March 8, 2021, International Women’s Day, is an important day to recognize the challenges confronted and the great victories made by women around the world, especially in the past year of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Over the last 12 months, in addition to the health challenges posed by Covid-19 itself, women have faced increasing rates of domestic violence, higher rates of job loss, as well as a larger burden of the care of children and families because of the pandemic. In countries like the U.S. and Canada, government mismanagement of Covid-19 has amplified the health and economic crisis. Black, Indigenous, and immigrant women and their communities have been disproportionately impacted by the crisis.
Despite these difficult conditions, women around the world have also continued fighting for their rights throughout the pandemic, and even made great gains.
Women’s struggle for the Right to Choose Wins in Argentina!
On December 30, 2020, the Senate in Argentina passed a law legalizing abortion for any reason during the first 14 weeks of a pregnancy. In a further victory for reproductive justice, the law also requires the government to provide healthcare and nutrition services for women who need it for 1000 days, from the beginning of a pregnancy to the child’s second birthday. Argentina, with a population of 49 million, is now the largest country in Latin America where women, trans, and non-binary people have won the right to reproductive choice.
For poor, rural, and marginalized women, the passing of the Voluntary Termination of Pregnancy (IVE) bill into law could not have come soon enough. According to Minister of Health Ginés González García, each year at least 38,000 people are hospitalized due to complications from illegal abortions, and this is in Argentina’s public hospitals alone. Statistics from private hospitals are not reported. The Ministry also reports that over 3,000 deaths have occurred in Argentina in the last 40 years due to unsafe and underground abortions.
The needless deaths, injuries, and emotional trauma imposed on women in Argentina fueled the victorious National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion and the “Marea verde” (green wave), as the pro-choice mass movement is also known. Over the last few years, this mass women-led movement has brought hundreds of thousands of people together in the streets of Argentina, including political, labor, and cultural organizations of women and the LGBTQ+ community and their allies.
Through these mass mobilizations, school strikes, and constant campaigning for their rights, women in Argentina raised their demands for “Ni una menos por aborto clandestino,” (Not one more to underground abortions) as an extension of the “Ni una menos,” (Not one less) campaign against violence against women and femicide. The “Ni una menos” movement was sparked in 2015 when 14-year-old Chiara Páez, who was pregnant, was brutally beaten to death by her boyfriend.
From the green scarfs of the pro-choice movement to the white scarfs of the Las Madres y Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the women’s rights movement in Argentina has shown the way forward in the world-wide struggle for reproductive rights and reproductive justice.
From Poland to Ireland—Through Victories and Defeats, the Struggle Continues!
Throughout the pandemic the women of Poland have also shown their tremendous strength and resilience. Beginning in October 2020, the Women’s Strike movement organized mass mobilizations against an initiative by the right-wing government of Poland to criminalize abortion in the case of fetal defects. This would make abortions in Poland legal only in the case of incest, rape or threat to a woman’s life, and lead to needless physical and emotional trauma during pregnancy.
Throughout 2020, women in Poland mobilized on the streets against the impending abortion ban, bringing millions of people into the streets in protests throughout October. Despite the mass opposition to this completely inhuman measure, this law was enacted in January 2021. There is now a near-total ban on abortions in Poland. However, the Women’s Strike movement and the struggle of women in Poland continues.
Women, trans, and non-binary people around the world are continuing to take to the streets for their right to control their own bodies, building on the 2018 victory in Ireland. On May 25, 2018, after a decades-long campaign led by Irish women, a popular referendum was passed overwhelmingly to revoke the constitutional ban on abortion. This constitution ban, the Eighth Amendment, had been in place since 1983. It criminalized abortion in Ireland under all circumstances, except where the life of a pregnant person was at risk.
As a testament to the powerful women’s rights movement in Ireland, this referendum passed with overwhelming support and participation, with 39 of the 40 constituencies voting Yes. This in a country where the right to divorce was not legalized until 1995.
The Struggle for the Right to Choose and the Reproductive Justice in the U.S. and Canada
Although abortion is legalized in the United States and Canada, women, trans and non-binary people continue to face significant barriers in accessing abortions and health services such as pregnancy care. This is especially the case for poor and marginalized people, as access to these vital services is often dependent on a person’s location, immigration status and ability to pay. Trans and non-binary people also face additional obstacles due to transphobia and discrimination in the medical system. In the U.S. and Canada these barriers disproportionately impact poor, Black, Indigenous, immigrant and undocumented people and people of colour.
Since 2011, 400 laws that restrict access to abortion services have been passed in U.S. state legislatures. Planned Parenthood reports that there are currently six states that have passed legislation that makes the right to choose virtually meaningless—Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio. Ironically made in the name of “right to life,” these attacks on reproductive choice also extend to services essential for a healthy pregnancy. For example, in the state of Georgia, 40% of the counties do not have a gynecologist, a doctor that is fundamental for reproductive health and pregnancy.
Indigenous people have never had safe and secure access to abortions due to the Hyde Amendment. This amendment prohibits the Indian Health Service from using Federal funds for abortion services. The Hyde Amendment also means abortion services are not covered by Medicaid, a government-funded health insurance plan for low-income people, or those unable to work.
In Canada, only one out of every six hospitals have abortion services according to Options for Sexual Health. People who live in Northern and Indigenous communities have practically no right to choose. “There are significant disparities between rural and urban access to abortion. In some provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario, abortion providers are only in urban centers, despite 35–40% of the population living in rural or remote communities,” as reported by Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights. Across Canada, the services available, and how much they cost varies. In Nunavut, Prince Edward Island and the Yukon, there is only one abortion provider for the entire province or territory (and the provider on Prince Edward Island only opened in 2016!). As in the United States, the regions where women have the least access to abortion services are the same areas that people also have the least access to sex education, contraceptives, or even basic healthcare.
Beyond the right to access to abortions, there are also many other important and continued struggles for full reproductive choice and reproductive justice. The pro-choice movement and women’s rights movement must work to recognize and struggle against the impact that racism, xenophobia, and transphobia have on the human and reproductive rights of women, trans and non-binary people. To begin the fight for reproductive justice, the women’s rights and pro-choice movement must also take on demands for trans-inclusive abortion services, an end to the forced sterilizations of Indigenous and immigrant women, and free and universal access to sex education, birth control, and abortion services, as well as free and universal healthcare for all.
Building a Mass Trans-Inclusive Movement for Women’s Rights
At a pro-choice rally in March 2017, Irish independence fighter and civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin McAliskey said, “The issue of repeal of the Eighth Amendment is actually not even an issue about abortion. It is fundamentally in this case about abortion. But it is at its core, in the 21st Century, a demand that the last usurpation of authority of the individual human being, of human beings, be ended. That is the usurpation of a woman’s right to control her own body. To exercise first and last authority over that individual body. All day. Every day that she is alive. Not simply when she is a pregnant woman.
Let us be clear that the demand of the end of usurpation. The demand for our right to control our bodies. To make our own reproductive system is not a favour we are asking for certain circumstances. It is a fundamental defense of democracy for every person…”
The powerful and united mass pro-choice movements in Argentina, Ireland and Poland are showing women around the world the way forward towards achieving this fundamental human right—the right to control our own bodies.
At the same time, it must also be said that access to abortion is only one part of the larger struggle for women’s equality and liberation. This fight against women’s oppression is not just a struggle for women, but for all of humanity. Firstly, because one of the most important steps to improving the lives of all children, is the empowerment of women. Secondly, because the deeply harmful ideology and values that capitalist patriarchy forces on humanity not only debase and demean women and LGBTQ+ people, but they also debase and demean all people.
A victory for women—from Argentina to Ireland and beyond, is a victory for all working, poor and oppressed people around the world!