Need Abortion, Will Travel

Marcy Bloom

Many pregnant women and girls are virtually forced to become abortion tourists. Though the term is often used in sexist and disparaging ways, what it really reveals is that women's reproductive health needs are being ignored.

Recent coverage of the abortion providers' strike in Spain and the attacks on women's clinics there made use of the term "abortion tourism." LifeSiteNews, an anti-choice web site, refers to Barcelona, Spain as "Europe's abortion mecca, where people from all over the continent can travel to evade restrictions on late-term abortions." There was also sensationalist media coverage in Spain with disparaging references to "abortion tourists from other countries."

In November of 2007, LifeSiteNews also reported that "foreign women will be allowed to have abortions in Sweden up to 18 weeks gestation starting in January 2008 under changes to legislation passed by the Swedish parliament…Until now, abortion in Sweden has been reserved for Swedish citizens and residents, but since most European Union countries already allow foreign women access to abortion, the Swedish government has decided to follow suit…Several Christian Democrat members of parliament have warned that the new law could lead to 'abortion tourism.' "

There has always been abortion tourism. The term refers to travel undertaken in order to access to safe abortion care — which is a long-standing crisis in the US as well as internationally.

In her May 2003 on abortion beyond borders, the Guttmacher Institute's Susan Cohen provided some relevant history: "New York legalized abortion, without a residency requirement, in 1970, which immediately put New York City on the map as an option for those women who could afford to travel. Before that it was an open secret that affluent American women would travel to London to obtain safe, legal procedure."

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As a young woman growing up in New York City in those years, I vividly remember many pregnant friends who also went to Mexico, Sweden, Japan, and Puerto Rico for their safe abortions. Of course, it was, as Cohen notes, "poor women, mostly young and minority, who [could not travel and] suffered the health consequences [of unsafe, illegal abortions], and maternal mortality rates were high. Women of means had more options."

Tragically, not much has changed. The race, ethnic, and class disparities of abortion access in the US are well-known and this theme is universal.

In October 2007, the Global Safe Abortion Conference in London discussed this issue in the context of "abortion journeys" — the long, distressing, often expensive journeys that women are forced to undertake in order to access safe abortion due to restrictive legislation in their home countries. Writing about the discussion at the conference, Grace Davies noted, "These journeys — abortion tourism — are a tragic reality for women around the world, from Kenya to Poland. In fact, the term ‘abortion tourism' highlights one of the central characteristic of the phenomenon. In highly restrictive situations, class and socio-economic status play a huge role in whether or not a woman can access safe abortion."

The examples presented at the Global Safe Abortion Conference were instructive — and heart-breaking. At the conference, Claudia Diaz Olavarrieta reported on the research she had conducted in Mexico before the landmark decision of last April legalizing abortion in Mexico City. She reported that "Mexican women traveling to the US for safe abortion care were typically well-educated and wealthy, did not cross the border illegally, and as such did not have to resort to unsafe clandestine or self-induced attempted abortions…they also typically came from wealthier [more cosmopolitan] Mexico City rather than poorer northern and eastern states."

"The girls with money go off to Europe or to the US and come back just fine from their ‘appendix operations,' but the poor girls are subjected to all kinds of barbarities," stated a passionate supporter of legal abortion in Mexico City at the time that the momentous new law was being passed. Meanwhile, an opponent of the new life-saving law angrily stated that "people from all over the country will be coming [to Mexico City] for abortions. It's going to be abortion tourism. It will be chaos."

Perhaps the opponent of the new law should be asking why women are forced to travel to Mexico City for their safe abortions. Is it because of sexist laws and attitudes about women that make it impossible for them to obtain safe medical care in their own pueblos and communities? Could it be that these woman and girls are "simply" trying to save their lives, health, families, and futures?

Similar issues surrounding abortion tourism in Ireland were also explored at the conference. According to the Irish Family Planning Association and the Safe and Legal Abortion Rights Campaign in Ireland, "approximately 200 women per week travel to the United Kingdom from Ireland and Northern Ireland," where abortion is greatly restricted and virtually illegal. "Economics play a part…abortion remains a class issue," emphasized Goretti Horgan of Alliance for Choice Northern Ireland.

A minimum of "1000, 000 Irish women" have been compelled to travel to England for abortions over the last 20 years.

At a 1996 workshop on reproductive freedom held at a conference at the University of Connecticut School of Law, Ursula Nowakowska of Poland reported on the effects of her country's 1993 anti-abortion law. The law, "permitting abortions only if the life of the mother was seriously threatened or if there was severe deformation of the fetus," is essentially a farce, an insult, and a danger to women's lives and dignity, as are the restrictive anti-abortion laws in other countries. "…Women have gone to Western Europe or further east to obtain abortions" — Poland's version of abortion tourism. "Most Polish women go to Poland's East and South neighboring countries: Ukraine, Lithuania, Russia, Bielorus, Czech Republic, and Slovakia… Fewer women can afford to seek abortion care in Western countries, as the abortion services there are more expensive, but the care is of much higher quality." For the Polish women who have the financial resources, they go to "Germany, Belgium, and Austria." A February 2008 report posted in the ASTRA bulletin on sexual and reproductive rights indicated that at least 31,000 Polish women underwent abortions in the United Kingdom in 2007, a 30% growth in the number of Polish women from recent years.

Yet another example is Portugal. Portugal decriminalized first-trimester abortion last year, "leading to the easing of one of Europe's most restrictive abortion laws." It is estimated that "perhaps 20,000 or more illegal abortions a year take place and thousands of women end up in hospitals with complications…Many thousands each year, unsurprisingly, choose instead to cross the border" to more liberal Spain-abortion tourism for Portuguese women. Figures for the number of women who left the country in recent years to access safe abortion care aren't available, although in 2006, "about 4,000 Portuguese women went for abortions to…one clinic in Spain…near the Portuguese border."

In the United States, despite the legalization of abortion 35 years ago and where restrictions on abortion are nothing short of a war against women's lives, "access to abortion has been severely eroded" — leading to the current US version of abortion tourism. According to the National Abortion Federation, "88% of all US counties have no identifiable abortion provider. In non-metropolitan areas, the figure rises to 97%. As a result, among many other barriers to safe abortion care, nearly a quarter of US women wanting abortions have to travel 50 miles or more to reach the nearest abortion provider." During my 18 years as the executive director of Aradia Women's Health Center in Seattle, Washington, our clinic consistently saw women from throughout the state, as well as Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Iowa, Texas, California, Oregon, and Mexico.

As a response to these ongoing problems, the innovative Abortion Access Project has launched the Least Access States Initiative, targeting women in Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Arkansas, who "share a troubling commonality — they all live in states with the least accessible abortion services in the US." This is admirable and difficult work, as it will be daunting to ensure that women of these least-served states are eventually able to more freely exercise their rights.

So who dies from lack of abortion access? Who suffers? Who is forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy, or desperately turns to underground, unscrupulous, and deceptive clinics? Who cannot become an "abortion tourist" and travel within or outside of one's country for safe abortion care? The universal theme is clear — it is disproportionately women or girls who are young and/or poor, indigenous, of color, an immigrant, a refugee, and/or geographically isolated. It is only women with fiscal resources who are able to travel the long distances to another state or country for safe abortion care.

The current abortion laws of many countries are completely inadequate to meet the needs of women and girls seeking safe abortion care. Therefore, pregnant women and girls who are able to do are virtually forced to become abortion tourists. Although the term is often used in sexist and disparaging ways, what it really points to is that women's reproductive health needs are being ignored. Women are too frequently being deprived of their right to access safe, compassioante, and professional abortion services close to home, or at the very least in their own state or country.

So our work goes on. We must continue to strive to liberalize abortion laws, reduce restrictions, destigmatize abortion — to view abortion as a human right and a moral choice for all women and girls — and must increase the pool of trained and compassionate abortion providers. We must continue the struggle to ensure that women and girls, of every class, race, and country, truly have access to safe, legal, timely, local, and community-based abortion care.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.