Thursday 31 January 2013

'Youth For Choice' blog launches today!

Our fabulous young volunteers have been busy working on a social media project and it’s finally here. Introducing the new ‘Youth For Choice’ Tumblr!

Our volunteers decided that it was about time for a youth-led blog in the UK which focuses on sexual health and reproductive rights. Young people giving other young people FACTUAL information about sex, pregnancy, abortion and related topics. All our bloggers are 16-25, and are contributing written blogs, photos and film clips from all over the country.

Here’s Kathryn, 19, on why she got involved with the project:

“I’m a firm believer in women having control over their own bodies and their reproductive rights – through contraception, abortion and other ways. I feel that people need to have choice over what they do with their body, and not be coerced or pressured into doing something because they feel it’s the right thing to do, or that they have no other option. And that’s why I’m excited to be involved in this Tumblr. Because one of the ways you help to give people choice is through sharing information with them, and I think this is especially important for young people, who might have a harder time getting access to quality information about sexual health and all the other stuff that goes with it. We might not be taken seriously, or be told both sides of the story when it comes to reproductive rights and sexual health. And when this happens, how are you supposed to make an informed choice about what’s going on with your own body? This is why I think this blog is going to be so good – it’ll give young people a good source of news and information about stuff that’s really important to us.”

 So please follow the Tumblr and share the link with your friends and colleagues!

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Have you heard about the condom train?

It was not until 1993 that condoms became fully available without prescription for everyone in Ireland. Access to contraception and reproductive control has long been a site of struggle for the women’s movement there. EFC volunteer Sarah McCarthy writes about the famous “condom train” where a number of women brazenly brought condoms into the Republic of Ireland on the train from Belfast.

In May 1971, 47 women gathered at Connolly Station in Dublin, prepared to embark on a potentially dangerous endeavour to purchase contraceptives across the border. These feminists had planned an ingenious publicity-stunt; they were going to buy mass amounts of condoms and contraceptive pills, and challenge the customs officers on their return to arrest them for importing these illegal items. It was a bold move in the 1970's, and many were terrified about what their mothers would think.

Upon their arrival in Belfast, they ran into one slight problem; contraception was so taboo in Ireland, that even most of these feminist women had never seen it in their lives. When Nell McCafferty, one of the founders of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, reached the pharmacy counter, she had no idea what to ask for. Eventually one of the divorced women in the group stepped up to the counter and requested condoms. However, at his point it dawned on them that the customs officials would have no idea what contraception looked like either. So they ordered hundreds of packs of aspirin, put them in paper bags, and pretended that they were contraceptive pills. Jubilantly, they got the train back to Dublin. As they neared the city, a few began to get nervous. What if they got sent to jail? What would their mothers say?! They clutched the statements they had prepared to hand to whoever would come to arrest them. However, the customs men were so mortified by their transgression that they quickly admitted that they couldn’t arrest them all, and let them go without challenge. The women walked through the station victoriously waving the contraband around, with some blowing up condoms like balloons. The response across Ireland was explosive, and the day’s impact lingered for decades.
The Irish Women's Liberation Movement in 1971.
 Women in Ireland have long been subjugated by a deeply patriarchal state and the pervasive influence of the Catholic Church. In the 1920's the colloquial term for birth control was “race suicide” and “a child every year to you” a popular blessing. By the 1970’s, laws from decades back still governed women’s bodies. The 1929 Censorship of Publications Act allowed a board of five men to prohibit the sale of any “indecent or obscene” literature; including that which advocated birth control. The 1935 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act made the import or sale of any contraceptive illegal. Married women were expected to have as many children as possible and women who had children outside of marriage were often incarcerated in institutions run by nuns, called the Magdalene Laundries. Any promotion of contraception was also banned, leaving people woefully and dangerously misinformed. In the late 1940’s, a baby was born in Dublin with the top of a Guinness bottle on its head; the mother had inserted it in herself hoping it would act as a contraceptive. As women’s groups began to recognise the importance of accessing contraception, the Church vigorously resisted their demands. In 1968 the Vatican passed a Papal Encyclical, entitled “Humane Vitae”, which forbade Catholics from using artificial contraception. At the time of the condom train, a doctor could only prescribe the pill to a married woman with an irregular menstrual cycle. The criminalisation of contraception meant that women had no control over the number and spacing of their children; power over their reproduction lay in the hands of a patriarchal state. Thus the fight for contraception was one of the key battles for women’s liberation.

In 1969 the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement and the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) were founded. They began to take direct action against contraception restrictions. In 1970 the IFPA began to give talks on contraceptives to women’s groups, despite the fact that even the promotion of contraception remained illegal. Soon after, Students’ Unions and Family Planning Clinics began to sell condoms illegally. They continued to do so against fines and public pressure. Many women’s groups pursued legal and extra-legal means to publicise and agitate for the urgent need for freely available contraception. The condom train was one amongst many bold and creative actions which openly flouted the prevailing conservative hegemony.

In 1979 the Health (Family Planning) Bill was published, which allowed married couples to access contraception with a prescription. But it was not until 1993 that all restrictions around the sale of condoms were removed, and the morning-after-pill only became available without prescription in 2011. Arguably, the contraceptive revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s, and its long-reaching consequences, had a bigger impact on women’s lives than the right to vote. By 1991 the average fertility rate had plummeted to 1.89. Women gained partial control over their bodies, and much more control over their own destiny.

Today, the fight for reproductive rights for women in Ireland is far from over. Abortion remains illegal, bar in certain exceptional circumstances. However, the horrific death of Savita Halappanavar has crystallised the pro-choice movement in Ireland, and I have no doubt that another struggle of direct action and mounting public pressure will eventually result in further gains for women in Ireland. Perhaps it is time to devise the Abortion Train!

Tuesday 15 January 2013

'Pro-choice' - what’s in a name?

Lisa shares her thoughts on the use of the term 'pro-choice' to describe organisations which campaign for reproductive rights.

Planned Parenthood this week decided to stop using the term ‘pro-choice’ to describe its position on abortion. I’ve read some excellent pieces on this and agree with many of the points made in favour of this change. Maybe it’s only a sentimental attachment to the term, but personally I don’t think I can ever stop being ‘pro-choice’.

Many people are arguing that the idea of choice is a misnomer because for some people there is no choice. For me this is like arguing that being pro-equal pay is a misnomer because currently there is no equal pay. Planned Parenthood has also argued that abortion should be de-politicised, and framed as a personal health decision that an individual should be able to make. Of course it is an entirely personal decision, but until certain conditions are met, de-politicising abortion seems to me like wishful thinking. The closest example I can see to this is the way in which Canada has taken abortion out of the criminal law altogether. However, even in Canada the political attacks on abortion as a legal procedure keep on coming. And importantly, as Tracy Weitz writes, shifting abortion from the public into the personal sphere does nothing to address or eradicate stigma or help to tackle obstacles to access: 'to say abortion is an individual woman's business absolves us of our obligation to create a more just world.'

It feels a lot like this change of terminology is an admission of failure: it acknowledges, implicitly, that the movement never managed to convey to the world what pro-choice should really mean (which of course includes the fact that abortion is a personal, medical decision). Also that the movement never adequately acknowledged, or fought to address the lived realities of all those in the community who wanted a real choice over their reproductive lives and parenting, and have been denied one, whether because of their age, class, race, gender, sexuality, disability, religion or other factor.

The reproductive justice movement was formed partly in response to the fact that poor women of colour in the US are damned if they do and damned if they don’t when it comes to parenting. Condemned for being disproportionately represented in the abortion statistics – though simultaneously represented as passive victims of a racist abortion ‘industry’ with no moral agency of their own; or condemned for having children when they are perceived as not having the means to support them.In fact, reproductive justice is about more than parenting choices. Reproductive justice activism embraces the whole conversation about how people define themselves, how they choose to live, and how they choose to have or not have sexual relationships, recognising the cultural, economic and social limits imposed on those choices.

For me the reproductive justice movement represents a lot about what being pro-choice should be about and what it means to me. Being pro-choice is not just about saying abortion is morally acceptable or should be legally available. Like any word, or phrase that is designed to be a shortcut to a philosophy, ethos or political position, 'pro-choice' may well not be up to the task, but I’m not convinced that inadequacy equates to inappropriateness and that we should ditch it just yet.

Until we have achieved the utopia in which real choice exists, we have to accept that it is an aspirational term, a goal to be fought and campaigned for. For me it’s about saying that complete sexual and reproductive choice – the fundamental right of a person to bodily autonomy, to have sex or not, to decide who to have sex with and how to have it, to have sex without having children; and of course the right of people who can get pregnant to decide the number, timing, and spacing of their children - is what we are aiming for. It necessitates recognising that some people’s choices are influenced by more than their desires in relation to parenting, but are constrained and directed by the culture in which they live, their economic circumstances, the social and political support or lack of support for certain pregnancy choices and much more.

Real choice can only exist in the context of:
  • A society which values and provides equality, respect and security to people of all sexes, sexualities and gender identities and all people regardless of race, class, disability or religion
  • Comprehensive and universal sexual health education and access to comprehensive sexual health services including safe and legal abortion and fertility services
  • The destigmatisation of all pregnancy options, not just abortion and adoption but all sorts of parenthood including teenage parenthood, single parenthood, older parenthood, disabled parenthood, same-sex parenthood, transgender parenthood
  • Rights to parental leave and flexible working conditions for parents
  • Real economic and social support for parents caring for children including a living wage policy, accessible affordable childcare, affordable housing, VAW services and more
  • Good free quality healthcare for all
In short: a society in which we can be optimistic that our children will thrive, wherever they are born and whoever they are born to...

Maybe the US context is so different that it would be laughable to aspire to any of the above conditions (free universal healthcare, adequate welfare etc), but in the UK we once achieved a few of these or were close to achieving them, and we’re fighting hard to achieve more and to stop the gains we have made slipping through our fingers.  If being pro-choice is an aspirational rather than a descriptive term I’m happy to aspire.