I participated in the Speakers Corner Calgary “Abortion: Whose Human Right?” debate yesterday. This is the text of the speech that I gave.
I am pro-choice. By this, I mean that I strongly believe in free, legal, safe and easily-accessible abortions. I believe they should be available on demand to anyone who makes the choice to have one.
Not only cisgender women, whose gender expression is in alignment with the sex they were assigned at birth, but also anyone with a uterus, including trans men, non-binary individuals such as myself, and some intersex people are impacted by reproductive politics. We have an obligation to trust individuals to make the best decisions for their own bodies. And we have an obligation to treat individuals with uteruses with at least as much respect for bodily-autonomy as we would a corpse – meaning that we cannot demand that having a uterus obligates a person to donate their body to sustain another’s life. We do not make these demands even of our own dead – how cruel, hypocritical and unjust would we be to demand this of our living?
I am also a pleasure-positive feminist activist. Consent is at the foundation of my politics – I believe that consent must be given for anything that happens to our bodies, and I believe that consent can be withdrawn at any time. Consenting to kiss is not the same as consenting to sex, consenting to sex is not the same as consenting to be pregnant, and consenting to be pregnant is not the same as consenting to remain pregnant.
I believe our right to bodily autonomy includes the right to engage in whatever brings pleasure to the consenting adults involved. I believe that sex – the right to engage in it and the right to choose not to engage in it – is a fundamental right.
In order to create a consent-focused culture, we need to reduce the stigma attached to sex and sexuality.
We need to reduce the shame surrounding frank conversations about sexuality, and the violence and harm that results from that shame.
There are points on which I will never be able to find common ground with anti-choice rhetoric.
I believe that personhood begins at birth, and I recognize that the two sides of this debate will likely never see eye-to-eye on that question.
I also believe that individuals should not be shamed for seeking an abortion, no matter what their reasons for wanting an abortion are. Abortion as birth control is often held up as the inevitable result of free access to abortions, and some people would use it that way. I have no problem with that. People have elective surgeries all the time, and what they do with their bodies is up to them. Consent. Bodily-autonomy.
However, because I think that there are many more points on which common ground can be found, I want to focus on the potential bridges between seemingly insurmountable differences.
First, people on both sides of the abortion debate claim to want fewer unwanted pregnancies. For me, this is because as much as I believe an individual has the right to choose not to carry a child to term, I also believe that for many people it would be preferable to just not have to deal with it in the first place.
There are ways for us to work together to make that happen.
Comprehensive sexual education that is both queer and trans*-inclusive, free and easy access to a variety of effective contraception options, a concerted effort to stop rape and intimate partner violence – these are issues that we can work on together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and the need for abortions in those instances.[i]
A study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology in October 2012 found that free, reliable birth control could prevent between 41 and 71 percent of abortions in the United States.[ii] The scientists found that access plus education was even more effective in reducing abortion rates than they had anticipated.
Current access to birth control, including more effective options such as IUDs and hormonal birth control, is often inaccessible to individuals who do not have medical coverage or financial privilege. Even less effective barrier methods are not always accessible, especially not for individuals who don’t know about organizations like the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, or some of the Alberta Health Services initiatives.
Further, our sexual education is woefully lacking. Not only do we not teach about consent and creating a culture of consent, many educational programs are cissexist and heteronormative, presenting a single definition of sex and gender that leaves many individuals unaware of their potential for pleasure AND for risk.
We need to recognize that trans* folks, binary and non-binary, have sex! We need to recognize that queer folks have sex, sometimes with people of multiple genders. We need to recognize that asexuality is real, and that our discussions of pleasure-positive politics must include asexual individuals, both those who do not have sex, and those on the asexual spectrum who engage in consensual sex with their partners. All of these things are real, all of them happen, all of them have the potential to result in unwanted pregnancies and a lack of awareness and education for these groups is incredibly harmful.
This is the most important way that our two sides can work together to reach a common goal of fewer unwanted pregnancies. By increasing education, increasing access to effective contraception, and reducing rape, we can put our efforts into work that will be effective for meeting both of our goals.
Second, people on both sides of the abortion debate claim to care for children. Though we disagree about when a fetus becomes a person, people on both sides claim to care for children.
When abortions become inaccessible, children suffer. Evidence of this is painfully obvious. In Romania, both abortion and contraception were banned in 1967, by the 70s and 80s the number of children in state-run care facilities was over 100 thousand. In one such institution, the mortality rate of the children was over 50%.[iii]
People who seek abortions either do not want, or cannot keep or care for the child they are carrying (many people who seek abortions already have children, and do just fine with them). There are a thousand thousand reasons a person might want or need an abortion, and the only one who can judge that reason is the individual themselves. However, regardless of the reason for wanting an abortion, the result of being forced to give birth with adequate access to resources is not good for either the parent or the child.
We can work together by working to reduce poverty, to increase access to education, health-care and social services, and making sure that the children who are currently in the world are given a real life.
Third, people on both sides of the abortion debate claim to care for the individuals who might seek abortions. My colleagues on the other side of this debate talk about the harm caused to an individual who has an abortion – primarily the emotional harm.
I want to talk about the harm the results from illegal abortions.
First, a simple fact – abortions will happen.
Abortions have been happening since pre-history, and they continue to happen even in countries where there are severe legal repurcussions.
So the question is not WILL abortions happen – the question is, HOW will abortions happen?
Legal abortions are among the safest medical procedures available. Complications from having a first trimester abortion are significantly less frequent and less serious than those associated with giving birth.[iv]
On the other hand, illegal abortions are extremely unsafe.
In countries where abortions are illegal, abortion is a leading cause of maternal death. And according to a 2005 World Health Organization report, over 68,000 women die each year, worldwide, from unsafe abortions.[v]
In El Salvador, for example, abortion is illegal and the laws are strictly enforced. A report by the Centre for Reproductive Rights found that “clothes hangers, iron bars, high doses of contraceptives, fertilizers, gastritis remedies, soapy water and caustic agents such as car battery acid” were used in clandestine abortions.[vi] There are individuals serving up to 30 years in jail for having an abortion, and these are the tools that they are using. So when I say that abortions will happen, I mean that abortions WILL happen.
And this is an issue that disproportionately impacts poor individuals. In El Salvador, wealthy individuals retain the “right to choose” because they can fly to locations where abortion is legal and accessible. But among the poor, this is not an option.
It’s easy to look at this and entertain the racist thought that we do better here in Canada. Yet it was not that long ago that Canadian women faced the same class and wealth-stratified access to abortions. And in Texas, where abortion clinics are being forced to close, there is increased risk for individuals who have to seek out illegal and unsafe street drugs sold as abortificants.[vii]
When we simply and uncritically vilify individuals who seek abortions, we do harm on multiple levels. We over-simplify an issue that is incredibly complex. The people who seek abortions are many and varied. They include parents who know they do not have the resources to care for another child, teenagers who know they are not ready for parenthood, victims of rape and intimate partner violence, individuals for whom a pregnancy would cause health risks, including mental, emotional, physical or financial well-being – some of the stories of abortion are heart-wrenching and emotional.
One of the people I admire most in the world had an abortion, and the story of how they came to their choice makes me so proud to know them – the amount of thought and care that went into the choice, the deliberation, the intention with which they chose to abort their pregnancy – these stories deserve to be told.
Other stories also deserve to be told. People who do not need to deliberate because it’s not a big deal for them – their abortions are just as valid and their stories just as real. People who use abortion as birth control, people who have five or fifteen abortions. Regardless of how a person chooses what happens inside their own body, that choice is theirs. It is their right to consent to whether they share their body with a fetus, or whether they choose not to.
This, then, seems like a point on which we cannot find common ground and yet I think that is unnecessarily gloomy. Because there are things we can do to increase the health and well-being of individuals who have uteruses. We can increase their access to social services and reduce poverty and class divisions so that more individuals who want to carry their pregnancy to term have the resources to do so. We can increase access to social services after birth, such as child support, so that pregnancies are less likely to drastically reduce an individual’s success in their job and their ability to support themselves. We can increase education and access to safe, effective contraception so that, again, there fewer unwanted pregnancies.
Even here, where it seems like an unbridgeable gap exists, there are ways that we can work together towards a common goal.
Finally, I want to talk about the language that we use when we talk about abortion.
Often we talk about abortion as a “woman’s” issue. It is not. As I mentioned earlier, trans men, some non-binary individuals and some intersex individuals also have uteruses and also require control over their reproductive lives. But also, and importantly – not all women have uteruses, or are reproductive. Trans women do not have uteruses and are women. Cisgender women who have had hysterectomies or gone through menopause or are infertile are still women.
The way that we talk about abortion is important. Often the discussion reduces women to their ability to bear children, and excludes from the conversation any women for whom that is not an issue.
How we define sex, and who we see as relevant has impact beyond the people who need abortions. Our discussions of abortion impact our perception of the full humanity and bodily autonomy and integrity of people who have uteruses. These discussions impact how we talk about sex, and whether we view it as a human right or something shameful. This debate impacts our thinking about rape and rape culture, and consent. Especially consent. If we begin to argue that consent is not relevant for people who have uteruses, that consent is not on-going, that we cannot change our minds and stop giving consent – think about the repercussions of that line of thought. Reproductive freedom, consent and bodily autonomy, comprehensive sexual education, the full humanity and bodily integrity of people on all points of the sex and gender spectrum – these things are not trivial and they are not, in my opinion, up for debate.
[v] The World Health Report 2005 – Make every mother and child count. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2005.