thoughts on this aren’t that organized. I will offer some websites and links that may be useful to you if you work with transgender youth or adults in your personal or professional life. This is just a small sample of the information and resources out there but they are good places to start.

Trans Day of Remembrance Site: http://www.transgenderdor.org

The Trevor Project: www.trevorproject.org                                                                              A national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth.

List of links from National Association of Social Workers Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues: http://www.socialworkers.org/diversity/new/lgbt.asp

Transgender Law Center: http://transgenderlawcenter.org                                          Transgender Law Center works to change law, policy, and attitudes so that all people can live safely, authentically, and free from discrimination regardless of their gender identity or expression.

The National Center for Transgender Equality: http://www.transequality.org                        A social justice organization dedicated to advancing the equality of transgender people through advocacy, collaboration and empowerment.

Lambda Legal: www.lambdalegal.org                                                                         – Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.


CLPP 2013

SWRJ attended the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Conference at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA last week (http://clpp.hampshire.edu/). We had an incredible time meeting the amazing activists that have helped to foster our growth thus far and met many more that we know will be crucial supports in the future. Being in the same physical space as these incredible individuals helped us to feel more involved in the community that we’ve reached out to from a far.

clpp photo

When planning for CLPP, we originally wanted to create a survey to discover whether participants and presenters at the conference thought that an organization like ours could be of use. A few hours into the conference, however, it was clear that no survey was needed as the the response we got from activists, students and social workers alike and from all corners of the U.S. was a resounding “YES!” “We need you!” Social workers from all different disciplines, excited to hear of our existence, came to our table to tell us stories of clients at their work who desperately needed help accessing reproductive health services and were not provided with appropriate information or options counseling. This anecdotal validation of what we have also experienced to be true as social workers gave us a clear picture of what a crucial support and true resource for social workers across the country this organization has the potential to be.


clpp image


Here’s a glimpse into a few of the awesome workshops we attended!

Abortion Access internationally


Abortion in Turkey was outlawed in 2012. Progressives believe that the Islamic government changed the topic of conversation to abortion to divert people’s attention from the mass violence that was occurring between Muslims and Christians in the country. This battle began in 1983 when the Turkish government outlawed abortion after 10wks of gestation. Since then the mass privatization of public health clinics has occurred and the government’s message to women is that they should have large families. Islam=reproduction, pro-Islam, conservatism of the government.  It was interesting to see so many parallels in the abortion debate going on in Turkey and the United Sates. It’s important that we learn from Turkey to keep abortion legal in the U.S.   Abortion and abortion activism in Turkey can give us an idea of what tactics we can begin to use in the U.S. to combat those that restrict or deny access to women.  Progressive message: “what are you doing with the children who already exist? Letting them get raped and starve”.  Re-interpreted the Qur’an in another way, as pro-abortion – Muslim woman: “how can it be a sin  if God sees my struggle?” Eventually, the country united around this ban on abortion for any reason, by way of rallies, protests, etc, and eventually the govt. withdrew the ban.


turkish women

Uruguay/Latin America

In Latin America, it is estimated that 95% of abortions are unsafe, only 3 countries in Latin America have legal abortion for any reason: Guyana, Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico D.F. Chile, Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominican, El Salvador, outlawed therapeutic abortion stating: “there are enough scientific advancements that abortion shouldn’t need to happen.”

Uruguay recently legalized elective abortion. Some of the tactics used throughout the campaign were

–        Raising awareness

–        Right to life for women

–        Human rights, people know about what it’s like to fight for other human rights in this country, so were able to connect to this

–        Showed mainstream support from all different parts of society

voto el aborto legal


Growth of the Christian right in Africa/ exposure to this sect over media and TV has largely increased the stigma surrounding abortion in many parts of Africa. Originally, Africans didn’t want to talk about abortion, but they weren’t staunchly against it like the Christian right is. Now that these religions are inundating African society, abortion is becoming more taboo.


This conference provided a small taste of abortion access internationally and also presenting us with ideas for the abortion movement in the U.S. One thing I found to be interesting was hearing the similarities of the abortion debate in other countries and the abortion debate in  the U.S. I think that some of the tactics used in Turkey and Uruguay may be useful in the U.S., but some not as much.  Uruguay and Turkey are both countries where people have had to fight against other human rights violations and so the general population seems to be able to understand this as exactly that. The U.S. has a large population of people who have not themselves experienced injustice in any real or impactful way, making this struggle more difficult to relate to.  These countries also place more importance on the community and the family as opposed to the individual as we generally do in the U.S. This makes it hard to steer the abortion debate in a direction that the majority of people in the U.S. can relate to.  I was able to make a great connection with Marlene Gerber Fried at this conference who has great knowledge of abortion access on an international level.



Using Medicines to cause safe abortion internationally

This presentation by Susan Yanow focused on the right to access to safe abortion, knowledge about safe abortion and access to knowledge about medicines, primarily Misoprostol, that can safely end a pregnancy can belong to all women no matter where the person is living. This workshop described how the medicines used to induce an abortion work and how women around the world use them safely, both with clinicians and in situations where abortion is restricted. There was a brief overview of several different international organizations like Women on Waves and Women on Web who spread this knowledge, with a special focus on the Middle East North Africa region, where access to safe abortion is severely limited.

This workshop was an interesting perspective on how women in countries where misoprostol is available over the counter and abortion is illegal and inaccessible, can learn to safely use misoprostol to cause an abortion. The great part is that if the woman has any issues using the medicines, she can go to a hospital or clinic and be treated for a miscarriage as any medical professional will not be able to tell the difference. This would eliminate the possibility of a woman putting herself in danger by divulging her use of misoprostol.

Eugenics and Population Control:

This presentation made the point that the right to choose not to have children is only a part of the fight for reproductive freedom. The state has an ongoing history of policing communities of color by denying access to reproductive services, forced sterilizations, and controlling family formation through social services and legislation of those deemed by the state as “unfit to parent.” Panelists analyzed state intervention through an historical and medical lens, experiences of incarcerated women and mothers, and the politicized messaging around immigration as a scare tactic for population control. This workshop provided a deeper understanding of the right to birth and parent as an integral component of reproductive justice. During the presentation we heard about some qualitative research from Aline Gubrium on the effects of long-term Depo usage on women and it was found that Depo usage is being encouraged especially in low-income communities and the effects of long-term usage is not adequately being described to patients. We also heard a presentation by Courtney Hooks who works with reproductive justice in prisons. We watched a video of a woman who, when incarcerated, went in for a very basic procedure and left the procedure tand years later when she noticed she had stopped menstruating and wanted to have children, she found out that during that surgery, they had performed a complete and involuntary hysterectomy. This story was heart-breaking and left me disgusted. This woman has since become an activist for reproductive justice for incarcerated women.


Strategies for Fighting Abortion Stigma

I attended this workshop, because I was interested in seeing Heather’s presentation on stigma and was thrilled to hear from providers and administrators from Pre-Term, an awesome clinic in Cleveland, OH. I had the pleasure of meeting Dallas Schubert, and Toni Thayer who talked about how they go about combating stigma inside the clinic and in the community where the clinic is.  We also heard from Poonam Dreyfus-Pai, who talked about reducing stigma by creating support for wo men in clinic like doula services, Katie Stack talked about her experience going into CPCs to find out what women were being told when they went in.

The workshop touched on how Policy-makers who use the phrase “safe, legal and rare” leave abortion stigmatized and those who have abortions ostracized, contributing to the vulnerability of providers, advocates and patients.  In this workshop, we discussed strategies for creating a new dialogue around abortion that is grounded within the context of our lives as young people, parents, community members, allies and friends.

Heather Ault:

“Truth and power belong to those who tell a better story.”

“Abortion shines a bright light on your life.”

Messages of the antis – “we will win” – confidence

Pro-choicers – “We need to win” – framed as a struggle, a battle

Will v. Need to = law of attraction

Creating a full-spectrum doula practice:

In this workshop, we discussed how everyone deserves to have access to non-judgmental, emotional, physical, and informational support when moving through the full spectrum of choice. In recent years, the doula model of care has been expanding to include not only birthing support but also support for abortion, adoption, and prison reproductive healthcare.  We got to hear how doulas from different practices are managing this landscape. We heard from Lauren Mitchell from the NY Doula Project, who have truly created a presence in the NYC hospitals to the point that doctors are actually waiting to start the procedure because the doula isn’t there yet. We got to hear how they dealt with the wide array of obstacles to gaining acceptance in the community. We also got to hear from a doula, Poonam Dreyfus-Pai, who works with the Bay Area Doula Project, a newer group doing the same work in California. We were able to learn from the road blocks that they are currently encountering when attempting to introduce the doula model into a hospital setting. I was able to get a lot of ideas for our hand holding program that we are developing here at CHWC and made some great contacts in Poonam and Lauren. They are aware that we are developing a program and are excited to help in anyway they can.



2012 brought second highest number of abortion restrictions ever


Check out the full article at Feministing.org : 2012 brought second highest number of abortion restrictions ever …  and more

 Facts on Abortion in the United States
State Facts About Abortion
Trends in Abortion in the United States, 1973–2008

After a year full of pushback on reproductive freedom, let’s welcome 2013 with a proud celebration of 40 years of Roe v. Wade. It’s more important than ever to show legislators that Roe is here to stay and we won’t sit back and watch while restrictive legislation takes power out of the hands of women and families.


Death in Ireland is a Wake Up Call to Fight Bans on Later Abortion Here at Home

Link to the full article here: http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/article/2012/11/15/death-in-ireland-is-wake-up-call-to-fight-bans-on-later-abortion


As the linked article by social worker and reproductive justice advocate Susan Yanow illustrates improving access to reproductive health care and abortion access is a matter or life and death for many women and their families.


“In Ireland, abortion is legal only to save a woman’s life. In the last two years in the United States, nine states have passed laws banning abortion after 20 weeks (in Arizona abortion is banned after 18 weeks) except to save a woman’s life. But as the death of Ms. Halappanavar so poignantly illustrates, “risk to a woman’s life” in emergency situations is extremely difficult to assess.”


If you were a social worker at an Arizona hospital and at a client who needed an abortion at 20 weeks in order to save their lives, would you be able to help them get one? Would you feel supported by your supervisor and co-workers, or would you be afraid for your job and not know where to look for help?