That woman was my mother when she was about my age. The man standing next to her was my grandfather. At first I was shocked to see the state where I was born and raised mentioned. Represent. Seriously, North Dakota deserves credit for the winters we weather and for enduring a climate hostile to women. I became speechless as I saw my family. My heart filled with gratitude and my eyes filled with tears.
Although my mother and grandfather were featured in the background, they too made direct impacts on the women seeking abortions. They escorted women through the crowds of protesters surrounding the Fargo Women’s Health Organization. The Lambs of Christ, a radical Christian terrorist group, went as far as bombing the clinic, handcuffing themselves to patients’ cars, and harassing anyone associated with the clinic.
My mom recalls, “One thing I do remember was worrying about “my girls” being afraid of the noise and confusion. I just wanted them to be safe and inside where they were protected.”
The entrance of the clinic was always locked. There was no fancy security systems in the early 90s, so my mom was entrusted with the key. She was in charge because she had been a volunteer for over 4 years and was pregnant with me. Even though violence occasionally broke out, the protesters could not justify attacking a pregnant woman to gain entry to the building.
A pregnant woman safeguarding other women’s access to abortion services. This situation is a catch 22 for the anti-choice movement, but speaks to the reality of women’s multidimensional lives. “A woman at one point in her life will die to have an abortion and at another point die to save her child.”
Thank you to all the activists, volunteers, and providers who have trusted women to choose the right decisions for themselves and their families. Even the people in the background are changing the world.
by Marcelline Sounnoukinny, Peer Educator for ABFP
My name is Marcielliene and I’m from Cotonou, Benin. I want to tell you a story relating to abortion that occurred in the village that I am from. Two years ago there were two girls from neighbouring country Nigeria that rented a house near where I live. They lived in the same house and worked in a restaurant at night as waitresses. They used to bring back food and clothes when they finished work and they were extremely kind. After they had lived there for a while, one of the girls started to feel ill and because they were alone in Benin and had no parents with them, the owner of the house took the girl to hospital. Whilst they were at the hospital the girl lost a lot of blood and following a consultation with the doctor, it was discovered that she has undergone an unsafe abortion using traditional medicine.
The doctor informed the owner of the house and he had to spend a large amount of money on her hospital bills in order to save her life. When they came back from the hospital, the owner of the house informed the community that the girl had undergone an unsafe abortion. Following that, the community reacted badly to the news and friends began to stigmatize her for having an abortion. The owner of the house continued to scold her and told her that she would never have children because abortions were sinful and god would punish her for her actions. Following these events, the girls could not handle the way they were being treated and decided to leave their home.
After this incident with the girls, I learnt how harmful stigma can be to an individual, especially for getting an abortion. The girls did not have the right information about safe abortions and were not able to deal with the situation well. I am now a peer educator for The Association Beninoise Pour La Promotion De La Famille (ABFP). I am able to talk to my peers about how to avoid stigmatizing situations and we work in sensitization sessions with both girls and boys. We also distribute condoms and refer young people to ABFP so that they can receive the necessary advice and safe services. As I am a peer educator my friends trust me with their problems and I am educated on the issues of safe abortion. Stigma still exists in my society, but very slowly the community are getting used to talking about it, and young people know who they can talk to about their issues.
The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID) states that “Women and adolescent girls must have the right to make their own decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing”. DfID also says that, in countries where abortion is severely restricted, it will support the processes needed to change the policy. So why does a significant section of the UK population have almost no access to legal abortion where they live?
The 1967 Abortion Act in the UK increased access to abortion for women all over the country, except in one region: Northern Ireland. Instead, the laws there are based on another act which is over 150 years old (and 15 years older than the electric lightbulb!). Abortion is only allowed in very limited circumstances, which means every year only 40-50 legal abortions take place in Northern Ireland.
Everyone else is forced to either buy medication online, which is illegal and could lead to a long prison sentence, or to travel to another part of the UK (a country where they are citizens!) in order to access abortion. Even then they can only have private abortions, whereas people who live in the rest of the country can access abortion for free on the National Health Service. An abortion in a private clinic in England costs between £450 and £2000, not including travel costs. Many women also keep this experience a secret because they do not want to be judged, and one woman described her experience as a “living nightmare”. Mara Clarke from the charity Abortion Support Network also points out that charging Northern Irish women for abortions “simply ensures a two-tiered system under which women with money have options and women without money have babies.”
One of the biggest barriers to changing the law is the lack of political will in Northern Ireland. Audrey Simpson, former director of the Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland, has said that “our politicians are ultra-conservative, generally male and most are fundamental Christians”. Northern Irish politicians actively try to block abortion liberalisation and sometimes try to restrict it more, and they claim that they speak for the majority of the population.
Another major problem is the very loud anti-choice movement, whose overly-simplistic messages completely ignore the complexity of people’s lives. They contribute to a culture of intimidation and stigma, and members of the anti-choice group Precious Life have repeatedly been accused of harassment and very personalised intimidation. (See note 8 below for a link to a detailed report produced by Amnesty International, which looks at the barriers to abortion services in Northern Ireland and highlights the negative effects of stigma).
Despite politicians and anti-choice groups saying that they represent the views of the population, polls show that not only are the majority of family planning doctors in favour of abortion liberalisation, but public opinion supports it too. The reality is that these groups are out of touch with medical and public opinion and they don’t hold the authority that they claim to.
Change does have to come from inside Northern Ireland but that doesn’t mean politicians or anti-choice groups speaking on behalf of everyone else. It means people campaigning, fighting stigma and demanding that the government listen to their wishes. Only then will Northern Ireland’s law stop forcing women to travel overseas, often alone and ashamed, in order to have control over their reproductive health.