Over the weekend, the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion went viral on Twitter.
In response to US Republican efforts to defund abortion provider Planned Parenthood, thousands of women, mostly in the United States, shared their abortion experiences.
The campaign is simple: women ‘come out’, unapologetically, as having had an abortion. In doing so, they refuse to be stigmatised for decisions that were theirs to make.
I have spent the last 12 years heavily involved in reproductive rights campaigning across the world, including as an aid worker.
I have been involved in hundreds of campaigns and lobbying efforts. I think that the #shoutyourabortion campaign breaks new ground. It is powerful, it is necessary, and I believe that, if expanded, it could provide us with a way of talking about the issue of abortion that is no longer rooted in shame, stigma, and control of women’s bodies.
Here are three reasons why this is about so much more than abortion – and why I believe that #shoutyourabortion could be game-changing.
1. When abortion is illegal, EVERY pregnant woman is unsafe.
The criminalisation of abortion relies on a fundamental premise: the belief that a society – in particular, lawmakers – has the right to control a woman’s body.
In America, this has already led to the criminalisation of pregnant women. In the last few years, a flood of laws have been passed in Republican-controlled states which criminalise pregnant women who drink alcohol, take drugs, attempt suicide or do other activities deemed to harm their fetuses. While drug-taking and drinking can certainly damage unborn children significantly, evidence shows that criminalising pregnant women, instead of helping them to manage their addictions, is completely counter-productive.
Recently, Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old woman from Indiana, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide and child neglect after miscarrying a fetus. She is just the latest in a list of over 400 women arrested for being pregnant. Similar laws have been debated in Australia as recently as this year. For example, “Zoe’s Law”, debated by the NSW Parliament, would have endowed fetuses with personhood – opening the door to cases like Purvi Patel’s. Anti-abortion reasoning makes the criminalisation of all pregnant women possible.
This belief in the right of the state to control the bodies of women is so deeply entrenched and hard to challenge, that most campaigns leave it alone.
Instead, we try to elevate the moving stories of the impact that anti-abortion laws and policies have on women. We talk about rape survivors. Teenage girls. Victims of incest. Women forced to have children they can’t afford. Women faced with life-threatening pregnancies. These are the stories that champions such as Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton and my own organization, CARE, frequently share.
These stories are powerful and can persuade people who were originally anti-choice to face the true meaning of the laws they are pushing for. But there’s a problem. When we tell these stories we are offering excuses, not demanding rights. We leave in tact the belief that the State has the right to give women ‘permission’ to terminate or not, depending on whether a woman can provide ‘legitimate’ reasons for her choice.
Nobody likes abortions. They aren’t things that women do for fun. But when we engage in justifications, we are letting the state go on treating women’s bodies as things that they can rightfully control.
By refusing to make women publicly justify their choices, #shoutyourabortion is challenging the idea that women’s choices are up for public debate.
2. Could ‘coming out’ as a woman who as had an abortion be a secret weapon?
In charting the rapid success of the gay rights movement, LGBT activist, Brandeis College Professor and author E.G. Graff wrote that the LGBT movement has “actually had it easier” than the black civil rights and feminist movements. “We started with a secret weapon,” she writes, “We were already part of every zip code in the country.”
When we think about successful movements of the past – feminism, black civil rights, and LGBT rights – we can often identify a turning point where people stopped trying to win the sympathy and understanding of those who were controlling them, and began demanding their rights.
“No social movement,” writes Graf, “wins full acceptance… until its members are willing to put their bodies, their physical lives, on the line, daring the state either to kill them or treat them fairly.”
One in three women has had an abortion. Women who have had an abortion are not only part of every postcode in the country, they’re a part of every family, every workplace, every constituency. Even those of us, like me, who have been lucky enough (or gay enough!) to have not been faced with that decision have likely been close to many women who have.
What a powerful number of voices. Could #shoutyourabortion be the new coming out?
3. This battle is universal.
This week, a huge development agenda, the “Sustainable Development Goals”, is about to be unveiled at the United Nations General Assembly. As the Planned Parenthood debate plays out in Washington D.C., another debate is playing out only hours away, in the United Nations headquarters in New York, where I work.
This year, I joined thousands of women from around the world in lobbying member states to make sure that reproductive rights were included in the new goals. We have faced harsh opposition. A well-funded network of extremist American organisations have been active in lobbying countries such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, Chad, Iran, Libya, Nigeria and Senegal and the Holy See (the Vatican) to fight hard to keep women’s reproductive rights excluded from international development efforts. This is despite the fact that unsafe abortion is one of the biggest killers of women in the world, especially of teenage girls.
Fortunately, women’s civil society groups, together with champion member states, including Australia, have managed to stop the opposition from excluding reproductive rights so far. The United States, at a global level, is a strong supporter of sexual and reproductive rights. We need the support of these countries. If anti-choice policies prevail in countries like Australia and America, we will therefore lose vital champions for women’s rights globally.
The #shoutyourabortion campaign is a conversation that the world needs right now. It strikes at the core beliefs that societies and governments use to justify their control of women’s bodies. It’s strong, it’s new, and it could make a real difference.
So let’s get tweeting.
Melanie Poole is the Senior UN Advocacy Advisor in CARE International’s New York office. This article represents her personal views, and not the official views of CARE.
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