The Reproductive Justice Debate: Time To End The Quagmire

NB: This article was published in the 30 August 2017 edition of the Colombo Telegraph.

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The cabinet of ministers of Sri Lanka has given the green light to allow access to terminations to birth givers in specific circumstances. This is surely an insufficient provision, as full access to reproductive justice is an inalienable right.

When it comes to the termination or the continuation of a pregnancy, it is solely up to each birth-giver to decide on what they wish to do with their bodies.

The hashtag #mybodymyrights perfectly embodies this basic reality.

Yet, in the patriarchal and gender-stratified world we live in, reproductive justice has become a topic of intense contention, of opposition, of intense debate. In the Sri Lankan case, it is the Catholic bishops who have taken up arms against official government policy, calling for a blanket ban on all terminations. This opposition is nothing new, as the Catholic church has long held a resolutely anti-choice view.

Picture: Avantha Artigala

The most striking factor is the highly patronising nature of the statement the church has released. It is as if the bishops, a bunch of cis men with tremendous levels of cis-male privilege, assume that cis women, trans men and birth-givers of all gender identities in Sri Lanka have to follow the dictates of the Catholic church when making extremely private decisions on their bodies.

The Catholic church: enemy of gender justice

In many jurisdictions across the world, the Catholic church has a problem with uteruses. In many Latin American countries, the church, a colonial and patriarchal institution on Indigenous land, maintains a tight grip on access to terminations and to the provision of reproductive justice. This has resulted in absolute aberrations of human rights violations, flushing gender justice down the toilet.

To give but one example, it was only recently that Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz, 19, from a small rural community in Cuscatlán, eastern El Salvador, was convicted on the grounds that failing to seek antenatal care amounted to murder. Her story is an extremely traumatising one, having been repeatedly raped by a gang member over several months, in a forced sexual relationship. This very Catholic country has put all the blame on Evelyn, and sentenced her to thirty years in prison.

The Catholic church is also the primary obstacle for the provision of reproductive justice in Ireland. In the Irish Republic, a termination is a criminal offence that carries a 14-year prison sentence. The Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitutiongrants unborn foetuses the same citizenship rights and legal protections as cis women, trans men and birth givers of other gender identities. The #repealthe8th campaign, which calls for the repeal of the 8th amendment and the introduction of modern reproductive justice legislation that respects bodily autonomy, is indeed the foremost gender justice struggle in present-day Ireland.

The denial of reproductive justice in Ireland (North and South), and the political establishment’s intransigence, also water down to a class issue. Wealthy people can access the treatments they require under clement conditions abroad, and it is the under-privileged who suffer from existing restrictions.

In Northern Ireland, where this writer mostly resides, the British Abortion Act, which became law back in 1967, is still not in force. Today’s campaigns for reproductive justice call for the repeal of the existing ban on access to terminations, replacing it with new legislation that gives each birth giver decision-making power over their bodies and also takes a wholesome and comprehensive approach to reproductive justice.

It is beyond belief that even today, 19th century Victorian legislation still form the basis of anti-choice legislation in Northern Ireland. Birth givers are forced to travel to Great Britain for terminations, and are charged in the region of GBP 900 for a termination. Although this policy was changed through a Westminster amendment in June 2017, reports suggest that it is not applied evenly at all times). Once again, those who cannot afford to seek services outside Northern Ireland are the worst affected.

Cases of the Catholic church leaving women to die abound across the world, and the blood-stained record of that church is beyond shameless. This impunity stretches to a range of related issues. It was just recently that the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart said he is prepared to be jailed for refusing to report sexual abuse by the clergy to the police, adding that sexual abuse was “a spiritual encounter with God through the priest” and was “of a higher order” than criminal law.

Policymaking on gender justice

On issues that are related to gender justice, state authorities should understand their primary responsibility of ensuring the fundamental rights of their citizens. This enables the state to fully deploy its law-making capacity to draft policies that improve citizens’ quality of life.

In the case of Sri Lanka, the best of signs of sensibility come from reproductive justice and gender justice activists, especially of the younger generation, who have taken to social media and active campaigning to stand against the patriarchal and misogynist dictates of religious denominations.

Above: a social media post, written by Udesh Fernando, an academic, educator, youth leader and social justice advocate, that outlines the ludicrousness of the Catholic bishops’ position on reproductive rights-related law reform proposals.

In the specific case of access to safe and legal terminations, it is up to individual birth givers to determine whether they wish to proceed with a pregnancy or seek a termination. If they choose the latter, their decision should be respected, and they should be provided with the opportunity of accessing safe and legal terminations.

It is a question of bodily autonomy, which is a non-negotiable right. It is not up to the state, or a religious denomination, and definitely not up to cis-male religious leaders to determine what people do with their uteruses.

Understanding the broad scope of reproductive justice

The question of reproductive justice stretches way beyond access to terminations.

The fundamental tenets of a high-quality and modern reproductive justice policy involve an emphasis on bodily autonomy, consent, and initiative.

The issue of terminations is perhaps the most widely discussed reproductive justice concern. Other key issues of reproductive justice provision include, among many other things, the right of people to family life, the rights of single parents, the right to access quality healthcare irrespective of one’s social standing and financial means, and the right to understand and conceptualise ‘relationships’ and ‘family’ in all their forms. It is also crucial to understand and acknowledge the multiple forms of reproductive rights-related oppressions faced by specific groups. This intersectional reading of reproductive justice enables us to zoom in on issues that are otherwise subjected to erasure. People who are often pushed to the margins in a cis-heteronormative society, including Trans women, Trans men, Indigenous peoples, nonbinary people, and indeed people of colour [especially women of colour] are at the worst receiving end. In some of her writing, this writer has delved into the specific issue of the denial of reproductive rights to Trans people across the world (including in supposedly inclusive Western European contexts).

Across the global South, these challenges are worsened by further disparities in social justice provision, social standing and access to wealth, creating sharp cleavages in terms of accessing reproductive justice-related support.

These are among the preoccupations that should inform government policy on reproductive justice issues.

The Catholic church, or, for that matter, any other religious denomination, should have no influence whatsoever over government policy on reproductive justice.

Political Analyst | Author