Joyce Lisbin Keeps Fighting for Reproductive Justice — and the Battle Isn't Over

Joyce Lisbin Keeps Fighting for Reproductive Justice — and the Battle Isn't Over

Joyce Lisbin doesn’t shy away from crabs, chlamydia or controversy. At seventy, the longtime sex educator is now spearheading a multi-faith operation designed to guarantee religiously affiliated women and their families something they don’t always have when faced with an unwanted pregnancy: a choice.

A choice that shouldn’t endanger their own lives or the lives of providers and allies.

Lisbin’s group, the Colorado Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, was already planning to expand its reach when Robert Dear opened fire at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs the day after Thanksgiving, killing three people, including a police officer.
“A piece of me can no longer be shocked,” Lisbin says. “I can still be horrified, but I can’t be shocked, and that’s very, very sad.”

For a time during her long career, Lisbin served as the head of a Planned Parenthood in New York — not long after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed the right to abortion. “When I was the director of Planned Parenthood, I received a few threats on my life, and very strange phone calls from somebody who wanted to murder me,” she remembers.

That was forty years ago, and she never gave up fighting for reproductive justice, or reminding people what life was like when abortion was still restricted. She understands how much ignorance surrounds our culture’s beliefs about sex and reproduction — and the horrors that can result.

“Talk about shame and ignorance,” she says.

Joyce Lisbin wants to empower people through sex education.
Joyce Lisbin wants to empower people through sex education.
Anthony Camera

Joyce Lisbin grew up in New Jersey in the 1950s, where she lived a sheltered life with her picture-perfect nuclear family: a mom, dad, two kids and, yes, a dog. At the time, sex education was perfunctory. By high school, Lisbin knew what intercourse was — and she knew not to experiment. “I knew that this was not something you played around with,” she says. “Not so much out of fear of pregnancy, but because it was somehow presented to me as morally wrong.”

When she was a high-school sophomore, Lisbin met a friend from summer camp in New York — “It sounds so cliché,” she says, laughing — and the girls snuck into a dance at New York University. But Lisbin’s friend slipped on a flight of marble stairs, and a security guard at the school sent them to Bellevue Hospital.

“At the time, this was considered the biggest and most used emergency room in New York,” Lisbin remembers. “The waiting room was gloomy. There were really sick people there. I had never been exposed to anything like that. We saw people come in with stab wounds...and then a woman came through the door covered in blood, with a hanger between her legs.”

Lisbin had heard about women dying after injecting themselves with lye and other chemicals while trying to self-abort; she’d heard horrible stories about hangers. But she’d certainly never seen the aftermath of a botched procedure.

“In the East Coast, before Roe v. Wade, when a woman became pregnant, there was just panic; everything was underground,” she says. Washington Square Methodist Episcopal Church in Manhattan was “an underground railroad,” Lisbin remembers. While she was attending American University in Washington, D.C., she took two friends to the church to find abortion providers.

One located a provider in the Bronx; the other flew to Puerto Rico. Both women were incredibly scared. “The risks went beyond getting caught,” Lisbin points out. “There were personal health implications.” And there was the risk of public backlash, too: Three days after Lisbin’s friend had her abortion in the Bronx, the facility was raided.

Abortion is a simple, safe procedure when performed properly by a medical professional. In 1930, though, it was listed as the official cause of death for approximately 2,700 women in the United States, representing nearly one-fifth of all maternal deaths that year. The death toll declined to just over 300 by 1950 — “most likely because of the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, which permitted more effective treatment of the infections that frequently developed after illegal abortion,” according to a Guttmacher Report on Public Policy.

By 1965, the number of deaths due to illegal abortion had dropped to under 200, but illegal abortion still accounted for 17 percent of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth. According to a 2003 Guttmacher analysis, the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and ’60s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million annually.

Lisbin was in college in D.C. during the height of the civil-rights movement and the protests over the Vietnam War. “It was a time when we were rejecting a lot of the so-called middle-class values. I went to demonstrations,” she says. “And I really got to see the ‘disparity’ — we didn’t use that term in those days — in the way people were treated. Being Jewish made that observation a lot easier for me.”

She joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which spearheaded national sit-ins, freedom rides and marches. “The biggest thing I remember was going to Cambridge when George Wallace was coming to speak,” she says. She and other student activists piled into a truck, covered themselves with hay and snuck into the college town so that they could demonstrate against the 45th governor of Alabama, a strong segregationist and 1964 presidential hopeful whose campaign was based largely on his opposition to desegregation. “A man like that should not be president,” Lisbin says. “We were protesting his philosophy of ‘keeping blacks in their place.’”

But before the demonstration could really get going, it was over. “When we marched down Race Street in the middle of town, there were tanks coming at us, and then they started releasing the tear gas and we all fled,” remembers Lisbin. “I really felt like I was in a war. I never would have thought our government would have responded that way. It seems like history is repeating itself in so many ways.”

After college, Lisbin lived in Seattle and was “very much a hippie type,” she admits. A yearlong trip to Africa in 1971 inspired her to shift gears, though. The trip was meant to be an adventurous cultural experience, but some of the things Lisbin saw — in particular, a severely burned Kenyan adolescent who wasn’t admitted to the area hospital because of his tribal affiliations — were a revelation. “I realized that no matter what anyone’s culture or religion was, they had to have access to health information and care,” she says. So she decided to focus on community health, and after wrapping up her master’s degree in community health at NYU, Lisbin snagged a job as a health educator for Passaic County, New Jersey.

After the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, Lisbin started thinking about a career that would combine her passions for sexual education and activism. She accepted a job with Planned Parenthood in Rockland County, New York, in 1976, and was later named executive director of that branch. “When you’re the director of a Planned Parenthood, you see two extremes,” Lisbin notes. “I had people who were very supportive, and then there were the right-to-lifers who picketed the agency.”

She received a few death threats, too. “The county had a strong but small right-to-life group, and they were very vociferous in trying to limit our sex-education programs, as well as our services,” Lisbin says. “You’re very aware of how explosive these issues are — and how very personal.”

By the late 1980s, the 42-year-old Lisbin was burned out and divorced. “I thought I was at a dead end,” she recalls, and she moved to Albuquerque intent on changing careers entirely.

She enrolled at the University of New Mexico with thoughts of getting a doctorate in videography. But she soon circled back to public health and instead got a doctorate in organizational learning and instructional technology. Lisbin’s thesis focused on how technology can be used to disseminate information in an educational setting. Information about sex, for example.

“I’ve always been drawn to sexual health,” Lisbin admits. “I didn’t fit, let’s just say, in the corporate world.”

For the next twelve years, Lisbin worked as UNM’s health educator, working with the school’s Greek system and sports teams. “I talked to the young men on UNM’s football team — a lot,” she recalls. The conversation that sticks out most started when a six-foot-plus football player walked into Lisbin’s office, crying.

“He went on and on about how he’s really a good person,” Lisbin recalls. “His sense of shame was just mind-boggling, and so unfortunate.”
After a few minutes, Lisbin had calmed her visitor enough to discern that he’d been confirmed as having an STD. He begged Lisbin not to tell anyone he’d been to her office. “He didn’t know what to do,” Lisbin says. “And he wanted me to know that he wasn’t like that — whatever ‘that’ might be. He felt he had crossed a moral line and was being punished for having intercourse.”

Lisbin explained that STDs are viruses and bacteria, and they don’t discriminate. “That eased his mind,” she remembers.
Football players weren’t the only students who were clueless about sex. Lisbin developed a peer-education program at UNM, and “a significant number of students who were trying to get into medical school wound up joining because it looked good on their résumés,” she says, adding that they were “incredibly bright, incredibly studious and incredibly naive.

“They were students who were in the library Friday and Saturday nights, and not out partying — let alone dating, having love affairs or experimenting the way other college students do.”

Lisbin’s program, Students Educating Peers About Sex, trained its members to talk to fellow students about sex, providing accurate, up-to-date information. After they got into medical school, a couple of students visited Lisbin and told her that the program had helped them understand sex as an emotional process rather than just a physiological action that could result in pregnancy or an STD. “I’ve always emphasized the emotional factor,” Lisbin explains. “I think it is important to let people know that sex is pleasurable and can be wonderful — but that there are consequences. Usually when we talk to young people about the consequences of sex, it’s about pregnancy and STDs. I’m not minimizing the importance of those, but I wanted to talk about the emotional aspects, too.

“Recent research shows that young people don’t have the frontal lobe developed until they are in their mid-twenties,” she explains. “If your hormones are off the charts and you feel like you’re having a magical relationship with somebody — well, it’s pretty hard to think logically. What I tried to do at UNM was get people to think about consequences before they made a decision.”

In 1999, Lisbin made the decision to leave UNM and return to Africa; two months later, she moved to California, where she spent the next decade instituting and running a community-driven marketing campaign for sex-ed training as health-communications director for STD control for the California Department of Public Health. Lisbin moved to Denver five years ago after retiring, but she hasn’t stopped working.
“I’m not as up on sex as I used to be, but I’m still really interested in STDs,” Lisbin says. And through the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center and other local organizations, she found a new group of students to counsel: seniors.

Older Colo-radans aren’t concerned with pregnancy, of course. And, notes Lisbin, “These older people aren’t really aware or concerned about STDs — but they should be.”

Members of this group aren’t all that different from teens when they put themselves back in the dating pool, especially if they’re widows or widowers who were in long-term, monogamous relationships. “They’re experimenting for the first time,” explains Lisbin.

In 2013, people fifty and older accounted for nearly a quarter of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States, and 27 percent of the country’s estimated 26,688 AIDS diagnoses. Older people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found, are far more likely than young people to be diagnosed with HIV late in the course of the virus — which usually means that they start treatment later and suffer more immune-system damage. These late diagnoses occur in part because health-care providers don’t always test older people for HIV infection.
Older people are also less apt to suspect HIV themselves — though today’s seniors are more likely to be having sex than seniors in the past were, thanks to the advent of erectile-dysfunction medications such as Viagra.

Older people are also more likely to have multiple sexual partners. “It’s sort of like a glorified college dorm,” Lisbin says of some senior facilities. “There are more women than men at that age, and so the women are more willing to be with a man who isn’t monogamous. It’s the perfect storm for STDs.” Older women are also more vulnerable to STDs because their skin is thinner.

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Lisbin has noticed that older men and women often have the same sense of shame surrounding sex that UNM’s young football player displayed. She’s “amazed by how uncomfortable older people can be when talking about sex,” she says. “The last talk I gave summarizes this resistance.” Only a handful of people showed up for the sex presentation at a local senior organization; the director told Lisbin she’d expected a low turnout because “nobody even wants to be seen in a place where sex is discussed. That’s why they videotaped it.”

The morals surrounding sex have changed, and so have the infections. “When I was in college, your biggest worry was crabs,” Lisbin says. “Now chlamydia and herpes are very prevalent, and if you didn’t grow up with that, you might not be aware it’s there.”

That last statement is equally true for reproductive rights: Younger people have a hard time comprehending just how bad the situation was fifty years ago for women faced with unwanted pregnancies. With Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court overturned state laws that outlawed abortion. “It was considered a huge victory, and as soon as it was passed, it was immediately challenged,” Lisbin explains. “We have abortion rights supposedly in place, but there are blackouts all over this country.”

Reverend Valerie Jackson is now president of the Colorado Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Reverend Valerie Jackson is now president of the Colorado Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Anthony Camera

Many organizations advocate for abortion rights; religious and faith-based groups, though, are better known for picketing clinics and providers’ homes — or worse.

But back in 1973, 44 national religious organizations banded together to provide comprehensive sexual education and contraception information for people of faith, founding the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. Today it’s known as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and it currently boasts chapters and affiliates in eleven states. One of those is Colorado, where two women started the Colorado Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, or the Colorado Coalition for short, in 1980.

“We are the only religious organization that speaks out for reproductive justice. We’re the only ones saying women have the control of their own bodies, no matter what they want to do,” explains one of the coalition’s founders, who helped create the three main prongs that survive today: a confidential and faith-based pro-choice counseling service for women and their families; reproductive-justice education for clergy members and faith leaders; and a lobbying committee that’s been a strong voice in front of the Colorado Legislature. In the earlier days, clergy members even escorted women to Planned Parenthood for appointments.

Lisbin learned of the Colorado Coalition through her involvement with NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado. She’s now the group’s executive director, and adds to the coalition’s wide-ranging religious profile through her study of Kabbalah, the mystical side of Judaism.

The Colorado Coalition comprises eleven faith-based affiliates, including the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform Judaism), the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Lutheran Women’s Caucus, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalists, the United Methodist Church, Catholics for Choice, and Metropolitan Community Churches. Each denomination has a slightly different stance on abortion. “All of these groups have pro-choice statements, and they’re very thoughtful,” Lisbin says. “You can see that many churches and religious organizations understand how complicated peoples’ lives are.”

And their positions can be complicated, although they all agree that abortion should be safe and legal.

The United Methodist Church’s official national position on abortion states, “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy.” The denomination, then, technically supports “the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers,” but notes that abortion is justified only in “tragic conflicts.”

The Episcopal Church takes a similar stance, saying that the right to have an abortion should be exercised “only in extreme situations.”

Unitarian Universalists, in contrast, say they “believe not only in the value of life itself, but also the quality of life,” and recognize the importance of tolerance. The UU’s statement on abortion notes a need for “compassion for persons whose choices may differ from our own,” and supports unrestricted access to abortion, despite the moral complexity involved.

Under Jewish law, life begins the moment a fetus passes through the birth canal. Still, there are differing views on when abortion should be permitted. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, for example, affirms its “unwavering commitment to the protection and preservation of the reproductive rights of women.” But while the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism supports choice, it condones abortion only “under certain unfortunate circumstances, such as when the life or health of the mother are in jeopardy.”

Despite the divergent viewpoints of the coalition’s members, Lisbin says, “we all really believe in the separation of church and state, and in a woman’s right to control her body.”

The coalition pushes those beliefs through individual counseling, education and advocacy. The counseling program is its direct-service approach to helping women weigh their options when deciding whether to terminate a pregnancy, give birth and keep the baby or relinquish it. For many, that’s a complicated decision that might be wrapped up in faith-based morals — and a decision that might not be welcomed within the woman’s religious community.

“To say we are a voice for reproductive choice isn’t to say we urge women to have abortions; we just support women and families in choosing what they feel is best at any particular time,” says Reverend Valerie Jackson, the group’s new president.

A woman or a family member starts the counseling process by calling the coalition’s hotline. Today Lisbin takes each incoming call, evaluates the situation, determines the caller’s faith denomination and asks for permission to connect the caller to a counselor of similar faith. After that, Lisbin will contact one of the fourteen counselors active in the Colorado Coalition’s network, and the counselor will reach out to the caller. “People who call in tend to come from more conservative backgrounds,” Lisbin notes, “and I think that’s because more liberal and progressive women have access on their own and are more comfortable bringing it up to their clergy.”

The number of people seeking counseling is fairly small, about two dozen a year, Lisbin estimates. But then, the group has never had a budget to promote its services. Until recently, in fact, the coalition was sustained through “friend-raising,” as Jackson calls it, as well as donations collected at the annual Faith and Freedom Award ceremony, the Colorado Coalition’s major event.

But under Jackson and Lisbin, fundraising has gotten more formal. The coalition has been soliciting donations through the mail and applying for grants. “We are reaching out to our base more assertively,” says Lisbin, who’s created promotional cards that she distributes to health-care providers, college health centers and allied organizations such as Colorado Youth Matter and NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado.

The coalition also hosts nominally priced workshops for faith leaders to education them on the issue of abortion and teach them how to provide counseling for women who might be considering abortion. The coalition is holding its next Clergy Day of Learning on Reproductive Justice on Thursday, January 28. Kathryn Johnson, national program director for the RCRC, will help facilitate the workshop and reflect on theological, pastoral and practical issues related to reproductive justice. The day will also include a session on ways that faith leaders can express their commitment to women’s rights and reproductive justice with members of their own congregation.

Reverend Greg Garland leads the Colorado Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice’s legislative efforts.
Reverend Greg Garland leads the Colorado Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice’s legislative efforts.
Anthony Camera

The Colorado Coalition’s other contribution to reproductive justice has been to monitor state legislation and court actions related to reproductive health care. A four-person committee — headed by United Church of Christ pastor Greg Garland, the coalition’s vice-president — follows local legislation and testifies in front of the Colorado Legislature when it sees a bad bill coming.

Legally, Colorado is a strong pro-choice state. The first state to decriminalize abortion, it’s one of the few places in this country where a third-trimester abortion can be obtained for conditions such as fetal anomalies, genetic disorder, fetal demise or other severe medical problems. There are no spousal-consent laws hindering abortion in Colorado, and there isn’t a mandatory waiting period that women must submit to before obtaining an abortion. Medicaid even covers the procedure in some cases.

But Lisbin and her coalition colleagues worry that those laws might change as organizations like Personhood USA challenge both local and national laws. Since 2010, lawmakers in thirty states — Colorado not included — have passed 205 laws restricting access to abortion, more than in the previous decade. In Colorado, one of the biggest confrontations has been over the push for so-called personhood amendments — reforms that, if passed, would have changed the state’s constitution to define life as beginning at conception and effectively outlawed abortion locally while challenging the legitimacy of Roe v. Wade.

“We deal with the personhood thing way too often,” says Garland. In 2008, Personhood USA led a campaign to pass Amendment 48, a personhood measure, in Colorado. That amendment failed 73.2 percent to 26.8 percent; two years later, though, Amendment 62 — tweaked slightly since 2008 to remove mention of stem-cell research — appeared on Colorado’s ballot. Much of Amendment 62’s support came from Personhood USA and Right to Life; many of the Republican candidates running in Colorado that year voiced strong support for it as well, but it ultimately failed. (Republication candidates had generally opposed Amendment 48.)

The Colorado Coalition geared its opposition efforts toward educating its constituents; the legislative committee sent out information about the proposed amendments to members and affiliates in order to “get the word out,” as Garland puts it. Boardmembers also asked coalition members, especially clergy, to speak to their individual networks about Amendments 48 and 62, and Garland even did a couple of gatherings for his UCC congregation.

“We also supported the work of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado,” says Garland. “We have a thousandth of the resources they do, but we’d give something as a token to show we were with them.”

But those organizations need the support, he says: “We keep running into laws designed to restrict access to clinics, and laws that make it difficult to operate clinics.” The anti-abortion movement’s major success recently has been in passing TRAP laws (Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers), which severely hinder abortion providers by burying them in red tape or requiring expensive structural changes inside abortion clinics.

Twenty-six states have TRAP laws that require abortion clinics to, say, widen their hallways or modify janitorial closets or install surgical sinks. Four states currently require that doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at local hospitals — even when the nearest hospitals oppose abortion. While these laws are marketed as being designed to make abortion safer, coalition members say they’re unnecessary from a medical perspective.

“A first-trimester abortion is a very simple procedure,” explains Lisbin. The risk of death and major complications from abortions performed by health-care providers is less than .3 percent, according to the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecologists.

Colorado has not passed any TRAP laws. “But they’ve been put before the legislature,” Garland says. “We’ve fought them off, and I’m sure there will be more this year.”

There have been other challenges. Colorado’s abortion rates have begun to drop, thanks in large part to increasing access to long-acting reversible contraception (LARC). For the past six years, teens and low-income women have been offered free intrauterine devices and implants to protect against pregnancy, and the birth rate among teenagers plummeted by 40 percent from 2009 to 2013 statewide, while Colorado’s abortion rate fell by 42 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Approximately one-fifth of Colorado women between the ages of 18 and 44 currently use LARC. The devices cost between $800 and $900 — but the private grant that initially funded the program has begun to run out, and last spring the legislature declined to provide additional funding. “Unfortunately, our conservative legislators refused to finance this project,” Lisbin says. “The department of public health has found private resources to continue it, but I think [the program] has been curtailed a bit.”

And just a week before the most recent legislative session ended, Republican lawmakers introduced an anti-abortion bill in the Senate. The last-minute legislation would have required women to receive an ultrasound and detailed information about unwanted fetuses — including any ability to feel pain — and then wait 24 hours before deciding whether to abort. Women and physicians refusing to comply would have faced criminal charges. Two days after its introduction, the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services postponed the bill indefinitely.

While Colorado laws might support abortion rights, its citizens don’t always follow suit. This state’s “Bubble Bill,” for example, theoretically protects women from harassment outside of an abortion clinic by making it a misdemeanor for a person to come within eight feet of another person without their consent if the parties are within 100 feet of a health-care facility that performs abortions. “It’s not just that they are standing outside of Planned Parenthood and screaming at people, warning them that they are going to go to hell. They are also threatening the providers,” Lisbin says. And as events in Colorado Springs last month showed, some are acting on those threats.

“This is not just being intolerant; this is aggrieved and violent, and it’s a form of terrorism,” says Lisbin.

Some people argue that there’s an inherent contradiction in a religious organization honoring the sanctity of life while simultaneously supporting abortion rights. “It isn’t a contradiction,” says Lisbin. “It’s an affirmation. Aren’t we all pro-life?”

That’s why the religious part is key — because so many religions are against abortion.

Garland points out that he and right-to-lifers aren’t so different. “We both want to see an end to abortion,” he says. “But one of us would like to do it by dictating what a woman does, and the other wants to do it with contraception and education.”

“The God I know, He gave me choices,” says Jackson, adding that the “religious folk, the folk with all this zeal,” tend to make the debate solely about abortion. “It is bigger than that. It’s about having a right to speak my truth,” she notes.

“The right wing seeks to impose one black-and-white answer,” she continues. “But even if they make [abortion] illegal and criminalize it, we know it is still going to happen; it’s just that poor women will not be able to do it, at least not in a healthy way. This ends up being an attack on those who are living on the margins.”

She wonders what religious conservatives are really fighting for. “We at the coalition seek for the concept of honoring life to be consistent,” Jackson says. “We’re standing toe-to-toe with a group that believes life begins at conception — and yet the real contradiction is that many times the same group of people that supposedly advocates for life could care less about a life once it is born. Where is equal opportunity for education, for housing, for food? What are they really fighting for? I don’t think it’s human life.”

“To me,” adds Lisbin, “the most painful and frightening thing about the church groups that are extremely against abortion is that they believe their way is the right way for everyone, and they want to impose that on others. And that is not the American way.”

Colorado Coalition members want to help get that message out, by making their group one that Coloradans recognize.

“It’s not on the news that we exist; it’s not advertised,” Jackson says. “Right now, this is word of mouth, and pastors with the flexibility will speak about the coalition from their pulpits. We want to have a much greater impact.”

So she and Lisbin are in the process of updating the coalition’s website and creating a viable web presence by tapping into Facebook and launching a channel on YouTube.

For Lisbin, greater visibility ultimately means reaching — and empowering — more people. “For most of my adult life, I have worked for reproductive justice,” she says. “Growing up, I was taught to believe that the U.S. is the land of opportunity and freedom. In my late teens, I saw that opportunities were far from universally available. Everyone deserves adequate health care and accurate information — and to live in a just society that provides the freedom to explore and express beliefs peacefully.”


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