Margaret Sanger at 100 Event at Museum of City of New York
Women Rebels: Margaret Sanger and The Birth Control Movement at 100 Thursday, December 4 at 6:30 pm
This year marks the centennial of the American birth control movement, founded in New York by trained nurse and social activist Margaret Sanger. In March 1914, Sanger began publishing the journal Woman Rebel, which coined the term “birth control” and popularized the revolutionary notion that each woman should be "the absolute mistress of her own body.” Join author and TheNation journalist Katha Pollitt for a conversation with Sanger biographer Ellen Chesler; New York University Professor of History Linda Gordon; SisterSong co-founder Loretta Ross; and Alex Sanger, Chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council (and Sanger’s grandson) about Sanger’s legacy and why the reproductive rights movement continues to roil debate in this country today.
A Move Forward for Abortion Rights
in the Dominican Republic
Recently, I was in the Dominican
Republic to visit our Member
Association Profamilia and learn more about the state of sexual and
reproductive health and rights in a country whose paradise-like environment
belies deep pockets of poverty.
During the three days I spent with
Profamilia, I met doctors that drove in smoldering vans without air
conditioning to reach the most remote and rural communities. I met doctors who
were helping girls as young as 12 access contraception and treatment for
sexually transmitted infections, women and children that lined up at the crack
of dawn to receive medical care. And while I knew that the Catholic country's
abortion ban was among the most restrictive in the world, I came back to New
York to find out that the Dominican Chamber of Deputies reinforced its abortion
ban with a harmful new penal code.
Thankfully, a few days ago,
Dominican President Danilo Medina vetoed the measure, urging legislators in a
letter to decriminalize abortions in cases where the woman's life is at risk or
in cases of rape, incest, or fetus malformation. In his letter, President
Medina stated that the fundamental right to life of the pregnant woman or girl
must prevail, as well as "respect for their human dignity and their mental
and moral integrity." The letter also stressed the need for the country to
live up to international human rights agreements signed and ratified by the
Dominican Republic, including the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination
of all Forms of Violence Against Women and the Convention on the Prevention,
punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women.
In his letter, the President
highlighted the public health necessity to provide these services to reduce the
country's high maternal mortality rate, as well as provide services to the most
vulnerable. "We are one of the countries with the greatest number of
pregnancies in girls and adolescents, pregnancies that are not only high-risk
to the health of the mother, but often hide situations of rape and abuse."
President Medina continued, stating that these issues presented the country
with a "public health problem of the first order", a problem that
disproportionately affects poor women in a country where 40% of residents live below the
According to the Center for
Reproductive Rights, more than 90,000 unsafe abortions take place in the
Dominican Republic each year. While these exceptions to the abortion ban will
help reduce that number, all women should have access to these life-saving
services. The complete criminalization of abortion violates women's rights to
life and health. Beyond that, it's a failure when it comes to public health
policy: restrictive laws do not make abortion disappear nor do they reduce the
incidence of abortion. These laws simply put women and youth in dangerous
situations that threaten their health and many times, their lives. It also
makes physicians hesitant to treat the complications of unsafe abortion for
fear of imprisonment.
No woman should have to risk
imprisonment to access the health services she needs, wants, and deserves. This
is an important step forwards for a region with some of the most restrictive
abortion laws in the world, and a critical step for a country that two years
ago drew global attention when the country's total abortion ban stopped
treatment for a pregnant teen with cancer.
Recently, the highest court in Italy allowed a couple to remain legally married after one had sex reassignment surgery. In a surreal twist, the Catholic Church recognizes the couple as still married also, because it does not recognize gender reassignment. While it is hard to call this confluence the best of all possible worlds, it might be for now. The rights and freedoms of transgendered persons in other parts of the world, such as Latin America, are decidedly less clear.
Some countries, like Cuba, Brazil, and Uruguay, lead the way and allow people to legally change their gender in official documents after varying conditions are met. Places like Brazil and Chile are even ready to foot the bill for sex reassignment surgery. One of the most progressive laws in all of Latin America, however, is that of Argentina, which allows people to change their gender by filing some paperwork without surgery or a diagnosis.
The law was used immediately, even by children as young as six, such as in the case of Luana. Lulu, as she likes to be called, was originally named Manuel and was born with the body of a baby boy. Her mother noticed something was different about Luana when she started identifying herself as a girl the moment she started talking. When the law took effect, Luana's mother stood by her daughter while she requested that the government officially change her gender to female. Luana is now the youngest Argentinian to take advantage of the law, and she will be followed by many more.
These progressive laws offer hope for the future, but they belie a harsher reality that many transgendered people face. Latin America accounts for nearly 80 percent of reported murders of transgendered individuals. While legal progress has been made, homophobic and transphobic violence continues in the region, with people regularly being attacked or murdered for their gender identity. In Colombia alone, there were 60 reported murders of transgendered individuals between 2005 and 2012 and no convictions. It is not unheard of for police to deliberately ignore violence, or even to refuse to help a transsexual in the middle of an attack.
Many transgendered people, whether by their own volition or because of a lack of familial support and employment opportunities, become sex workers. Transwomen in the trade are particularly vulnerable. Clients, police officers, and medical professionals are far more likely to abuse and ignore them, so transwoman sex workers are highly at risk for HIV and are less likely to get any treatment once they have contracted the disease. As recently as 2006, 62 percent of deaths in the Buenos Aires transgendered community were attributed to HIV/AIDS.
The violence and preventable diseases are discouraging, but we shouldn't lose hope. The people who volunteer for us and our Member Associations work tirelessly -- in their advocacy and the provision of services -- to uphold the tenets of our Declaration of Sexual Rights. Among the rights laid out in our Declaration is the right to equality and freedom from discrimination based on sex, sexuality, or gender; the right to security of person and bodily integrity; the right to the benefit of modern medicine; and the right to accountability and redress in the case of wrongdoing.
IPPF/WHR and our Member Associations in the Caribbean and Latin America, work every day to guarantee these rights and educate people about, and provide services for, the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections and HIV, reaching the most vulnerable populations and educating them about their options. In the beginning of our efforts to reach marginalized communities in Lima's red light district, for example, sex workers were liable to grab free condoms and run away from our health promoters for fear of abuse. Now, with the help of kindness and acceptance from our staff, they feel safe and trust us with their healthcare and sexual education.
The battle for sexual rights must be waged in the legislatures and courts and in the streets. We will not rest until every person is guaranteed and enjoys their sexual rights and freedoms.
A special thank you to Julia Redden, for her collaboration in the creation of this piece.
I have dedicated my life to ensuring that all women -- young and old, poor and wealthy, married and unmarried -- would be able to say that those two words and have them ring true.
It seems simple enough. When women have the power to decide if and when to have children, their families become healthier, stronger and more economically solvent. Yet even today, in 2014, the right to decide the size of one's family remains out of reach for far too many: worldwide, At least 200 million women want to avoid pregnancy yet lack access to modern contraception.
What would it take to shrink this number to zero? A mere $8.1 billion -- or about 1 percent of what Americans spent during the 2013 holidays. But the world spends less than half that. And the root of the problem lies not only in funding, but rather, in the fact that women have not achieved real equality with men.
Last month, I had the pleasure of traveling to Bolivia, one of Latin America's poorest countries, to meet with our local Member Association CIES. In addition to the breathtaking vistas of the world's highest capital city La Paz, we traveled through mud and across rivers to reach small, largely indigenous communities nestled in majestic -- and sometimes nearly impassable -- hills of Central Bolivia.
"Many of the women you will meet have never had a menstrual period," said CIES Executive Director Jhonny Lopez as we set out on our journey. He explained that many women living in these rural communities had given birth to as many as twelve children. A lack of access to birth control and health education was not the only problem. Many women remained pregnant at the insistence of their husbands. For many of the men in these small communities, who rely on migrant labor for their sparse incomes, pregnancy means guaranteed fidelity during the times they are away from their families.
During the two days we spent in Central Bolivia, I saw the change that CIES had brought to these rural communities. In addition to providing doctors and health supplies to these communities -- for many, their only contact with the health system -- a key component of CIES' approach is education. That means breaking down the myths associated with contraception and other reproductive health issues. That means slowly chipping away at traditional gender norms and convincing husbands to let their wives be seen by a male doctor--and often, convincing women themselves. But more than anything, it means giving women the right to decide- and the right to demand a different kind of future for herself, for her family.
There are also larger political and religious forces at play in the fight for a woman's right to decide. In the region where I work, Latin America and the Caribbean, conservative forces have for years blocked efforts to ensure universal access to low-cost reproductive health services for all who seek them. In our region, these efforts have primarily been led by the Catholic Church. While we had great hope that the Church may begin to soften given its new leadership, we have yet to see signs of retreat when it comes to our issues. Just last year, our Dominican Member Association PROFAMILIA was sued by the Catholic Church over its mass media campaign around sexuality education, contraception and sexual abuse. In the end, the court rejected the Church's claim that the ads were in violation of the Constitution. The public and media support for PROFAMILIA during and after the meeting was massive. But it was not an easy battle.
While the battle for sexual and reproductive health and rights continues today, you can take action now to ensure that women throughout the world -- from New York City to rural Bolivia -- have access to the information, services and rights they need to live healthy and empowered lives.
The Commission was convened at the UN headquarters in New York to address the challenges and achievements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in improving the lives of women and girls in developing countries. While the MDGs resulted in a reduction of poverty in some respects, the goals furthest from being achieved are those focused on women and girls -- particularly on achieving gender equality and improving maternal health. With the MDGs set to expire in 2015, the Commission's outcome document will help shape priorities for the next global development framework.
The Commission specifically called for a stand-alone goal on gender equality, a move that was applauded by women's rights activists.
A stand-alone goal on gender equality signals that gender equality and women's rights are important in and of themselves, as well as a priority for governmental investment. It recognizes that sustainable and meaningful development must address the root causes of gender inequality, which deny women and girls an education, the right to make decisions about their bodies and childbearing, to decent employment -- and equal pay for equal work -- and to live free of violence.
The Commission also stated that the post-2015 development agenda must include gender-specific targets across other development goals, strategies, and objectives -- especially those related to education, health, economic justice, and the environment. It also called on governments to address the discriminatory social norms and practices that foster gender inequality, including early and forced marriage and other forms of violence against women and girls, and to strengthen accountability mechanisms for women's human rights.
The Agreed Conclusions reaffirmed the Cairo Programme of Action as well as theBeijing Platform of Action, which called for investments in "quality comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care" including emergency contraception, information and education, safe abortion where allowed by law, and prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections and HIV. Furthermore, the Conclusions called for the recognition of the human rights of women to "decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality... free from coercion, discrimination, and violence."
Member States also recognized that progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals -- which include eradicating poverty and expanding access to health services such as reproductive health -- has been held back due to persistent "unequal power relations between women and men," particularly discriminatory laws, social norms, and gender stereotypes.
The governments expressed concern that several critical issues related to gender equality were not adequately addressed by the MDGs, including violence against women and girls; harmful practices such as early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation; women's and adolescents' sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights; women's and girls' disproportionate share of unpaid work, particularly unpaid care work; the gender wage gap; women's equal access to and control of resources including land; women's inheritance rights; and women's full participation in decision-making at all levels.
The Commission called for measures to ensure universal access to primary education, especially for girls and vulnerable youth, as well as measures to strengthen the ability of women to participate in formal and informal labor sectors. The governments also called for efforts to ensure that women's rights and health obtain the prominence they deserve in the next global development framework.
Women's health and rights organizations applauded governments who stood up for the rights of all individuals to live free of violence, discrimination, and barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services, particularly for girls. However, advocates expressed disappointment that a small minority of conservative governments spurred on by the Holy See--which holds special observer status at the UN -- held up negotiations by objecting to concepts as fundamental as gender and the human rights of women throughout the two weeks of negotiations.
In particular, advocates noted that, despite a 20-year legacy of UN prohibition of discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and increasingly on gender identity, government delegates gave in to pressure to exclude recognition of these violations in the final agreed conclusions.
With reproductive freedom in jeopardy, Alexander Sanger, grandson of renowned family planning advocate Margaret Sanger and a longtime leader in the reproductive rights movement, has taken an urgent, fresh look at the pro-choice position—and even the pro-life position—and finds them necessary, but insufficient. In Beyond Choice he offers the first major re-thinking of these positions in thirty years.
“Well researched and readable, Beyond Choice should be required reading for both pro-choice and pro-life supporters.” —Governor Christine Todd Whitman