Making change happen is in the air

13/07/2012 Comments Off on Making change happen is in the air

Marge Berer

Editor, Reproductive Health Matters

Below, are excerpts from my editorial in RHM 20(39) May 2012. This issue is about reducing maternal mortality, but the more I reflected on it the more I realised it had implications for this week’s summit on family planning.

Making change happen is in the air, from the UN Secretary-General down to the most remote village… Yet, in certain ways, the world is moving backwards when it comes to dealing with women and pregnancy. Simone Diniz calls it a return to “materno-infantilism” – treating pregnant women like children who need looking after… Today, in much of the literature, all pregnant women are called “mothers” whether they’ve ever had a baby or not. Yet pregnancy has more than one outcome and is not only about women who “deliver”. It’s also about women who experience miscarriages, stillbirths, infant deaths, lack of access to contraception, unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and lifelong obstetric, reproductive and sexual morbidity. Yet these are nearly invisible in PMNCH these days, and safe abortion – an integral part of women’s right to decide the number and spacing of their children – may be made invisible in the new Family Planning Initiative as well…

The papers [in this journal issue] show that some countries are making serious efforts at strengthening and improving their health systems in relation to reproductive health care and maternity services. Based on data that show who is dying and why, they are making policy and programme changes, such as low-cost delivery services for poor and migrant women, opening new obstetric emergency care and referral centres in hospitals, training more health professionals, and providing health education for women, as in Shanghai (Du et al)…

Others are strengthening the whole public health system, especially in rural areas where most poor women live, ensuring better leadership and governance, increasing health workforce skills, supporting community-based health insurance, and increasing contraceptive services, as in Rwanda (Bucagu et al). They’re promoting peace, stability, economic growth, poverty reduction, improved primary education, better roads and communications, access to information on health and health services, and making health care free of cost for the poor, as in Cambodia (Liljestrand & Sambath)…

In contrast, in some countries, appalling, chaotic, uneven, negligent and abusive situations persist. Among the 22 million women each year who have unsafe abortions, adolescents suffer the most from complications and have the highest unmet need for contraception (Shah & Åhman). Custom, lack of perceived need, distance, lack of transport, lack of permission from husbands, cost, unwillingness to see a male doctor are still preventing women from seeking antenatal and delivery care, e.g. in northern Nigeria (Doctor et al), but in many places, these services barely exist anyway…

In the poorest of countries, women may have more pressing health needs even than for maternity care, e.g. in Haiti, where women identified access to any affordable health care, potable water, enough food to eat, any employment, sanitation and education as their most crucial problems (Peragallo Urrutia et al)…

Even more broadly, lack of national commitment has been identified as critical in 33 sub-Saharan African countries, as well as very low levels of public financing for health and health services (let alone maternity services), poor coordination between key stakeholders and partners, poorly functioning health systems with poor logistics for supply, distribution and management of essential medicines, family planning commodities, and equipment, and a chronic shortage of skilled health professionals (Ekechi et al).

In several South Asian countries, cash is being given to pregnant women to deliver in facilities, but some studies are finding, e.g. in India, that when women arrive, there is limited or no antenatal care, no birth attendants with midwifery skills, no emergency obstetric care in obvious cases of need, and referrals that never result in treatment (Subha Sri et al). And now, these same women have a sense of entitlement, and they are protesting.

Several governments in Latin America may be embarrassed to learn that their levels of budget transparency in spending on specific aspects of maternity care were found to be very low, and that they need better budgeting modalities, better health information systems and guidelines on how they might better capture data on expenditure, in order to track and plan local and national progress (Malajovich et al). Similarly, an assessment of cash transfer and voucher schemes designed to stimulate demand for services and reduce cost barriers to maternity care found increased use of maternity services in several south Asian countries, but also a need for more efficient operational management, financial transparency, plans for sustainability, evidence of equity and, above all, proven impact on quality of care and maternal mortality and morbidity (Jehan et al).

The papers [in this journal issue] describe a range of models for advocacy and taking action to expose violations of human rights, poor public health practices, absence of monitoring and regulation, failure to ensure national accountability for sexual and reproductive rights and to provide remedies and redress in the event of violations (Kismödi et al).

full editorial

An unholy alliance: religion, neo-liberal economics and good old fashioned patriarchy – restricting women’s abortion rights in Eastern Europe

11/05/2012 Comments Off on An unholy alliance: religion, neo-liberal economics and good old fashioned patriarchy – restricting women’s abortion rights in Eastern Europe

A report from guest blogger Charlotte Gage on ‘How much does abortion cost?’ a session organised by ASTRA Central and Eastern European Women’s Network for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights at the AWID Forum in Istanbul.

I attended this session where speakers from Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia outlined the economic dimension of sexual and reproductive rights in their countries, and the increasing restrictions on access to abortion.

Provision of abortion and other reproductive health services are under threat from neo-liberal economics which is increasingly restricting state-funded services throughout the region. This is being fuelled, by ideological opposition to abortion from both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, sometimes with funding and support from US anti-choice organisations which is thought may include the US-based Human Life International and Opus Dei.

Most countries in the region have experienced reforms to health systems following democratic transition from Communism, but the results of these vary. The restrictive abortion laws in countries such as Romania and Albania under Communism were seen as a social experiment to increase the population and provide new generations of workers, and have since been relaxed. More recently however, Ukraine and Russia have tried to implement restrictive laws, to reverse a decline in population.

The influence of religion varies throughout the region. In Poland the Catholic Church still has a strong influence, and as its access to public resources increases, through provision of adoption services, it has a vested financial interest – as well as ideological one to opposing reproductive rights. In other countries it is the influence of, and funding from, the US anti-choice movement that is driving forward an anti-choice agenda.

The increasing reluctance by governments to pay for contraception and abortion services is also having an impact.

In Hungary, an advertising campaign in which images of fetuses asked not to be murdered was funded by PROGRESS EU funding – a fund aimed at supporting equality. The Government was forced to stop the campaign after feminist organisations complained to the European Parliament.

In tandem with ideological tactics aimed at creating attitudinal change, the budget for reproductive health in Hungary, which supported women who could not afford to pay for an abortion, has been significantly reduced with no explanation. Women seeking home birth are subject to unaffordable insurance premiums and in one case a midwife has been imprisoned for supporting a woman to give birth at home. For PATENT – People Opposing Patriarchy these were all cited as examples of the continued repression of women’s reproductive rights in Hungary, patriarchy in action, and the denial of women’s autonomy.

Freedom of Choice, Slovakia,  has campaigned against the lack of unbiased and accurate information on family planning. It also takes on the  influence of the Catholic Church hierarchy which is opposing progressive policies such as inclusion of more information in school textbooks and making contraception more affordable.

The Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning described how in 1993 Poland became the first country in Eastern Europe radically to restrict abortion and is now, regrettably, serving as a model for other  Governments in the region. Official figures show just 600 abortions were performed in Poland in 2010 (compared to 8,000 in 1989), but this figure hides the large number of privately performed abortions and those provided to Polish women abroad.

In many of the countries it is the actual cost of abortion for women that creates the main barrier to accessing services. Women on low wages sometimes pay the equivalent to the average monthly wage for an abortion. In Slovakia, where there are no state controls on the maximum price of contraception, prices are rising and contraception is becoming unobtainable for many women. Moreover, across the region professional resistance to medical abortion combined with high costs means women are denied the option of choosing this extremely safe method of abortion.

An interesting response to the economic and ideological squeeze on abortion access came from a speaker from the Romanian organization European Centre for Public Initiatives (ECPI) which said that Romania has not yet fully learned the lessons from its past. Though the liberalisation of abortion in Romania has led to significant reductions in maternal mortality there have been recent attempts to restrict and limit abortion in Romania, including proposing mandatory (biased) counselling and a three day waiting period before a woman is able to have an abortion.

ECPI believes that calculating the financial benefits of providing reproductive health care may be a powerful tool in opposing further restrictions. To this end, it is attempting to estimate the full cost of unsafe abortion including:  the health care costs following unsafe procedures; social costs including sick leave and disability benefits if the woman is injured; the costs of childcare if the woman dies;  and violence against women services for those who experience violence following abortion.

It may ‘leave a bad taste in the mouth’ to try to put a monetary value on women’s lives, but in the face of ideological opposition to women’s reproductive autonomy, and governments’ focus on cutting budgets, it might be the most powerful argument we can make.

Charlotte Gage

With thanks to Katarzyna Pabijanek – ASTRA Network Coordinator

In defence of abortion on a woman’s request, including on grounds of fetal sex

24/02/2012 Comments Off on In defence of abortion on a woman’s request, including on grounds of fetal sex

Published on the British Medical Journal Guest Blog, 24th February 2012

Ach, what a furore. The Daily Telegraph is in its element and having a ball printing nasty allegations about doctors doing abortions illegally on grounds of sex selection. Let’s look at the issues a bit more dispassionately. First, is it actually illegal? Yes and no. The 1967 Abortion Act does not permit abortion on grounds of sex selection per se, it is true, and the law is framed so that anything that cannot be defended as coming under one or more of the named legal grounds is technically illegal. However, the question remains whether abortion on grounds of sex selection can be defended under the existing legal ground for abortions. I believe the answer is yes.

Sex selective abortion, like late second trimester abortion, lends itself to easy condemnation and stigma, and many otherwise pro-choice people are opposed to it. In India and China, where the laws on abortion are otherwise very liberal, sex selective abortion is subject to several laws banning it, all of which are totally ignored  ̶ both because women are under great pressure to have boys, especially women whose first child was a girl and who have only one or two chances, and because those doing the ultrasound scans are making a lot of money from them.

This isn’t a question of designer babies, though it is always the case that where something is possible technically, and is available for a range of reasons, e.g. determining whether there is a risk of sex-specific genetic anomalies, it will also be used in other ways. In this sense, finding out fetal sex during an ultrasound scan is inevitable and justified. This information belongs to the parents and should not be withheld. The baby is theirs after all. Preferring a baby of one sex over the other is nothing new, but has become more of an issue, according to the literature on sex selection in Asia, precisely because people are having so few children. But this is not just a cultural or ethnic issue. I watched my next-door neighbour treat her second child, a boy, badly throughout his childhood because she had wanted a second girl. She never forgave him for being born, at a time when there was no ultrasound for finding out fetal sex. Is this so uncommon?

I believe doctors faced with a request for abortion from women whose cultures practise discrimination against women and girls can justify it under the existing abortion law on the following grounds: taking the woman’s social situation into account, and because the woman’s physical and mental health and well-being may be at risk, and also her existing children. The potential for abuse of a woman by her husband and family, and poor treatment of and even purposeful neglect of girl children (leading to poor development and even death), are common outcomes in Asian cultures that demand that women produce boys. Women can be rejected and their lives made miserable. No one that I am aware of has ever investigated the existence or extent of such abuse and neglect in the UK among families from these cultures, but perhaps it’s time someone did. Moreover, it is also the case that a woman may not want another baby anyway, for other valid reasons, and fetal sex may be the only acceptable excuse she can give in her family situation for seeking an abortion.

Lastly, if anyone thinks that incrimination, condemnation and prosecution of pro-choice doctors is going to make this situation go away, they need to think again. Women will simply say they have a different reason and doctors will duly record it.

I believe health professionals and everyone who is pro-choice on abortion should support pro-choice doctors and women seeking abortions, whatever their reasons, even when sex selection may be involved.

The Daily Telegraph’s stories and the cowards who remain unidentified who went under false pretences to abortion providers and doctors who authorise abortions with the intention of incriminating them, should be condemned. Their aim is not to stop sex selection, which will not go away until discrimination against women and girls becomes history. Their aim is to stigmatise abortion and women who have abortions, to frighten women and abortion providers that they are breaking the law, and to seek to restrict the law on abortion. Their behaviour is unethical and under-handed, and constitutes harassment, which should be rejected and even subject to prosecution for wasting the Health Department’s and police time.

The UK needs to make abortion available legally on the request of the woman, and to decriminalise abortion altogether. This is an idea whose time would have come long ago if misogyny and harassment of women were illegal ̶ and prosecuted ̶ instead.

The cover that got covered

05/12/2011 Comments Off on The cover that got covered

Guest blog by RHM digital editor Cassie Werber

In May 2010, Reproductive Health Matters published a journal on the theme of Cosmetic surgery, body image and sexuality.

Marge Berer, editor of the journal, proposed a cover featuring an artwork which consisted of the vulvas of women – who had volunteered for the project – cast in plaster. Here, Marge Berer describes just some of the reactions and counter-reactions:

The issue featured papers on female genital mutilation (FGM), cosmetic labiaplasty, ‘hymen repair’ and cosmetic surgery as a human right. But among so many controversial topics, what really sparked debate was… the cover.

The cover ultimately featured an artwork bySusan Lyman:

Final cover for RHM35

Final cover for RHM35

A different cover had originally been proposed, however, featuring the work of a different artist. Jamie McCarney’s work – the Great Wall of Vagina – comprised plaster casts of the vulvas of 400 women, and it was an image taken from this piece which formed the original cover.

Original cover of RHM35

Original cover of RHM35

Alerted by her staff to a possible controversy, Marge asked her editorial board and board of directors for advice. What resulted was a firestorm of comments, opinions and ‘concerns’. “I don’t think anything quite so exciting is going to happen to me, as an editor” says Berer. The months leading up to the May publication date saw an intense, global conversation which brought into play ideas about the female body and its representation; obscenity and indecency; cultural acceptability; freedom and fear; shock; and the law.

Speaking in Brighton in May 2011 – a year after the cover controversy – RHM editor Marge Berer talks about the why she passionately defended the original cover, her disappointment at it being ‘censored’ – and what she did in response.

Other resources:

Watch the full video

Paper titles and abstracts

The Cover Covered editorial

RHM website

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