Question: As per your understanding, what could be done so that national governments take the issue of reproductive rights and sexual health more seriously?
Answer: I think, foremost, we need large-scale law and policy reform to remove the vast number of restrictions imposed on the bodies, sexualities, reproduction and lives of all women, children and people who can become pregnant. If we look at the disproportionate number of restrictive laws and policies that dictate our bodies, health, and reproduction, it is outrageous. There is also a need for structural reforms that work against patriarchy which accords greater value and trust to men and boys. By contrast, women, and girls, and really all people who transgress gender norms, are accorded less value and not trusted. Also, like the structural reform that needs to take place to address systemic and institutionalized racism, sexism must be tackled at all levels.
I further believe that community change initiatives to transform gender norms is essential. We can no longer live with the status quo where women’s bodies and lives continue to be the subject of public debate and law and policy making. We are all humans and as a community, men, women, and any person should not be restricted in terms of how they act, live, work, express themselves, etc. We need to think about how we can flourish as a community where everyone’s strengths, interests, health, and rights are equally valid and valued. Along these lines, I think a lot needs to happen in terms of information and education provision, and sensitization around gender. I really believe that we all are born with different attributes, interests, and skills, and that we cannot be compelled to fit into specific boxes and categories, and that should be okay.
Question: You have a wide experience spanning different geographies. Which countries have the most developed legislation related to sexual and reproductive rights? Which countries need to consider this issue more seriously? (It would not require any specific answer in the form of any country’s name if that is not possible. A mention of certain geographical regions or continents would also be helpful.)
Answer: Legislation related to sexual and reproductive rights can come in many forms, whether it explicitly focus on sexuality and reproduction or whether it has a direct or indirect impact on one’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. One thing I can say for sure is that no one country has gotten it right. Every country has a legal framework that, to some extent, infringes on sexual and reproductive health and rights. There are some countries that more explicitly recognize the autonomy of women and girls to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health, including some countries in Europe, Latin America, and parts of North America. However, even in these countries, there are laws, policies and practices that create barriers to individuals exercising their sexual and reproductive rights.
Let us consider, for example, Canada where abortion has been fully decriminalized and removed entirely from the penal code. Even there, women and girls still face obstacles to accessing abortion services due to costs, geographic location, race, ethnicity, age and/or Indigenous identity. It is not enough to simply change one law. You must look at the entire legal and policy framework, and its interplay with social, economic, and cultural factors, to assess actual access to abortion services. There are also countries in Europe that have policies that seem quite liberal and call for subsidizing access to contraception and family planning to promote women’s and girls’ control over their fertility, but when you look closer you see that the policy also includes a provision that excludes migrants and refugees from its protections and support, thus having a discriminatory impact on these populations.
I also wanted to mention that we should not simply think about sexual and reproductive rights. Rather we should frame our advocacy and litigation in terms of reproductive justice – which conceives of enabling and empowering individuals to create and nurture the families that they want in conditions where they can thrive. At present, we have legal and other systems that promote reproduction of certain people (often married, heterosexual couples of a certain socio-economic status), while at the same time these systems dissuade or actively work against other individuals from reproducing and forming families, including the poor, the criminalized, black, brown, and Indigenous people, LGBTQ individuals, and people with disabilities (to name a few). So, I think we can miss a lot of human rights issues when we solely focus on ensuring that people can control their fertility. We also need to look at people who are being oppressed and/or prevented from having children as they are not seen as worthy of reproducing, and the structural conditions that prioritize certain individuals and groups in our societies and devalues others.
Question: Recently, the Duchess of Sussex shared that she suffered the miscarriage of her second pregnancy. It has again brought forth an observation that there are very few public conversations about it. Do you think it is high time we stop considering miscarriage as a taboo?
Answer: It is absolutely high time to talk about miscarriage more openly! A vast majority of women around the world experience miscarriages. It is both a common phenomenon and yet a traumatic one. We see people suffering miscarriages alone in silence, not reaching out to their friends or loved ones for support. To make matters worse, as I mentioned before, women and girls can be thrown in jail in some countries for suffering a miscarriage. Its inhumane! I recall facing the tremendous grief of my own miscarriages and then imagining what it would feel like if my life and liberty were also threatened because of my pregnancy loss. I cannot even fathom how difficult that would be.
I also think that there is a fine line between abortion and miscarriage. In essence, they are both a termination of pregnancy. The medication used to induce an abortion is the same medication used to manage a miscarriage in many cases. Abortion and miscarriage are both fraught with sadness, confusion, fear and, in some cases, relief. In both of these closely connected experiences, women and girls continue to suffer alone.
Whether a person is facing an abortion or a miscarriage they deserve to be supported and treated with dignity and respect. We should be talking about these experiences openly so that we can find ways to destigmatize pregnancy loss and termination of pregnancy, to provide better support women and girls and their partners and families, and to ensure that people are no longer facing the pain alone.