In all fairness, this likely began with the best of intentions. Earlier this week, the Women’s Initiative Network at Hogan Lovells held a Zoom call about the recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health which unraveled the right to abortion care.
But then things went off the rails.
A white partner who attended HoLove’s women’s meeting felt it appropriate to chime in with her support of the Dobbs decision. As a tipster at the firm described it, “Robin Keller, in front of nearly 400 women, shared her views that Dobbs was rightly decided and that Black women are disproportionately getting abortions and conducting ‘Black genocide’ which she finds ‘tragic.’” Yikes.
Another tipster described it as “spouting out racial vitriol about Black women abortions being a genocide that luckily Dobbs stops.” According to accounts, another partner “eloquently shut her down to the ground,” and asked Keller to leave the call. But, tipsters report that wasn’t the end of the screed, as Keller “wrote in the Zoom chat that we should channel our ‘rage’ into understanding other people’s point of view.”
Reaction to the incident from insiders at the firm reflects how troubling it was. One person described being “traumatized and hurt,” saying, “It was unreal.” Another was more blunt: “A woman needs to be fired.”
I’m unlikely to be as eloquent as those whob ended Keller’s tirade in the moment, but let’s take a beat to break down why this argument is so harmful. Professor SaraEllen Strongman notes that Black feminists have long understood the importance of reproductive freedom:
Black feminists still fiercely advocated for the right to abortion because they understood the importance of bodily autonomy, especially when it comes to reproduction.
Why? Because abortion had long been a strategy of survival and resistance for Black women. Historians have revealed that abortion even enabled some semblance of self-determination during slavery. Enslaved women could thwart enslavers’ ability to use their children as chattel to generate profit with birth control and abortion.
Strongman further places support for choice in historical context pointing out Shirley Chisholm’s support:
Instead Chisholm argued that reproductive choice enabled women and their families to achieve economic prosperity and ensure that the next generation of Black children were “reared amid love and stability, and educated to the limit of their ability.”
Chisholm argued that safe, legal abortion was a matter of survival, citing a study by Edwin M. Gold that found 49 percent of the deaths of pregnant Black women were caused by botched abortions. Chisholm also emphasized that poor women and women of color were then, as they are today, the least likely to be able to access quality medical care, including abortion.
And in 1989, Donna Brazile, along with other Black women leaders, authored “We Remember: African American Women for Reproductive Freedom” which began:
“Choice is the essence of freedom. It’s what we African Americans have struggled for all these years. The right to choose where we would sit on a bus. The right to vote. The right for each of us to select our own paths, to dream and reach for our dreams. The right to choose how we would or would not live our lives.”
Shyrissa Dobbins-Harris writes in The Myth of Abortion as Black Genocide: Reclaiming our Reproductive Cycle that these sorts of messages about abortion are “full of misogynoir.” And places “the struggle for Black survival squarely within the wombs of Blackwomen” over the “numerous social ills facing Black people” including “rates of police brutality… or the social determinants of health, or mass incarceration, or the alarmingly high rates of new HIV infections among Blackwomen.”
Language like that used in the HoLove meeting “considers Blackwomen incapable of making their own reproductive choices.” And, as Dobbins-Harris notes, similar rhetoric has been called out by Black women. Repeatedly:
Blackwomen are writing, tweeting, and creating art centering themselves and their agency in their abortion narratives. One Blackwoman author attacked Ben Carson’s harmful genocidal rhetoric writing for Aljazeera America saying, “[t]o use factually incorrect rhetoric to render our healthcare needs and experiences irrelevant is an affront to our dignity.”
Hogan Lovells provided the following statement about the incident:
“On Wednesday, our Women’s Initiative Network (WIN) held an internal forum to share their perspectives on the Dobbs decision and its impact. We were very pleased that nearly 350 people participated in this event, which was held to provide an open forum for discussion and a supportive space for our people who are concerned about these important issues. Unfortunately, one participant in the forum made comments others found inappropriate and offensive. Offensive and hurtful actions and statements are contrary to our culture, values, and business as a firm. Firm leaders promptly reached out to the firm community to express their regret about the pain and upset that this has caused our community. We appreciate that this was brought to our attention and we are treating this matter seriously. While we encourage members of our community to engage in frank, candid discussion, we expect all discussion in our place of work, or in settings sponsored by the firm, to uphold our values of inclusivity, respect for diverse members of our community, and non-discrimination.”
UPDATE: According to an internal email shared with Above the Law, Keller has been suspended, pending an internal investigation:
Unfortunately, one participant in the forum made anti-Black comments in support of her position on the Dobbs decision. Racist actions and statements are contrary to our culture, values, and business as a firm, and for the lawyers contrary to our ethical obligations. Our Black colleagues who participated in the WIN forum were hurt by those remarks. Many others were hurt, offended, and dismayed. We appreciate that this was brought to our attention and we are treating this seriously. The individual who made the remarks has been suspended pending the outcome of an internal investigation led by the office of the General Counsel.
Importantly, we offer an apology to our Black colleagues who were on the WIN call – that one person felt comfortable making such statements in that forum demonstrates that we need to do more to ensure all people are respected. We also thank the hundreds of people who spoke up during the WIN call and after. You have our gratitude for upholding our true values.
Looks like there are some welcome consequences for this troubling incident.
Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, host of The Jabot podcast, and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).