Meet the Lawyer Behind If/When/How's RJ Lawyers Network

This month, If/When/How is excited to relaunch our Reproductive Justice Lawyers Network, a political home for legal professionals working to make reproductive justice a reality. The RJ Lawyers Network isn’t just for folks with full-time movement jobs; in fact, it’s set up to give anyone with legal training the ability to apply their skills and leverage their educational and professional privilege in the service of advancing reproductive freedom. From pro bono research opportunities to CLEs and mentorship opportunities, the RJ Lawyers Network offers a variety of ways for lawyers to plug into movement work — and here’s Melissa Torres-Montoya, If/When/How’s Lawyer Engagement Manager, with more.

Q. What brought you to this work, Melissa?

I credit my mom a lot for my deep connection to reproductive justice. My mom moved to the United States from Mexico when she was a young child and was the first in her family to graduate from college. She started working in sexual health education in the 1970s when it was still pretty uncommon to teach sex ed. In doing so, she navigated many different worlds: geographically, academically and culturally. She honored and appreciated traditional Mexican cultural values while also cultivating her emerging reproductive justice values. Not only was she part of the generation that broke major ground for women entering the workplace but she was trying to transform reproductive and sexual health at a time when Mexican American women were being forcibly sterilized in her hometown of L.A. In the face of such ongoing reproductive oppression, informed consent became a central part of her public health advocacy. I learned from her the importance of education so that each person knows their options so they can live a sexually fulfilling and healthy life, and exert their sexual autonomy in their sexual health decision making. In fact, I became so passionate about this that, after college, I also taught sex ed in my home town of Sacramento.

I’m carrying these experiences with me into my work at If/When/How, supporting a network of lawyers advancing reproductive justice because I believe in the power of education and collective power to create change. I’ve worked in a variety of legal and legislative settings and understand that there are lawyers from all walks of life with unique skill sets that are needed to make impactful change toward reproductive justice. Much of my career has been spent working in federal policy and supporting local state legislative efforts. Capacity is always an issue when it comes to making change at any level, and the need for legal and policy expertise is huge. Grassroots and local organizations don’t always have the resources or skill set among paid staffers — especially on small teams! — to read long administrative rules or develop testimony on a proposed bill. With the RJ Lawyers Network, we’re building bridges between folks who can volunteer their time and legal training, and reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations who need added capacity. At the same time, we’re also helping legal professionals bring reproductive justice values to their own workplaces, or even at home — making sure, just like my mom did, that people have all the information and training they need to live their healthiest, most fulfilled lives — in healthy, strong communities.  

Q. What does it mean to lawyer for reproductive justice?

Lawyering for reproductive justice means applying reproductive justice values — such as self-determination, autonomy, access to the full range of reproductive health services, and freedom to create families free from the terrors of policing and prosecution — into legal settings. It means working to shape laws and policies that combat reproductive oppression and transform our current legal system into one that sustains reproductive autonomy and decision-making so that each person has the ability to choose, if, when, and how they create and nourish their families.  

Lawyering for reproductive justice can mean using traditional tools and expertise like legal research, analysis and writing to influence the passage of laws that work toward creating a world free from reproductive oppression. It can also mean helping your own workplace create policies that provide robust parental leave, health coverage that includes reproductive assistance, or institute a policy to include gender pronouns on email signatures. Lawyering for reproductive justice may look like being a pregnancy or abortion doula and helping the pregnant person you’re accompanying navigate clinic paperwork.

Our reproductive lives are complicated and impact so many facets of who we are, and how we spend our time and resources. Likewise, the ways that people can lawyer for reproductive justice is just as varied and innovative.

Q. Who can lawyer for reproductive justice?

Just about anyone with legal training who cares about reproductive justice and wants to make proactive change — shaping laws and policies, supporting grassroots organizations, or making our communities more just. Lawyering for reproductive justice can happen in our daily lives, at home or in the workplace or in the halls of state capitals or Congress. The Reproductive Justice Lawyers Network is open to those who self-identify as lawyers for reproductive justice and who want to continue to develop (or better develop) their legal skills in service of the reproductive justice movement. 

Q. What’s it going to be like to be a member of the RJ Lawyers Network?

Being a member of the RJ Lawyers Network will be different for every person. This is a network where you can choose how involved you want to be; put simply, the RJ Lawyers Network is a political home for those who care about reproductive justice. For some, this may mean building relationships and connections with other lawyers who care about reproductive justice. For others, they may join as a way to deepen their understanding of reproductive justice and volunteer their legal skills to a local reproductive justice organization working to expand access to abortion, improve sex education in schools, or help people change their gender markers on identification documents — the possibilities are so varied. The ways in which members get involved may shift throughout their membership, but their commitment and passion to advance reproductive justice will be unwavering.

Q. Where do you see the RJ Lawyers Network in five years?

In five years, I see members of the RJ Lawyers Network making meaningful contributions to shifting the legal landscape to better serve and to recenter the reproductive and sexual health needs of everyone, especially those who are most marginalized and most affected by attacks on reproductive freedom. Closest to my heart, I envision mentorship and connections among members of this network prompting both incredible opportunities to support the reproductive justice movement but also supporting personal and professional growth. In the next five years, we know relentless attacks on reproductive health and rights will continue, and I think members of the Reproductive Justice Lawyers Network will be an important part of helping local reproductive justice organizations pushing back against restrictive laws and advancing policies that help make reproductive freedom a reality for all of us. 

Donate today to join If/When/How in transforming the legal systems and institutions that perpetuate oppression into structures that realize justice.

Sign up for the RJ Lawyers Network today!