Going forward we need to be smart, loud and inclusive
The United States Supreme Court decision to overturn the landmark case Roe v. Wade, and with it the rights of millions of women and pregnant people to access abortion, was crushing. Its impact will be felt not only in the US but across the world.
The overturning of Roe is not an anomaly, but a staggering success in a well-organised campaign by an emboldened global anti-abortion movement. This single decision has the potential to begin the rolling back of reproductive rights across Europe and to delay advances in reproductive care across the world.
Many commentators have claimed that this moment signifies a return to the 1960s. But as Jia Tolentino notes in her New Yorker piece, in many regards, we’re in a worse place. But rather than deterring us, this should make us more determined to take on the threat to global abortion rights in a way befitting the 21st century. With this in mind, here are six points to consider as we reframe the fight for abortion rights.
(This piece was inspired by an Instagram post by prhdocs. You can find the full post here and the group’s website here.)
1. Be unapologetically pro-abortion
Abortion is healthcare and healthcare is a human right. This is the central argument we need to be making if we want to advocate for reproductive justice.
Anti-abortionists choose to frame the abortion ‘debate’ as one of morality because it invites reasonable people to consider artificial shades of appropriateness for what is essential medical care. This is a trap that we must not fall into.
It is not enough to believe that abortion should be permitted only in dire circumstances, such as rape, incest or when continuation of pregnancy threatens the life of the pregnant person. Invoking these distinctions only adds grist to the anti-abortionist mill as it implies that abortions obtained for other reasons are somehow wrong. Abortion is not wrong or immoral under any circumstances.
Going forward, we need to be unapologetically and unwaveringly pro-abortion to ensure that people consistently have access to the care they need when they need it.
2. Avoid using coat hanger imagery
The coat hanger has been a recurring symbol of the abortion movement for decades. A stark and chilling image, it is representative of a time when desperate people had to take desperate action to end their pregnancies. Particularly prevalent in the pre-Roe years, the coat hanger was one of myriad dangerous and often ineffective methods of self-inducing abortion.
But we are now post-Roe not pre-Roe, and today there are safe ways of self-inducing abortion. During the first 11 weeks of pregnancy, abortion can be brought about by taking a combination of the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol. The method is safe, up to 96 per cent effective and can be done without the presence of a physician.
At the height of the Coronavirus pandemic, the UK government allowed mifepristone and misoprostol to be distributed by post. In March of this year, it was announced that the service would be available indefinitely, allowing people to end their pregnancies safely, conveniently and with dignity.
Nevertheless, the coat hanger abortion is not altogether obsolete. In 2015, a Tennessee woman was rushed to hospital after attempting to end her pregnancy using a wire hanger (she was later arrested). For exactly that reason, we need to raise awareness of safe methods of self-inducing abortion.
So instead of sharing coat hanger imagery, let’s share practical information about how to safely obtain abortion pills and other means of safe abortion.
3. Ensure that trans people are included in the movement
The majority of people who have abortions are women, however trans men, intersex and non-binary people also need access to reproductive healthcare. We gain nothing by excluding these people from the fight.
It’s no coincidence that in the same year that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade several hundred pieces of anti-trans legislation have been tabled in the US. Likewise, in the UK, trans people were originally excluded from the proposed UK ban on conversion therapy.
It’s important to remember that discrimination against trans people shares its roots with the beliefs that brought about the SCOTUS decision: misogyny.
4. Respect the work of abortion funds
If there is anything positive to be taken from the turn of events in the US (and that is highly debateable), it might be the apparent reinvigoration of the feminist movement. But as with any groundswell of support following a crisis moment, we need to be mindful that there is already plenty of positive action going on, by people with a greater insight into the relevant issues.
In the US, the National Network of Abortion Funds connects more than 90 local abortion funds, which aim to assist those seeking an abortion to overcome the financial and logistical hurdles to receive the healthcare they need. These funds are well-established and familiar with the legal and practical aspects of providing abortion care in places that are hostile to it. Supporting these existing organisations, rather than seeking to reinvent the wheel, is key.
Abortion advocacy groups are also active in Europe. Abortion Support Network helps pregnant people in countries such as Ireland, Malta, Poland and Hungary to obtain an abortion.
Globally, Women on Web can provide abortion pills to those who are unable to obtain them in their home country. And MSI Reproductive Choices (formerly Marie Stopes International) works in 37 countries to provide contraception, safe abortion and post-abortion care.
5. Don’t cite The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a fascinating piece of literature about a patriarchal, white supremacist, totalitarian society in which women are forced to give birth.
It’s easy to see why comparisons with the book and our current situation can and have been made. But doing so centres the white experience and excludes the experiences (past, present and likely future) of those who will feel the effects of the ban on abortion most keenly, specifically Black and Brown people for whom this kind of oppression is nothing new.
In the US, African American women have suffered from the most egregious aspects of the intersection of racism and misogyny. During slavery, enslaved women were subjected to naked auctions and unnecessary gynaecological surgeries, and routinely raped. Up until the present day, African American women have undergone compulsory or targeted sterilisation, medical experimentation and consistently receive inferior healthcare. Black women in the US are up to four times as likely as other groups to die from pregnancy-related complications, a statistic mirrored in the UK.
The atrocities of slavery and Jim Crow were perpetuated not only by white men but by white women, and white women have been instrumental in pushing the anti-abortion agenda that has resulted in this latest abomination.
Of the states which have or which intend to ban abortion, many have populations of Black women greater than the national average, and Black women have abortions at a higher rate than white women. As Marcela Howell, President of the National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda notes: ‘Eliminating abortion rights in many states will be an inconvenience for women and birthing people of means – mostly white – who will be able to afford the high cost of accessing safe abortion. Many Black women and birthing people will lose all access – for them, the cost may be their health, lives or livelihood.’
6. Be vocal about the successes we have had
In the light of so much despair, it can be tempting for non-US citizens to be coy about the rights we still have in other parts of the world. But this is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.
In 2018, the Republic of Ireland, long a bulwark of the Catholic anti-abortion movement, repealed an amendment to its Constitution and permitted abortion up to 12 weeks’ gestation. In 2021, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that penalising abortion was unconstitutional, and earlier this year, Colombia legalised abortion up to 24 weeks. Indeed, Latin America is leading the way in how to present a cohesive and effective reproductive justice movement.
But, in the light of Roe being overturned, these gains are fragile. As we have seen, a right that many took for granted can be eradicated with the fall of a gavel, especially when we don’t actively seek to consolidate it. If we want to defend and expand reproductive justice, we need to be shouting from the rooftops about how access to reproductive healthcare in all its forms is an inalienable human right.