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Sexual, reproductive rights focus of Des Forges symposium

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This year's Alison L. Des Forges International Symposium will examine LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights from an international and human rights perspective.


Published April 4, 2024


Experts from academia and advocacy organizations will come together for a hybrid symposium on April 16 that will explore LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights from an international and human rights perspective.

Presenters at the Alison L. Des Forges International Symposium range from Sarah Warbelow, vice president and legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, to Kimberly Mutcherson, professor of law at Rutgers University; Therese McGinn, professor emerita of population and family health at Columbia University; and Amanda Lock Swarr, associate professor of gender, women and sexuality studies at the University of Washington.

The free, public event will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Buffalo Room, 10 Capen Hall, North Campus, and virtually. Registration for in-person and virtual attendance is required. Email to sign up.

The symposium honors the memory of Alison L. Des Forges, a member of the UB community who fought to call the world’s attention to a great humanitarian crisis: the Rwandan genocide.

Des Forges, a historian of Africa and Buffalo native, was an adjunct member of the UB history faculty during the 1990s and received a SUNY honorary doctorate during UB’s 155th general commencement ceremony in 2001.

She was one of the world’s leading experts on Rwanda, serving as an expert witness in 11 trials at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Her award-winning book, “Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda”, was a landmark account of the 1994 genocide, and her tireless efforts to awaken the international community to its horrors earned her a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999.

The symposium will open with welcoming remarks at 8:45 a.m. The morning presentations will run from 9 a.m. to noon and will include the following talks:

  • Reproductive Justice Beyond Abortion in the Post-Dobbs Era: Kimberly Mutcherson, professor of law, Rutgers Law School.

The reproductive justice (RJ) frame provides a critical lens through which to understand and combat the changes to abortion access occasioned by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. The RJ lens, however, pushes us to dive deeper into the impact of Dobbs in other areas, such as the criminalization of pregnancy, maternal morbidity and mortality, and the consequences of the movement for fetal and embryonic personhood. The deeper discussion must also include the disparate race and class impact that the post-Dobbs landscape has on low-income communities and communities of color. This talk explores why the call to restore Roe fails to embrace this moment as an opportunity to aggressively pursue an RJ agenda that centers the experiences of marginalized women and demands far more than the bare minimum that Roe provided.

  • Abortion Access in the U.S.: Sawyeh Esmaili, senior counsel, National Women’s Law Center.

In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned decades of precedent and declared there is no federal constitutional right to abortion care.  The Dobbs decision exacerbated the already-existing patchwork of restrictive abortion laws and policies in the U.S. This talk will discuss the legal history of abortion in the United States, the country’s current landscape and how the lawfulness of abortion has never meant meaningful access to care.

  • Advancing Reproductive Justice: Learnings from South America: Alicia Ely Yamin, lecturer on law and adjunct senior lecturer on health policy and management, Harvard University.

The Dobbs ruling centered attention on the United States, long a model for those seeking to broaden reproductive rights, as a global outlier — part of a small subset of nations that over the past two decades has made it harder for women to get abortions. By contrast, a number of countries in Latin America, including three of the most populous countries, now find themselves in the vanguard of expanding abortion rights worldwide. The so-called Green Wave has led to the legalization of abortion in Argentina through the first trimester, and to the decriminalization of abortions in Colombia and Mexico to differing extents. This presentation will describe these struggles and propose insights for the U.S. context.

  • War and Displacement: Sexual and Reproductive Health in Conflict Zones: Therese McGinn, professor emerita, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights were traditionally absent in the world’s humanitarian response to refugees and displaced persons affected by conflict. In the mid-1990s, this began to change. Today, while not always comprehensive, sexual and reproductive health care is a standard component of the response. What brought about the change? What factors have influenced the progress — and relapses — in making sexual and reproductive health and rights part of “business as usual” in the United Nations,’ international NGOs’ (non-governmental organizations) and local organizations’ work on the ground in complex humanitarian emergencies?

The afternoon talks will run from 1-4 p.m. and will include the following presentations:

  • Intersex Autonomy in African Contexts: Colonial Histories and Activist Leadership for the Future: Amanda Lock Swarr, associate professor, Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, University of Washington.

Colonial travelers, scientists and doctors have falsely claimed that “hermaphroditism” and intersex are disproportionately common among black South Africans for centuries. But African intersex activists are increasingly debunking this claim. Under the auspices of what they are calling the African Intersex Movement, activists from across southern and eastern Africa have issued a set of unified demands, including ending nonconsensual surgeries, combating quotidian violence and establishing new policies. This talk foregrounds the priorities of those who describe themselves as the “African intersex reference of intelligence” and explores how they reclaim their autonomy and refuse the racialized violence of intersex medicine while articulating new decolonial visions of gender outside of simple binaries.

  • Straddling Worlds, Straddling Wars: The Woman’s Body as a Colonized Site: Unoma Azuah, English professor, Wiregrass Georgia Technical College, Valdosta Campus.

This presentation explores where the justice instituted by colonial courts and tradition/customary rendered justice diverge. Indigenous African sexuality is diverse; it’s fluid and it is queer. The major conflict in this context is between state power and the customary/spiritual power of the Indigenous tradition. In custom, the Nigerian queer community asserts its authenticity and spiritual power in spite of oppressive state laws. In addressing these issues, Azuah also uses her own personal story as an individual model and Achebe’s decolonization narrative as an artistic model for resistance.

  • State of Emergency: Escalating Attacks on LGBTQ+ People at All Levels of Government: Sarah Warbelow, vice president and legal director, Human Rights Campaign.

This talk will discuss the broad array of anti-LGBTQ legislation, with a particular focus on the definition of sex bills and new forms of restrictions for gender-affirming care. It will also discuss the role the federal government plays in these types of legislation, one example being how the House misused the appropriations process to target LGBTQ+ people. From there it will transition into the role that the Dobbs decision has had on policy decisions, and how post-Dobbs Republicans feel the need to attack a small and vulnerable community.

  • LGBTQ+ and Reproductive Justice: Current Threats and Opportunities in the U.S: Patience Crozier, director, family advocacy, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders.

This talk will explore threats and opportunities in the current LGBTQ+ legal environment, which has become increasingly interconnected with the reproductive rights movement since the Dobbs decision. Focusing on legislative threats at the state level, it will discuss bans on gender-affirming care in Alabama and Florida, attacks on schools that support transgender children, attacks on LGBTQ families (e.g. stripping parents of the marital presumption in Oklahoma, Idaho and Pennsylvania) and the rise of fertility fraud and gamete regulations bills that undermine LGBTQ family stability.  Opportunities to create positive change include shield or provider protection legislation to protect access to transgender and reproductive health care in legal states, expanded access to fertility health care, and access to parentage protections for LGBTQ+ families and their children.

Symposium sponsors include the Alison Des Forges Memorial Committee; Jack Walsh in Honor of Connie and Kyle Walsh; University at Buffalo: Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy; departments of Comparative Literature, Global Gender and Sexuality Studies, History and Political Science; Gender Institute; Humanities Institute; James Agee Chair in American Culture; Office of the Vice Provost for International Education; School of Public Health and Health Professions; School of Social Work.