Interview for Amnesty, 22 August 2015

04/06/2016 § Leave a comment

The following are my answers (with some additions) to questions in an interview with Saphia Crowther of Amnesty International via email, for publication by them last year:

  1.   What drives you to campaign for sexual and reproductive rights? Was there one person, incident or news story that inspired you to become an activist?

I became active in my mid-20s in the second half of the 1970s in the UK National Abortion Campaign because I had an unintended pregnancy from a relationship with someone who did not want to know, and I decided, after a long month of thinking what to do, to have an abortion. This was not long after the 1967 Abortion Act had been passed, and my GP was quite scathing about it and said she was only referring me because I wasn’t married. The ob-gyn who did the abortion came round the room and told each of us he was just going to “pop an IUD in” when he’d finished, and I had to fight not to have that. Luckily the nurse who found me sobbing when I woke up (a common side effect of anaesthesia combined with misery) patted me on the arm and told me that it was my life and I had done what I thought best, and not to feel bad about it. That experience made me an abortion rights advocate for the rest of my life.

  1.    Tell us why access to safe abortion is important. How do restrictions on safe abortion in countries like El Salvador and Ireland impact on women’s equality?

Access to safe abortion is necessary for women because they have sexual relationships with men. While the sex is hopefully wanted, pregnancy as a consequence of it may or may not be either intended, or when it happens, wanted. Moreover, sex is far too often not wanted, particularly among young women, and the data on the extent of sexual abuse of girls is shockingly high. Wanted or unwanted, however, having sex is not a good reason or qualification for having a baby and being a parent. The advent of contraception and safe abortion has allowed us to separate sex from pregnancy, and to choose to have a child(ren) at the point when we definitely want them and are best able to raise them. It has been shown that unwanted children have a more difficult time in life in many ways. It has also been shown that having children by choice is the best way to have children. This is not to say that an unintended pregnancy cannot become a wanted one, it can and sometimes does. Moreover, an initially wanted pregnancy may later become unwanted ‒ due to a serious changed life circumstance, such as illness or divorce, or the baby may be found to have a serious anomaly that the woman/couple feel they cannot cope with.

  1.     How are the situations in Ireland and El Salvador similar? And how do they differ?

They are similar in that in both countries all or almost all abortions are illegal. They are different in that women in Ireland can seek a safe abortion in Britain or another EU country nearby, while in El Salvador, there is nowhere close by to travel to. Hence, in El Salvador there are many unsafe abortions among poor women as they cannot afford to pay for a safe illegal abortion. Furthermore, in El Salvador when women present at a hospital with complications from an unsafe abortion, or even from a miscarriage or stillbirth, they are at risk of being arrested, put on trial for either illegal abortion or homicide, and sent to prison, often for many years. For several years now, there has been an internationally supported campaign to free 17 of those women (Las 17), which Amnesty has been centrally involved in supporting. In fact, we know of women in at least 26 countries who are in prison for having had an abortion.

  1.      You founded the journal Reproductive Health Matters in 1992 to put women’s voices and experiences at the centre of research into sexual and reproductive health. Two decades on, are women still marginalized in discussions and decisions about their reproductive health?

Yes, and particularly in regard to their right to a safe abortion on request.

  1.      Public pressure is crucial to getting legal restrictions on abortion overturned. How have public perceptions of abortion changed in recent decades, and how can people put pressure on those in power?

Across the world the great majority of people support access to safe abortion on at least some grounds, certainly when there is a risk to the woman’s life or health, if the pregnancy resulted from rape or sexual abuse, and in cases of serious fetal anomaly. The numbers who support access to safe abortion at a girl/woman’s request are also very high (with a rising trend) in countries where safe abortion is available, and the numbers are growing in countries that have not yet changed their laws, most of which are leftovers from colonial times. An increasingly vicious anti-abortion movement is trying to turn the clock back everywhere. This is because they believe women should be enslaved by their own fertility and denied autonomy over their own lives, not because they are interested in there being billions more babies in the world. The anti-abortion movement ignores and does nothing for living children in need. People can put pressure on those in power by taking a public stance as part of a movement, through their trades unions, NGOs they work for, and as part of human rights, family planning, maternal health, sexual and reproductive health and rights movements. Or as individuals by writing to their member of parliament and expressing opposition to any attempt to restrict or criminalise abortion.

  1.      What’s been your greatest challenge as an activist? And your greatest success?

Challenge: Finding ways to overcome the differences in views and reach consensus on how to act and what to support among those who are part of the “movement” I am part of, and how to get governmental and inter-governmental support for putting a stop to the violent behaviour and expose the lies of the anti-abortion movement. Success: Publishing a large body of peer-reviewed work and first-class political thinking on the issue of abortion (as well as many other aspects of sexual and reproductive health) through Reproductive Health Matters up to 2015 and being able to promote and share that knowledge as an activist for the right to safe abortion.

  1.      Finally, women’s empowerment and education are vital to upholding their sexual and reproductive rights. Does men’s education also have a role in promoting women’s equality?

Men have 50% of the responsibility for causing unintended pregnancies in wanted sex, and 100% of the responsibility when they force sex on a girl or woman. This is as true among those who sit at the top of governments as among those who use the priesthood to sexually abuse children as among those at every level of the social ladder. There is therefore an ethical imperative on men and boys not to force sex on anyone, to protect themselves as well as their partners against unintended pregnancy, and to support women’s right to safe abortion upon request. This should be a central part of sex and relationships education.

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