Landmark US event on women’s reproductive rights

Vast numbers of women in the US live every day with poverty and financial insecurity, but this week campaigners are shedding a spotlight on one of the less-discussed causes – inadequate access to family planning and abortion. 

On April 28 in Washington DC the non profit policy group Progressive Congress and the congressional progressive caucus will host a landmark event to highlight links between the availability of reproductive health services and women’s economic well-being. It will focus on how women’s access to family planning, contraceptives and safe, legal abortion services is vital not only to their individual health and human rights, but for the fundamental role it plays in determining whether they – and their children – remain or become poor.       

If there are no services available (as is the case in parts of the US, typically where legislators have cut funding), or if a low-income woman can’t afford to pay for a procedure or to travel to reach a free service, the repercussions of an unplanned pregnancy can be dire.          

These include preventing women from furthering their education and careers, with knock-on effects on their income.

A major study published recently by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a research group at the University of California, probing the effects on women’s lives of abortion and the consequences of being denied access, reported that there were “profound” connections. Early results indicated that women who carry unwanted pregnancies to term are more likely to live in poverty, while 40% surveyed said they had sought abortions for financial reasons.      

Recent cases in Northern Ireland of women being prosecuted for having abortions when they lacked the cash to travel elsewhere in the country to legally terminate a pregnancy, clearly demonstrate that links between financial resources and restricted access to services are having serious and disturbing ramifications for women in the UK too.    

In the US, even by the usual standards of debate, the latest politically charged attacks on access to abortion and other family planning services have been remorseless. Repeated attempts to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest sexual and reproductive health provider, pressure to reduce federal health projects aimed at poorer women, and legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act which has widened access to general and reproductive healthcare for millions more women, are just a few examples.     

Women are much more likely to be poor than men. The National Women’s Law Centre (NWLC) points out that one in seven women in the US, and four in every 10 lone-parent families headed by a woman, live in poverty – more than 18 million people in total, with 45% of those classified as being in “extreme” poverty.                   

The causes and potential solutions for women’s economic insecurity and poverty have been thoroughly researched and documented over the years. Analysis has focused on factors such as persistent pay and pensions inequities, compared with men, and, particularly in Britain recently, the disproportionate effects of austerity policies and welfare cuts.                   

But as Maggie Jo Buchanan, an associate director at the Centre for American Progress (CAP), pointed out recently , in the US policy discussions around economic vulnerability and family planning have tended to take place in isolation, ignoring their interconnection, and so stifling solutions. In essence, one of the major contributing factors to entrenched poverty – unwanted pregnancy – is sidelined despite it being proved time and again that the universal availability of contraception and family planning improves women’s earning power and prospects.                   

As far back as the 1960s, activists were noting that contraception was a vital tool for fostering social justice and reducing inequalities by promoting women’s independence, yet in 2012 just 31% of low-income women in the US had access to publicly funded family planning. But now coalitions of advocacy groups are becoming noticeably more proactive, pushing policymakers to address women’s financial difficulties in tandem with access to reproductive health services, and even lobbying for new laws.

There is a sense of progressive momentum, according to Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the NWLC. She says that, despite the frustrating rearguard actions required to fend off attacks on women’s rights, many politicians and policymakers at state and federal level are waking up to the fact that the separation of financial issues and reproductive rights in policy terms is erroneous. She is spot on. Reproductive and economic justice go hand in hand. And that’s as much an urgent lesson for legislators in Northern Ireland as it is for those in the US. – Mary O’Hara (© Guardian News & Media 2016)

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