Zoraima Pelaez

The Project

Zoraima (she/her/hers/ella) works to protect the right to abortion and ensure meaningful access, particularly for poor people, people of color, and those living in rural areas, using innovative legal strategies.

In December 2021, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which presents a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and threatens to upend over 50 years of precedent protecting every pregnant person’s right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy before viability. The stakes are extremely high: If Roe v. Wade falls, abortion will likely be banned in half of the country. But even if Roe v. Wade is upheld in any capacity, hostile state legislatures will continue to push abortion care further out of reach, especially for poor people, people of color, those living in rural areas, and other marginalized communities who already struggle to navigate a complex web of restrictions.

Fellowship Plans

Zoraima’s project will use impact litigation, advocacy, and coalition building to protect the right to abortion and ensure those seeking abortion care have meaningful access to care, regardless of income or geographic location. Zoraima will craft and execute litigation and advocacy strategies based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Jackson Women’s Health Organization and challenge novel abortion restrictions passed in current and future state legislative sessions.

She will also help navigate barriers to abortion access, with an emphasis on barriers to accessing and providing care across state borders. Zoraima’s project will focus on building and strengthening coalitions throughout the reproductive rights, health, and justice movements to develop community-driven tools and guidance for patients, healthcare professionals, abortion funds, and practical support networks that seek or provide abortion care and support across state borders.

As someone who has exercised my constitutional right to abortion, I am dedicated to using my legal education and career to advocate for everyone’s right to decide whether, when, or how to parent.

Zoraima Pelaez /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Ndome (she/her/hers) will expand access to maternal healthcare for low-income pregnant people and women of color by addressing legal barriers to midwifery care through impact litigation, policy advocacy, legal research, and community education. 

The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality ratio among developed nations. Black women are nearly four times more likely than white women to die of pregnancy-related causes, and Indigenous women are more than twice as likely. Unlike many other wealthy nations where midwives care for most birthing people, the U.S. has imposed medically unnecessary legal and financial barriers to midwifery services. As the COVID-19 pandemic strains health systems and further endangers maternal health, addressing these barriers has become more urgent than ever. 

Midwifery care has the potential to address many barriers to safe and respectful maternal health care. Expanded access to midwifery care, including more midwives of color, can equitably improve maternal health outcomes and enable low-income pregnant people of color to make meaningful decisions about where, how, and with whom they will birth. 

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Ndome will explore bringing forth a proactive, constitutional challenge to laws that restrict midwives’ practice and birthing people’s access to midwives. Additionally, she will monitor, track, advocate, and analyze proposed legislation at the state and federal level that may impact the ability of low-income people to access midwifery care. 

Media

Reducing Inequalities, Advancing Human Rights

I believe that reproductive rights are human rights and should be treated as such.

Ndome Essoka /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Gabriella engages in advocacy, public education, outreach, and litigation to challenge the use of religion to discriminate against individuals seeking reproductive health care and LGBTQ New Yorkers.

Increasingly, religion is weaponized to discriminate against people seeking reproductive health care and LGBTQ individuals. As a growing number of religious and secular hospitals merge, more and more health care is subject to religious directives that prohibit certain types of care, ranging from miscarriage management to treatment of ectopic pregnancies, to gender-affirming care, to end of life care. These restrictions are rooted not in sound medical science, but rather in administrators’ ideology, and the resultant denials of care too often jeopardize people’s lives, wellbeing, and dignity, and, in some cases, have proven deadly. Hospital consolidation can leave entire regions of the state where people cannot access necessary health care.

Gabriella’s project seeks to uncover health care deserts across New York state, with an emphasis on rural communities. This project develops solutions to intercede in hospital mergers to preserve access to care; educate people so that they can make informed decisions about their health care; challenge the use of religion to discriminate against patients seeking reproductive care, as well as LGBTQ people; and, ultimately, lay the groundwork to eliminate health care deserts in New York state.

As a queer woman of color who grew up religious, Gabriella knows and understands firsthand how religion can be weaponized to harm others and how law and policy can deeply shape one’s sense of self. Gabriella’s experience working on a range of civil liberties issues, including reproductive justice and LGBTQ rights, as an intern, research assistant, volunteer, and advocate made her the right person for this project.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

In the first year of the Fellowship, Gabriella has:

  • Collaborated with a community coalition to intervene in a proposed merger between a secular hospital and religious health care system in Schenectady to help educate the public and elevate the impact of religious directives on reproductive health care and LGBTQ-inclusive care
  • Connected with community organizations and health care providers to gather evidence of denials of care at hospitals subject to ethical and religious directives
  • Co-authored amicus briefs in Weichman v. Weichman and Carpenter v. James, which argued that religion cannot be used to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation
  • Submitted a public comment to the NYS Public Health and Health Planning Council advocating for enforceable conditions to preserve comprehensive health care in a hospital transaction
  • Worked on the Princess Janae Place v. NYS Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance litigation team, a case suing the state benefits agency for discriminating based on gender identity against nonbinary New York residents seeking public assistance
  • Engaged in research and strategic thinking on how to challenge discrimination in hospital settings, specifically relating to sex and pregnancy discrimination
  • Conducted research to support legislative efforts to ensure religion is not used to discriminate

Next Steps

In the next year, Gabriella plans to:

  • Continue engaging in targeted advocacy and developing enforceable mechanisms to preserve reproductive health care and LGBTQ-inclusive health care in Schenectady
  • Continue investigating religious hospital consolidation and denials of care through public records requests, community outreach, and monitoring the NYS PHHPC for religious hospital transactions
  • Develop materials for public education and legislative advocacy on how religious restrictions jeopardize access to health care
  • Develop materials related to legislation that would give New York the tools necessary to identify areas in the state where particular types of care are unavailable and prospective patients the tools necessary to determine whether their local hospital provides the care they seek before admission
  • Continue identifying opportunities to draft and file amicus briefs challenging the use of religion to discriminate and identifying opportunities to submit public comments on religious hospital transactions that threaten to limit care

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No person should be denied health care because of a provider’s religious beliefs. I am grateful for the opportunity to combine my lived experiences and passion for reproductive, social, and economic justice to protect people seeking reproductive health care and LGBTQ New Yorkers from discrimination.

Gabriella Larios /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Clara worked to protect and expand access to reproductive care, particularly for low-income women who live far away from the nearest reproductive health clinic, using a variety of innovative legal and advocacy rights, at a critical time when the Supreme Court was likely to decimate the right to an abortion.

In the Fall of 2021, the Supreme Court will hear case directly challenging Roe v. Wade. There is no path for the Supreme Court to uphold the abortion ban in question without overturning Roe’s core holding—that every pregnant person has the right to decide whether to continue their pregnancy prior to viability. Clara’s project moved the ball forward in a number of ways, including providing complex research and analysis about ensuring abortion access across state borders and litigating cases in state court.  Her work will help pregnant people access critical care even if the Supreme Court guts the federal right to an abortion.

Fellowship Highlights

During her two-year Fellowship, Clara:

  • Filed a lawsuit challenging a suite of anti-abortion laws in North Carolina that significantly limit access to critical reproductive care, and successfully defended the lawsuit against a motion to dismiss
  • Developed in-depth research memoranda on legal questions raised by the increased need for women to travel across state lines to access abortion care
  • Advised clients –clinics and individual doctors– seeking to expand their model of care to reach rural populations without easy access to reproductive services
  • Joined several litigation teams challenging multiple state restrictions placing significant burdens on people trying to access their constitutional rights
  • During the COVID-19 crisis, joined several lawsuits fighting to release vulnerable state prison and jail detainees and forced officials to implement conditions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 behind bars. As the only reproductive rights focused attorney at the ACLU’s national office working with these teams, her work focused in part on pregnant detainees and nursing mothers

Next Steps

Following her Fellowship, Clara will be taking some time off to focus on independent writing projects, and then will jump back in the ring working with a legal organization committed to ensuring the right of all people to make the best decision for themselves and their families about whether and when to have children, without undue political interference.

Media

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Protecting Access to Reproductive Care

All women—not just those of means—should be able to make the best decision for herself and her family about whether and when to have children without undue state or political interference.

Clara Spera /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Riley will provide legal information and education to incarcerated mothers in Washington State to help reduce the chances of permanent family separation. Because greater systemic change is needed, Riley’s Fellowship project will also pursue legislation and impact litigation to create alternatives to incarceration as well as improve child welfare laws to better address the needs of these vulnerable families.

For true equality, we must challenge structural power inequalities and respond to the needs and leadership of communities most affected by various forms of oppression.

Riley M. Hewko /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Hillary provided legal advocacy on behalf of women to address discrimination in health care, including by implementing and ensuring enforcement of Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is the first federal law to include a broad-based protection against gender discrimination in health care.

The project addressed gender-based discrimination in the health care system and confronted ongoing challenges that women face in accessing and affording care. Through education, direct representation, and policy advocacy, the project focused on implementing new health reforms, including the first broad federal protection against gender discrimination in health care.

Fellowship Highlights

During her Fellowship, Hillary:

  • Led advocacy efforts on behalf of a broad coalition, including women’s rights and civil rights groups, and supported efforts by others, including the LGBTQ+ community, to set the foundation for new civil rights protections in health care under the ACA—the first federal law to prohibit gender discrimination in federally-assisted and federally-conducted health programs and activities
  • Filed five gender discrimination complaints under Section 1557 with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services against institutions that exclude pregnancy coverage from health benefits
  • Filed 10 complaints against major insurers that charge women 20 to 40 percent more than men for the same long-term care insurance policies
  • Drafted comments on OCR’s first Section 1557 regulatory action, which sought critical information about the protections Section 1557 provides and how it should be enforced
  • Conducted substantial legal research and analysis to support comments by the National Women’s Law Center and its coalition partners
  • Acted as a resource for and provided technical assistance to state and national advocates, including evaluating issues of discrimination in health care and developing responses

Next Steps

Hillary is a Legal Fellow at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York City.

Media

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