Commentary Abortion

Perspectives on the London Family Planning Summit 2012: Women’s Human Rights Must Be at the Center of Family Planning

Louise Finer

This week’s summit is a crucial opportunity to re-invigorate international efforts to provide millions of women with access to the contraception they so desperately need. Yet increasing the availability of contraception is just one aspect of ensuring reproductive health, and cannot be seen in isolation.

See all our coverage of the 2012 Global Family Planning Summit here.

In 1996, a Peruvian woman named María Mamérita Mestanza Chávez died from complications of a forced sterilization in Peru. She was a low-income, indigenous Peruvian woman, who was coerced into agreeing to sterilization by government officials and was repeatedly denied follow-up medical care when complications ensued. María died from post-surgical medical complications seven days after her surgery.

María’s story was only one of many cases of coercive sterilizations in Peru — the tragic and cruel consequences of family planning practices that leave women’s human rights out of the equation. Her story reminds us how important it is that the government officials, global advocates and donors participating in this week’s Family Planning Summit in London keep stories like María’s in mind.

This week’s summit is a crucial opportunity to re-invigorate international efforts to provide millions of women with access to the contraception they so desperately need. Yet increasing the availability of contraception is just one aspect of ensuring reproductive health, and cannot be seen in isolation. The summit must recognize women’s right to a full range of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services. Without access to sexuality education, safe and legal abortion, and a range of other essential services, women’s reproductive rights will still be far from being achieved.

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Last month, the Center for Reproductive Rights joined 326 other organizations and individuals from around the world to issue a joint statement highlighting the urgent need for family planning policies to recognize and protect women’s autonomy and human rights. For 20 years, the Center has documented the devastating consequences — both intended and unintended — of reproductive health policies that fail to do so.  And we have fought legal battles in courts and the UN on behalf of the women who have suffered egregious human rights abuses and violations of their basic reproductive rights, including discrimination against marginalized women seeking access to care, mistreatment by health workers, not being provided information on family planning and involuntary sterilization of women.

While contraceptive information and services are an essential part of the health services that women need throughout their lives, efforts to simply increase the use of contraceptives can have negative consequences if women are not empowered to decide for themselves when and how to use them. If the initiative put forth in London this week fails to tackle the myriad obstacles women face in accessing sexual and reproductive health services – lack of information, requirements that their spouses or parents give their consent, bans on certain methods, discrimination, unavailability of services in certain areas, inadequate systems to deliver services – it will stop far short of addressing the real barriers to women’s reproductive rights.

And international human rights bodies agree.

In María’s case, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a case with local and regional partners on behalf of her family at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). As a result, the Peruvian government agreed to pay moral damages to María’s husband and seven children, as well as significant compensation for their health care, education and housing. The government also agreed to conduct an in-depth investigation and to punish those responsible for the violations of Peruvian and international legal standards.

But Peru isn’t the only place these violations have occurred. In 2009, the Center filed a complaint against Chile before the IACHR on behalf of F.S., a young woman living with HIV who was sterilized without her knowledge or consent. F.S. was diagnosed with HIV in 2002 soon after learning she was pregnant. She was referred to a state hospital for HIV treatment during pregnancy. She and her husband had plans to have more children and F.S. never requested sterilization. She was forcibly sterilized at the hospital immediately after giving birth. This is another example of a government failing to protect a woman’s reproductive rights, her human rights.

States must ensure that women can exercise their reproductive rights.  The decision to use contraceptive methods is voluntary and should never be forced on any woman, no matter her ethnicity or socioeconomic background.

But local activists, global advocates and civil society organizations cannot act alone as a watchdog for reproductive rights. States – as donors and implementers of family planning policies – and international donors must ensure that there are monitoring and accountability systems in place to ensure the kinds of violations María suffered are not repeated. I’ll be in attendance at this week’s Family Planning Summit and will be calling for human rights to be front and center of the discussions, moving the conversation from contraceptives alone to reproductive rights as human rights.

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

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Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.

Commentary Sexual Health

‘Not the Enemy, But the Answer’: Elevating the Voices of Black Women Living With HIV

Dazon Dixon Diallo

National HIV Testing Day is June 27. But for longtime advocates, ensuring that the women most affected by the epidemic can get and influence care and policy is the work of many years.

I met Juanita Williams in the mid-1980s. She was the first client at SisterLove, the then-new Atlanta nonprofit I founded for women living with AIDS.

June 27 is National HIV Testing Day, and many women will be tested during the observance. But when I met Williams, HIV was a growing reality in our communities, and women were not even recognized as a population at risk for HIV at that time.

This lack of understanding was reflected in women’s experiences when seeking care. Williams’ attempt to get a tubal ligation had been met with fear, ignorance, and hostility from a medical team who informed her she had AIDS. Not only did they refuse to provide her the medical procedure, the hospital staff promptly ushered her down the back staircase and out the door. Williams was left without information or counseling for what was devastating news.

A Black woman who grew up in Syracuse, New York, she had moved to her family’s home state of South Carolina. Her first major decision after her diagnosis was to leave South Carolina and move to Atlanta, where she believed she would get better treatment and support. She was right, and still, it wasn’t easy—not then and not now. Even today, Williams says, “Positive people are not taken seriously, and positive women are taken even less seriously. People think positive people are way down on the totem pole.”

As communities across the United States observe National HIV Testing Day and emphasize taking control of our health and lives, women’s voices are an essential but still neglected part of the conversation. The experiences of Black women living with HIV, within the broader context of their sexual and reproductive health, highlight the need to address systemic health disparities and the promise of a powerful movement at the intersection of sexual and reproductive justice.

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The urgency of adopting an intersectional approach to sexual and reproductive health comes to light when considering the disproportionate impact of HIV on women of color. Black women account for 69 percent of all HIV diagnoses among women in the South. Advocates also acknowledge the history of biomedical and reproductive oppression that Black women have suffered throughout American history, including forced pregnancy and childrearing during slavery to forced sterilization afterward. Keeping these matters in mind helps us understand how the HIV epidemic is a matter of sexual and reproductive justice.

Taking seriously the perspectives of women such as Williams would amplify our collective efforts to eradicate HIV’s impacts while elevating women’s health, dignity, and agency. This is especially pressing for women living with HIV who experience the greatest disparities and access barriers to the broad spectrum of reproductive health, including contraception and abortion.

The policy context has created additional barriers to advancing the reproductive health of women living with HIV. For example, the 2015 National HIV AIDS Strategy Update neglected to mention family planning or reproductive health services as arenas for providing HIV prevention care. Yet, in many instances, a reproductive health clinic is a woman’s primary or only point of access to health care in a given year. Providing HIV prevention and care in family planning clinics is a way to provide a space where women can expect to receive guidance about their risk of exposure to HIV.

As advocates for women living with HIV, we at SisterLove are committed to ensuring that human rights values are at the center of social change efforts to protect and advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and their families. We work to transform the policy frame to one that asserts women’s agency to make decisions that are best for themselves and their loved ones. We draw strength from the resilience and determination of the women we serve.

Several years after becoming deeply involved with SisterLove, Williams became an advocate for her own reproductive health and began speaking out on behalf of other Black women living with HIV. She eventually became a trainer, counselor, and health outreach worker.

Later, in 2004, Williams was the only woman living with HIV invited to be a main speaker at the historic March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. She is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother who has returned to South Carolina, where she teaches other women living with HIV about sexual and reproductive justice and human rights. Williams uses her own story and strength to help other women find theirs.

“Give [women living with HIV] a voice and a platform for that voice,” she has said. “Give a safe place to let their voices be heard and validate them …. We need positive women’s voices to continue to fight the stigma. How do we do that? We tell our stories and reflect each other. I am not the enemy, I am the answer.”

Advocates need strength as we work at many critical intersections where the lives of women and girls are shaped. We cannot address HIV and AIDS without access to contraception and abortion care; health and pay equity; recognition of domestic and gender-based violence; and the end of HIV criminalization. And as advocates for sexual and reproductive health in our communities, SisterLove is working alongside our sisters to support National HIV Testing Day and ensure all people have the information, tools, and agency to take control of their health.

Elevating the health and dignity of people living with HIV calls for special attention to the epidemic’s implications for women of color and Black women, particularly those within marginalized communities and in the Deep South. The voices and leadership of the most affected women and people living with HIV are essential to making our efforts more relevant and powerful. Together, we can advance the long-term vision for sexual and reproductive justice while working to eradicate HIV for all people.