Wednesday 4 September 2013

Ready, Set, Go: The Prochoice Highway

This post is a bit long and comes in two parts. First, a bit about the Prochoice Highway; and then this thing I’ve been burning to write about for a while on abortion shaming and stigma, (I've called it "Against Public Displays of Cruelty") and our acquiescence to it. The two are, of course, related:

The Prochoice Highway 

For about a year, myself and a few others have been working on putting together an information campaign and book tour around reproductive justice issues called the Prochoice Highway, or, full title: The Prochoice Highway: On the Road for Reproductive Justice.

For me, a major impetus was writing my book Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand, (VUP, 2013); for others, I think it was just wanting to make some positive pro-choice activism, since so often we seem to be playing defence. Oh, and me bugging them for help! [Which we still need, Go Here!] Most of the financial support has come from WONAAC, the Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign (ngā mihi maioha to those women and for everything they've done over the years) while ALRANZ has contributed time, energy and resources; but the person who has done perhaps more work on this than anyone else is Zenaida Beatson, the genius behind the poster, badgeTee, postcard and other designs and the amazing 2014 Body Politics Calendar that is going to be printed next week. (Yup, Zenaida does all that in her “spare” time.)

The Highway is setting off on 15 September, heading to Northland, and as I’ve been Tweeting and FBing lately, we really hope to network with people and groups across Aotearoa NZ who are interested in reproductive justice issues and who might like to meet up with us for a chat, or help organise something (from a coffee to a potluck to a public meeting) or who might have local intel on good places to set up the stall. So please, if you know of good peeps anywhere, get in touch! As much as it is aimed at raising awareness about Aotearoa NZ’s backward and punitive criminalised abortion laws -- and all the baggage those bring with them -- this is a listening/discussing/kōrero tour.

The move toward reproductive justice and away from “choice” is a hotly debated one, and you’ll notice that with its title, the Highway has a bit of a dollar each way. But the more I read about reproductive justice, which has been spearheaded by women of colour, the more I like the way it allows the discussion to be made a lot broader. (A friend pointed me toward a great publication by the US group Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice on this issue. Pdf warning: This link is to a pdf. And another good resource is Sister Song: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective) Just last weekend, for example, I met up with a group of people wanting to do some work around what I’ll loosely call the policing and criminalisation of pregnancy, of pregnant bodies, of pregnant women. When you start looking at what’s going on it turns out it’s going on everywhere: in the public square, in medicine, in the judiciary, in state agencies, in legislation aimed at preventing child abuse, the list is long and a bit depressing. (I wrote a bit about the issue a while ago in Werewolf and here about a related "careless driving" case.)

This is part of the reproductive justice orbit, and it is related to abortion because it stems from the same resistance, which has a long history, to fully respecting the autonomy and lived experience of women around reproductive health decisions, be that decisions around abortion, contraception, sterilisation; or around choosing to be a single parent, around antenatal care and so on. As Sister Song puts it, the justice lens shifts from a narrower focus on legal access to include analyses of racial, economic, cultural and structural constraints. Queer and trans people face particular reproductive health discrimination and oppression, too, that "choice" isn't really rich enough to address, but reproductive justice can.

So much to discuss, so little time. (If anyone knows of any good writing about reproductive justice in the context of Aotearoa NZ, please add links in comments.) 

So, anyway, since this is my first post on the Highway, and the last one before lift-off, I’ll add some quick promo stuff before I segue onto the second part of the post, the “something I’ve been burning to write about for a week or so”. If you want to sign up for Highway email updates, you can do that here (and unsubscribe options will be on each update, so you can always bail if you want); and the Highway will be Tweeted, (#prochoicehighway) by @alisonmccull and @alranztweets and of course anyone else who wants to Tweet it. There will also be updates at the Web site and ALRANZ’s Facebook page. We’ll be relying on social media for backup: that you’ll Tweet up a storm if any untoward sh*t goes down. Oh, and BTW it's being filmed (by us!) And, you know, per above, donations are great.

Against Public Displays of Cruelty

So the thing I’ve been burning to write about is this: In the last couple of weeks, some anti-choice groups have been doing some very public campaigning that has really boggled me in how cruel it is. I tell myself I shouldn’t be surprised or upset at this stuff, I should be used to it. But I think the thing that has upset me probably as much as the attacks themselves is the fact that we as a society somehow seem to consider this is an OK thing to do.

Take the protest in Southland last week at the one-year anniversary of the abortion service in Invercargill. It was organised by a local Roman Catholic priest, Father Vaughan Leslie, who described it as “significant, poignant, and somewhat provocative.

It involved putting around 280 little white crosses in the lawn outside the clinic grounds, and of course the mandatory signs like “Some babies die by chance: no baby should die by choice”. I’m going to include a link here to the anti-choice American-based news service LifeSiteNews so you can see the picture of the wee crosses, should you choose to do the clicky: It's headlined New Zealand pro-lifers commemorate aborted babies”. (NB, the Invercargill clinic has a license to provide abortions up until 12 weeks.)

So, let’s make this clear: this group of people are telling the 280 or so people from Southland who have had abortions that they are killers. That they kill babies. That they killed their own baby. (One of the three pro-choicers who turned out to counter-picket said they were called murderers and told they were going to hell.) Imagine, if you will, if any other group in society was so publicly targeted in such a cruel and compassionless way as women who have had abortions? Wouldn’t there be a little outrage? Just a little? A wee bit of an outcry? 

Oh, but abortion is different, I hear people say. But how is it different? These women had a legal medical procedure (legal because two certifying consultants agreed each of these women met one of the grounds in the Crimes Act, and it was most likely the mental health ground); a procedure I'm the first to acknowledge is divisive. Yes, some people think abortion is murder and that it should be banned. Well, some people think some pretty horrible things about gay people or trans or feminists or marriage equality or people of a different race or ethnicity or religion from themselves. But we tend to get a bit outraged when they display that or target those groups out in the open in public. It’s seen as pretty offensive; as bigoted; as transphobic or homophobic or racist. 

Why is it so acceptable for shame and attack and stigmatise people who have had abortions? No, I’m not arguing against the freedom of speech of those who want to put up little white crosses, or run their full-page ads in the paper lying about abortion medication, saying God doesn’t want you to have an abortion, and then adding that their task as pro-lifers "is offering those women [with unwanted pregnancies] love, support and a better solution”. Apparently, after you’ve had an abortion, there’s not so much need for any of that love or support. (This refers to the full-page ads that have been running in Tauranga papers in recent weeks, as in this one and this one.) I’m just wondering how come more of us don’t find this as cruel and offensive and mean and heartless as it surely is. And speak up about it. (Oh, and next time, and there will be a next time, anti-choicers start in on abortion-causes-mental-health-problems, it's worth reminding them that if they're really concerned, a good place to start on the road to ensuring women don't suffer mental health issues might be to encourage their fellow activists to stop calling us murderers in public. Just a thought.)

Oh, but abortion is different, I hear people say. Yeah, nah. It is only different because we have allowed ourselves to be silenced, to get used to this kind of thing, to not challenge it. I have to acknowledge, the anti-abortion movement has been very effective in silencing people around abortion rights, stopping people from supporting those who have had abortions. I come across it all the time. Whispers of support, but nothing that can be spoken aloud. Perhaps there’s quiet disgust at the 280 white crosses, but it has to be kept hidden. Still, couldn't we at least pick up a pen to write to the newspaper or an MP or to abortion providers or go stand with the pro-choicers for an hour once a week? It might not stop the cruelty, but it might make those who face it feel a little bit more supported, not to mention the staff. And, hey, imagine if a civic leader, an MP, someone even moderately well-known spoke up for the 280 in Southland. Imagine if they said, hey, wait up, hold up, take a look at what you're doing. Wouldn't that be cool! Isn't it wild that it's so hard to imagine this ever happening?

I like to think the reproductive justice movement can help with that. That we can focus on the need for solidarity among all marginalised groups who are stigmatised and shamed in myriad ways for who they are and what they do, just as people who have abortions are stigmatised and shamed every day of their lives by their neighbours who plant white crosses on the green grass and think of the “babies” they believe they are helping to save, not of the people they are accusing. 

And I like to think that perhaps if someone who has had an abortion wanders past the Prochoice Highway stall on some street corner somewhere, they might feel just that little bit less shamed and stigmatised. Even if they don’t cross the street, or say hello, maybe they’ll think, "hey there are people out there who support me in my decision to end a pregnancy that I did not want to continue. For reasons only I know and understand. Who don't condemn me". Perhaps we can start to end the silence; to speak out for all reproductive choices, and against cruel public attacks on people whose personal lives and circumstances we know absolutely nothing about. 

NOTE ON COMMENTING: I appreciate this post touches on the morality of abortion, so there will be some latitude so long as comments relate specifically to the points raised in the post. But if you simply want to debate the morality of abortion not in relation to the points I raise, please go here. Please, no stigmatising or shaming of reproductive choices.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said, all of it.
I don't hold my breath for any support from Southland public figures. Last year Bill English(Clutha-Southland MP), Eric Roy (Invercargill MP) and Leslie Soper (Labour candidate) all ignored a letter signed by 10 local people, asking them to publicly condemn the threats and intimidation tactics being used against staff and patients. None of them would even support people's right to do their jobs in privacy and safety, the whole topic is that untouchable.

I also find it strange that pro-choice people are called murderers for doing just what the anti-choice people are doing - standing on a footpath with signs. Do people who support the death penalty get called murderers? No, they might be called crazy right-wingers, but never murderers. But simply having a pro-choice view is apparently enough to make you a murderer.
We've a way to go, but I hope your Highway is the beginning of big changes.

- soymilk