Abortion Policies as Barriers to Women’s Bodily Integrity: Whose Choice Is It, Anyway?

Daniela Draghici


Let me get right to the point: abortion policies have always been a barrier in the free empowerment of women across the universe, particularly in communist Romania. The past few years have witnessed reignited debates around the World about the criteria on which abortion services should be made available to women. The case for abortion on demand is accepted by many where the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest, youth, and even poverty. Many, though, recoil at abortion services being made available if the request is made because of the gender of the unborn fetus, namely the so-called abortion on the grounds of sex selection.


Campaigners for equal rights for women have always had to respond to arguments regarding women having autonomy over their own bodies. When it comes to controlling fertility, whether be that contraception or terminations, religious and moral arguments are open to modification, refinement and shifts in the relative balance of how much sway and influence they have.


Anti-choice extremists have already been at it again and again, even challenging reproductive health clinics and clinicians, fighting such legislation of no-pay contraception that would help millions, and writing new legislation designed to deny women the right to make the most personal decisions about their health. 


So, in the end the question remains: whose choice is it, anyway, is abortion a choice for women or society?


This article aims to highlight just a few selected awareness-raising and advocacy events conducted in Europe during the “2013 International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion” and beyond, in early 2014, but most importantly to provide inspiration, for campaigners all over the world. The activities that have been taking place in the past two years have stimulated and generated support for ongoing campaigns in countries where women are still endangered by unsafe abortion, threatened with criminal punishment, and subject to stigma in the absence of legal abortion or progressive laws that recognize safe abortion as a fundamental human right.


Additionally, 2014 is celebrating 20 years of the International Human Rights agreements on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), the Cairo Program of Action (ICPD + 20), and Europe should be leading the way on ensuring women’s full enjoyment of their human rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights.


2013 Events 

Armenia

The Pan-Armenian Family Health Association disseminated its video “Life-story on self-induced abortion”, based on a shared story of a 19-year-old Armenian girl who experienced complications of self-induced abortion. The video was produced by the “Vernissage” film making studio under the technical guidance of members of the "For Family and Health" Pan-Armenian Association and St. Mary's Family Health Centre in Yerevan. Link to video.


France

Three French NGOs, Le Planning Familial, Médecins du Monde and Equilibres & Populations co-organized a conference about access to contraception, unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions.  The policy advocacy event was held at Parliament and was well attended by some 150 civil society representatives, observing Contraception Day, September 26 and 28 September. On that occasion, the minister of women’s rights stressed that France would to carry on the struggle for sexual and reproductive rights at international level. The three co-hosting organizations encouraged the minister to focus efforts on the issue of access to contraception and safe and legal abortion. They also called for increased funding to programs in favor of access to contraception and medical abortion, along with reinforced diplomatic efforts of France in preparation for the UN Cairo+20 conference. 

The French NGO “Osez le féminisme” launched an international petition Campaign significantly titled “My Body Is Mine” as a reaction to the Spanish Council of Ministers’ approval of a draft bill aiming to reform the current law on sexual and reproductive health and rights.  They also wrote a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon urging him to call on UN Members States to secure the right to safe and accessible abortion during the revision of the Cairo Program of Action on sexual and reproductive health and rights. Here is the link to the international petition for universal legalization of safe and accessible abortion for all women:

And here is their demand: “Sexual and reproductive rights are inalienable and universal. Among them, the right to abortion is essential for all girls and women on the planet. We demand that the United Nations recognize the right to abortion as a universal and inalienable right”. 

By the end of 2013 nearly 7,000 activists had signed the petition. More information about the campaign


Georgia

Association Health Education Right Alternative (HERA) XXI used social media to announce 28th of September, translated materials and information into local language and distributed articles through their social network, in order to make them accessible.  Also, peer educators actively conducted information, education and communication outreach activities in universities dedicated to 26th of September, World Contraception Day. 

The Women’s Centre organized two events in order to build critical thinking among youth through promotion of safe abortion. First they organized an awareness-raising meeting with a large group of peer educators, university teachers, doctors, and youth from an ethnic minority in villages to support behavior change and development through adequate knowledge, critical thinking, attitudes and skills to solve problems, make informed choices, and protect themselves from harm as they transition through adolescence into adulthood. The second activity was a brochure on safe abortion in two languages: Georgian and Azeri. The publication on safe abortion was expected to have effect on improving quality of youth life through developing behaviors that promote lifelong health and wellness and help them navigate a safe passage to adulthood, through youth volunteer involvement, peer-to-peer educators distributing information in high schools and universities.


Ireland

Abortion Rights Campaign organized the exhibition “Choosing Choice: Packing up Stigma”, which featured photographic works. The public was invited to contribute to a “Case Studies” drop-in mixed-media workshop, a collection of cases packed with their stories, artifacts and representations.


A special event was “No More Shame”, an online video project that brought personal experiences of abortion into the public domain with videos of well-known actors retelling anonymous abortion stories. 

The project led by Laura Kinsella, a researcher and activist media producer, and Liz Dunphy, journalist and filmmaker, aimed to break the silence of the twelve women who leave Ireland daily to terminate pregnancies.


”No More Shame” is available to view at: youtube.com/user/NoMoreShameIreland

Alliance for Choice, Belfast organized a protest march in support of women’s access to safe and affordable abortion services. 


Macedonia

HERA – Health Education and Research Association organized a roundtable with civil society organizations and health professionals to discuss possible effects of the legislative restrictions to abortion and the next legal actions to challenge the law at the Constitutional Court. 

Background:  As of June 2013 the Parliament of Republic of Macedonia has approved a new Abortion Bill which severely restricts access of women to freely decide to terminate pregnancy, compared to very-liberal legislation framework from the previous law.  The new law is restrictive and now access to abortion is limited, this includes: 

submission of a written request by the woman to terminate the pregnancy;

requesting written consent for the intervention by the woman;

mandatory pre-abortion counseling;

providing a waiting period of 3 days for counseling, prior to performing the intervention;

submission of a certificate from a specialist gynecologist, including ultrasonography, to confirm the gestational age. 


The Association for Emancipation, Solidarity and Equality of Women of RM-ESE made it their aim to reveal the amount of money the Government is spending for the Campaign for the so-called “Explanation of consequences of abortion” - that directly violates the reproductive rights of women - and to compare to the funds that the Government needs to allocate for providing state-funded contraception.  With the latest video, broadcast on the national TV stations in Macedonia  overnment has shown its real face and its final aim.   


Moldova

The Reproductive Health Training Center produced a poster with the message: The Decision is Mine! and shared it via social media. 

Reproductive Health Training Center

 


Poland

The Federation for Women and Family Planning – Polish ASTRA Network member serving as Secretariat organized a number of events: 

press conference on the first reading in the Polish Parliament of the anti-choice civic bill which aimed to ban all abortions in case of fetal malformation;

open letters sent to Polish Parliamentarians;

training for left-wing parties in order to provide those MPs with pro-choice arguments;

demonstration in front of the Polish Sejm by the Federation with feminist, pro-choice movement allies;

ASTRA Network – that AnA-Society for Feminist Analyses is a member of - drafted letter of support for Polish pro-choice activists and organizations and sent it out to the international SRHR community for support. Background: The anti-choice civic bill which aims to ban all abortions in case of fetal malformation was the subject of first reading in the Polish Parliament on 25th of September. The civic bill collected over 400, 000 signatures of support and was proposed by the “Stop Abortion” initiative. Two years ago the bill banning abortion in all cases was passed in the first reading and was only rejected in the second with a small majority of votes. The restrictive law had many supporters in the conservative wing of the ruling party, the Civic Platform. The current law allows abortion in three cases only: in case of rape/incest, in case of a threat to the woman’s health, and in cases of fetal malformation. According to official numbers from the Ministry of Health there were 669 abortions and none resulting from rape or any other crime in 2011. This figure, in a country of over 38 million inhabitants, illustrates how difficult it is to access a legal abortion in practice. The Polish Government constantly ignores the harmful effects of the current legislation.


Romania

To mark September 28, the International Day for Decriminalization of Abortion, the Sibiu-based Association for Gender Equality and Liberty (A.L.E.G.) organized a screening of the documentary “Născuţi la comandă. Decreţeii” (Born to Order. Children of the Decree), telling the unveiled story of children born after the 1966 decree banning abortion in Romania, with heart-wrenching testimonials by women and medical personnel. The screening, staged as part of their annual Gender Equality Festival titled “Breaking Prejudices”,  was followed by a debate with young people on Romanian politicians’ recent pressures for increased birth rates in the context of the policy processes related to the International Conference for Population and Development (ICPD, where 179 governments, including Romania’s, committed to observe sexual and reproductive rights, abortion included, by signing the Program of Action valid and enforced to this day. Link to documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgZJ-IV8Et0


Russian Federation

The Russian Association for Population and Development (RAPD), an ASTRA network member, participated in a TV program devoted to abortion rights “The right to vote and in a radio program on the issue of abortion rights. They also published a New edition of Journal Reproductive Health Matters (Russian edition), devoted to reproductive rights, which was issued on 28 September.  Flyers were distributed during the All-Russian Congress “Mother and child” for specialists in reproductive health information and services. The magazine is available on the website.

 


Spain

On 28 September 2013, Spain mobilized 100% for the defense of access to safe, legal and free abortion. The Platform for the Defense of Sexual and Reproductive Rights, WE DECIDE, organized protest marches in Madrid and every province in Spain. They posted a very specific calendar of events on social media, so as to make it accessible.

Policy Background on Spain

On December 20, 2013 the Spanish Council of Ministers approved a draft bill aiming at reforming the current law on sexual and reproductive health and rights. If approved, this new bill would lead to a 30 years step backwards in the rights of women and the failure of the Government to fulfill its fundamental role to promote gender equality and human rights. 


A response to the proposed changes to abortion law in Spain that will mean abortion is illegal for all women other than in very limited circumstances such as rape (only on the provision of a crime report).


This will become the most unfair abortion law in Europe, forcing women with fewer resources to risk their lives in illegal abortion procedures and the ones with better means to travel to other European countries, where abortion is legal, subject to the woman decision. 


This has not happened in Spain since Franco’s dictatorship. 

The new law intends to:

1. Remove the fetal malformation assumption, forcing mothers to carry babies with severe disabilities and illnesses.

2. Restrict the assumption of risk to the mother's physical and mental health.

3.  Remove the decision making for women from 16 to 18 years old regarding abortion, which will lead to high risk practices to stop accidental pregnancy. Paradoxically, girls this age are allowed to decide to marry and have children but not to decide not to have them.


Sexual education, which is the best option to avoid unwanted pregnancies, has been removed from the academic curriculum in Spain

This law is ideological and intends to force women to live a reality of legal neglect and insecurity. It is also unnecessary, since it does not address any real concern of Spanish citizens. And, worst of all, unfair, overriding women’s rights on their bodies and lives.


Events organized in support of Spanish Women

The end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 were marked by solidarity protests against the new restrictive law approved by the Spanish government that would make abortion illegal except in very limited circumstances. People from around the world condemned this move and staged various forms or protest, such as the examples below.


Belgium

On January 29, 2014, European NGOs, joined by MPs mobilized to support women in Spain and abortion rights in Europe overall. On January 29, they gathered in Brussels to support women in Spain and their mobilization of 1st February “El Tren de la Libertad” in Madrid. This demonstration was part of a wider mobilization in Europe, as similar events were held and are planned in several European cities. The action was initiated by the European Humanist Federation, Abortionright.eu, the European Women’s Lobby, the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPFEN) and Catholics for Choice.

Their slogans: 

Sexual and reproductive health and rights are human rights!

Women should have the right to decide!

The right to safe abortion should be respected by all European countries!


On January 29th, 2014 many human rights organizations staged a demonstration in Brussels to support the abortion right in Spain. Sophie in’t Veld, Dutch Member of the European Parliament, was present to support the crowd: "Europe will not go back to the Middle Ages." Earlier, in a plenary session, she spoke about the importance of women in Europe being able to decide about their own bodies: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10152002548582732


Estonia

On the occasion of a conference celebrating ten years of action of the Estonian Women’s Associations Roundtable (EWAR), participants gathered for a group photo to take part in the European week of action to support women in Spain and the right to abortion in Europe. More than 100 women, together with several decision-makers and representatives of governmental and university authorities, took a group picture with the sign “Women decide”, in support of the situation in Spain, where women risk losing their right to abortion. In Estonia, the right to abortion is anchored in the constitution and fortunately not discussed. But in the context of growing conservatism and attacks on women’s rights, EWAR members wanted to take a stance in support of women in Spain .


EU Parliament 

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) urged the Spanish government mid-January 2014 to withdraw the new proposal that would restrict abortion rights in Spain. Except for the conservatives, all parties in the European Parliament did not support the new proposal. Pro-choice groups warned that it could pose a threat for women, as the number of illegal abortions might increase. MEPs also feared that other countries might follow suit. Unfortunately, they were right, as France, Lithuania, Switzerland had also began or continued to issue legal restrictions .


Romania

On January 17, 2014 Romanian feminist activists in solidarity with women of Spain! We, too, say NO to banning the right to abortion! A group of Romanian feminist activists gathered in front of the Spanish Embassy in Bucharest to express their solidarity with the women of Spain facing a life-threatening challenge in the form of the new law banning abortions. The group also created an online petition that has gather close to 200 signatures in less than 24 hours. After the flash mob, the protesters went to the Cervantes Spanish Cultural Institute with the message: “The enactment of the law means the enactment of coat hangers in Spanish culture and politics” (metal wire coat hangers were used by women to induce abortion). Some of the messages the protesters created: "Tyrants against women: Ceauşescu 1966, Gallardon 2014!”; “Gallardon - approved by Ceauşescu”; “Gallardon, Ceauşescu would have been proud of you!”


UK 

The response from the streets in Edinburgh to what has been termed “the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the history of the Spanish democracy” was immediate. Trade unions, feminist associations, and even the group “Catholics for the Right to Choose” protested, along with tens of thousands of workers, in demonstrations in dozens of cities. The outrage in response to this reactionary law had already reached international proportions, with protests in major cities like Paris and London. Edinburgh also responded to the call for international support in their hundreds, marching from the Scottish Parliament, through the busy commercial Princes Street, and to the Spanish consulate, where a petition for the rights of women and a demand for the resignation of the Spanish government was issued to the consul.

The demonstration was lively and fun with Spanish and English slogans that attracted considerable support from the local community. There was also a positive real attempt to gather the support and solidarity from local activists and organizations in Edinburgh, many of whom marched with the Spaniards and signed the petition .


The Freedom Train: Standing in solidarity with the Women of Spain against the Abortion Reform

The 'Freedom Train' travels to Madrid to try to halt the reform of abortion law 

The journey of The Freedom Train started in Gijón, where the protesters started with their bibs and their banner: "Because I decide." After collecting more protesters in Oviedo, Mieres and Pola de Lena, the train stopped in León, where police prevented local women from giving their support and greeting the train riders; then followed a warm welcome in Palencia and in Valladolid. Then, on the way to Madrid, for a very important appointment at Atocha: 

“There is no stopping this train, together we can!” .

  

For those unable to make their way to Madrid, but who wanted to demonstrate support, My Belly Is Mine  organized travelling to Madrid ‘in spirit’ via a symbolic journey in London on Saturday, 1st of February.  The women of Spain needed everyone’s support because that law had to be stopped from being passed!

They gave very specific instructions as to what to do and where to go, such as:

1. Get started on decorating your hangers for the 1st of Feb. It doesn’t matter how artistic they are, whether they can contain messages or not… feel free to express yourself!

2. Dress in pink, red, pinky orange, purple, fuchsia, coral… whether it’s a scarf or a hat, from top to toe!

3. On Saturday the 1st of Feb, travel with friends, children, partners, family, etc. to Waterloo East from Charring Cross station in order to make it to Hungerford Bridge for 1pm.

4. Take pics of your hangers on the train or at the station and then tweet/post/share them to show our support to the women of Spain. #train2madrid #bellyhangers

5. Bring whistles, music, colorful banners, food, whatever you think will cheer up the atmosphere. We will then tie our decorated hangers to the Hungerford Bridge and leave them for passers-by.


On the 1st of February, trains departed from all over Spain (and one from France), carrying prochoice campaigners to Madrid, where they handed Spanish MPs the text “Because it’s my choice”. 

The text “Because it’s my choice” stated “Because […] I am free, and I live in a democracy, I demand the continuity of the current Law of Sexual and Reproductive Health and pregnancy termination to promote the moral autonomy, to preserve the freedom of conscience, and to guarantee the plurality and diversity of all women”.


At the time this article was written, the right of Spanish women to access safe and legal abortion was currently under threat with the proposal to reform the law in a highly restrictive fashion by Spain’s ruling party, the Partido Popular.

But the women in Europe stood in solidarity with Spanish women and their right to access safe and legal abortion.

The Bellyhanger Revolution began there! 


In conclusion, when we talk about a woman’s right to abortion it’s never a woman’s ambition to end up having an abortion, no woman ever wants to be in an abortion situation; the point is women are making a decision that is about themselves and their lives at a particular time. The decision is tough: she wants a child, but not at this time, not in this relationship maybe. It always comes down to who makes the decision and who is responsible for that decision and even when someone is making decisions in circumstances that are not of their choice there is still a question of decision-making. In other words it is better for the woman to take the decision herself because otherwise who takes it for her? So, when it comes to decisions about abortion we have to stick with the issue of values, we have to accept the fact that women have the right to make such decisions for themselves.