Reproductive Justice in the UK: Part 1
I’ll come clean: I missed most of Ladyfest Ten. And I missed it because I was hungover, on about a thimbleful of wine. But one of the things I did actually manage to see that weekend was the excellent US pro-choice documentary The Coat Hanger Project, at a screening organized by Education for Choice.
Towards the end of the film there was a section about the ‘reproductive justice’ movement. The interviews intrigued me. It looked exciting, radical, inclusive and even kinda fun. The film featured an endearing group of smart, funny, young activists that reminded me of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee, which is no bad thing in my book. After a few aspirin I was inspired to find out more…
What is reproductive justice?
Reproductive justice is a holistic, inclusive and intersectional campaign for reproductive rights and the conditions necessary for women to realize them. It is a movement led by women of colour, which addresses the right to have children as well as the right not to have children, expanding the focus out from abortion to include wider questions of sex education, sexuality, birth control and the impact of poverty and violence. This video is a good introduction: What is Reproductive Justice?
And here it is on Wikipedia for good measure.
I had a quick look online for UK reproductive justice groups or networks, but couldn’t find anything, although the US movement has been around since the 1990s. Of course it’s different terrain – here’s an F Word post about some of the differences between the US and UK around abortion and sex education – but is the reproductive justice approach relevant to the UK at all?
Realising reproductive rights
A key aspect of the reproductive justice approach is integrating pro-choice activism into a wider social justice movement. This is from SisterSong’s document ‘Understanding Reproductive Justice’:
Abortion isolated from other social justice/human rights issues neglects issues of economic justice, the environment, immigrants’ rights, disability rights, discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, and a host of other community-centered concerns directly affecting an individual woman’s decision making process.
By shifting the definition of the problem to one of reproductive oppression (the control and exploitation of women, girls, and individuals through our bodies, sexuality, labor, and reproduction) rather than a narrow focus on protecting the legal right to abortion, we are developing a more inclusive vision of how to move forward in building a new movement.
While defending the rights we are lucky enough to have protected by law is vital, the rights become meaningless if people can’t access them, and in many areas social and cultural change and economic equality are needed for people to realise their rights.
How might this be relevant to the UK pro-choice movement? Although abortion has been legal since 1967, and in theory it is freely available on the NHS, there are major inequalities in access. I spoke to Mara Clarke, founder of the Abortion Support Network, who explains some of the problems:
Abortion is available on the NHS, but only if you obtain two doctors’ signatures. This can be difficult if you live in an area with only one GP who is anti-abortion. Access to abortion services can be as much of a postcode lottery as any other service in the UK… This can make things more difficult for women as not only does the procedure become more invasive the further into pregnancy one gets, but not all clinics perform abortions up to the legal limit. This means some women opt to pay privately for abortions to avoid wait times, where other women have to wait until further in pregnancy and/or travel great distances to obtain the care they require.
Thanks to investment and prioritisation by the previous government, things have improved: 94% of abortions are now funded by the NHS, and waiting times have been drastically reduced. However, these achievements, like many others, are likely to be lost as vicious spending cuts unravel years of positive work.
And in both Northern Ireland – despite being part of the UK – and the Republic of Ireland, abortion is illegal except under extremely restricted circumstances. So every year in order to access safe and legal abortion thousands of women are forced to travel to England and pay anywhere between £400 and £2,000 for the cost of the procedure, travel, childcare and time off work. Abortion Support Network works to help these women by providing financial assistance, information, a meal and a safe place to sleep, but they can’t meet the need on their own.
There’s also a major problem around lack of unbiased information and impartial support around sexual health and pregnancy choices for young people, especially about abortion. Many young women are effectively prevented from making an informed decision because they are misinformed at school, or receive biased advice from bogus counselling services. Education for Choice work to make sure young people have the facts, but they are a tiny organisation fighting a wealthy anti-choice movement.
Abortion and race
The reproductive justice movement particularly addresses the experiences and needs of women of colour around sexual health, parenthood, pregnancy and abortion. While there are not such large differences in access to healthcare by ethnicity in Britain as in the US, there are some patterns. For example, according to Department of Health stats, black British women are almost three times more likely to have an abortion than white women (source). It’s not clear why this is, but when I asked Darinka Aleksic, Abortion Rights Campaign Co-ordinator, she suggested an economic explanation:
The argument advanced in the US is that because minority ethnic women are more likely to experience poverty and economic disadvantage, the abortion rate among these communities is therefore higher. The Department of Health in England and Wales does not include income levels in its abortion statistics, but Scotland does, and their figures regularly show that abortion rates are higher in economically disadvantaged areas.
As Darinka points out, there is a similar discrepancy in US abortion statistics, and there’s more in Part 2 about how this is being used by the anti-choice movement in America and starting to be used by our own merry band of anti-choicers.
- With thanks to Education for Choice, Abortion Rights and the Abortion Support Network: three amazing charities that deserve your support.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2