Five Lessons for the US from Global Abortion Rights Movements

Contributor: Weronika Paszewska

Abortion and reproductive rights are facing an unprecedented global regression, with severe access restrictions and legal assaults jeopardizing hard-won progress. The United States now confronts challenges akin to those endured by other nations. In this critical moment, invaluable lessons from battles fought in other countries can aid US activists in their ongoing fight.

 

Introduction

We are currently witnessing an unprecedented regression in abortion and reproductive rights on a global scale. In many cases the assumption is made that political innovation should be looked for in the US political sphere, the reality is those in the US are facing challenges to fundamental rights which we in other places have already been experiencing for some years now. The US is grappling with challenges long endured by other nations: severe restrictions on abortion access, legal and legislative assaults on abortion rights, and the struggle to effectively organise amidst rapidly changing laws and opposition forces. Now is a good time for the US to draw upon the valuable lessons and insights from those who have been fighting this battle in other parts of the world. As a Polish campaigner and organiser, on the one-year anniversary of the reversal of Roe v. Wade, I aim to compile these lessons and shed light on the key areas that activists should prioritise moving forward.

Just over a year ago, the United States Supreme Court reversed a 50-year old decision in Roe v. Wade and opened the door for partial and full bans of abortion. Since then, there has been a significant shift in the abortion laws of the United States, with 14 states having now imposed extensive bans on the majority of abortions. In various states, the fight for abortion access is unfolding within courtrooms as advocates file lawsuits to keep up with the barrage of laws introduced by Republican legislatures, aiming to impose restrictions or outright bans on abortion.

In a totally different part of the world, in Central-Eastern Europe in Poland (where I live), we have seen increasing restrictions on abortion access for many years. In October 2020, Poland's Constitutional Tribunal, which was illegally elected, issued a ruling that made it nearly impossible for women to seek safe and legal abortions. The court decided that termination is not legal in cases where the foetus has a serious and irreversible birth defect. The stricter law not only hinders access but also extends to the criminalisation of self-help practices. This month a second trial hearing will take place involving the first women in Europe to face trial (potentially leading to a 3 year prison sentence) for assisting another woman in obtaining abortion pills.

We live in a globalised world. Movements and organisations, no matter where they are located, can learn from each other, test strategies and transfer conclusions and lessons. Political fights are globalised and the fight for reproductive rights is no exception. There is a lot we can learn from successful endeavours to advance more liberal abortion laws in countries like Mexico, Argentina and Ireland. We can also learn from locations where the battle is at a different stage, where we experience obstacles to access and severe limitations of abortion care.

Similarities in the fight for abortion and gender affirming care

Understanding your political opponents is a good step in the process of crafting successful campaign strategies. Not only do we on the progressive spectrum learn from each other, our political opponents do the same (and from my perspective are more successful in learning those lessons). The far-right movement uses similar strategies in various corners of the world - we see narratives and tactics that resemble each other not only regarding single issues but also across other thematic areas. A good example of this is the similarities between the anti-abortion and anti-trans movements. It is no accident that we see attacks on abortion rights and trans people coming together at the same time. The connection of these two issues by far-right forces is linked both ideologically and tactically. Ideologically, they both aim to strip the rights of bodily sovereignty, and tactically, they demand the state's enforcement of traditional gender roles on individuals. They are also tactically similar in their arguments and messaging, with both:

  • Focus on kids and teenagers, pretending to care about them, and highlighting the perceived inability of both minors and women to make decisions about themselves and their bodies.
  • Use tactical moves about limiting access to gender-affirming care or abortion care through limiting the age of trans folks to access health care and limiting the number of weeks of pregnancy to access abortion.
  • Amplify stories of persons who regret abortion and trans-people who underwent detransition to create an impression that it is a common situation (even when data shows that for detransition it is between 0.3-3.8% and less than 5% for abortion).
  • Start by testing strategies locally (on the country or state level) and then duplicating them in other regions.

Poland as a shady corner of Europe with emerging hope

Poland has one of the most strict abortion laws in Europe. In legal terms there are two situations where abortion can occur (rape and danger to the life of the pregnant person). In practical terms access to abortion is almost non-existent due to the legal consequences doctors can face when their decision is questioned and also due to a conscious clause allowing doctors to refuse to perform a procedure due to their personal moral objections. This tightening of abortion laws first occurred in the 90s due to negotiations between the new democratic government and the catholic church (as under the Soviet Union occupation, abortion was legal and accessible) and additionally since 2016, access was limited even more by Poland’s right-wing government.

Even as abortion access under the law is very strict, the opinions of the people of Poland have changed dramatically. There is much higher public support for access to abortion since this access was first limited in the 90s. On the Polish streets people have often protested with signs bearing messages like “I cannot believe I still need to fight this shit” and the increase of pro-access attitudes are definitely a result of further attempts to bring restrictions and the outrage that accompanies this process.

This significant cultural change is a fact. Right now even centre-conservative parties need to navigate how to present their views, as politicians' opinions are much more conservative than the general public in support of abortion rights (which also creates the problem of how to bring changes through parliament at the legal level even if Poland were to have a new democratic and liberal government).

Five things to keep in mind from various fights for abortion

   1. Organise for the long-term fight 

Reproductive rights are never guaranteed forever. It is an ongoing fight. Argentinian activists fought for 15 years to liberalise the laws around abortion and experienced very painful defeats, like the one in 2018 (2 years before a more liberal law was introduced and eventually passed) when the Senate rejected a liberal bill just with few votes.

Momentum-driven mobilisation is important but at Tectonica we believe it is not enough. It's necessary to keep supporters engaged in the long term fight and organising practices are much better for this purpose than mobilisation. People need to feel that they have a role to play in these fights and they need to feel that they are a crucial part of the movement, in contrast to the feeling of doing one thing (like appearing at a protest or signing a petition) and being done. 

   2. Organise self-help practices and connect them to advocacy work

Some groups frame this as a strategy to survive. I would say self-help practices are necessary for survival and also for political impact. The Abortion Dream Team from Poland says “The best way to support abortion is to do abortions” and practise this through supporting on average 100 people daily in accessing abortion resources. In Central Eastern Europe, we have one example (of many) of international solidarity and help - a collective called Ciocia Czesia that helps people from Poland seeking abortion access in the neighbouring country of the Czech Republic, where access to abortion exists. Worldwide Women Help has a slogan that perfectly reflects an interconnection of self-help and political activities, as often the former leads to the latter - “connecting the personal experience of swallowing a pill to global political activism”. 

Abortion self-help saves lives and also builds a number of communities who are highly engaged and also dedicated to other forms of fight like advocacy. 

Distributed tactics like placing stickers with phone numbers to abortion self-help groups and collectives is an amazing way to engage people and also to contribute to changing the larger culture regarding abortion through normalising and destigmatizing it. 

  3. Put social justice and the people most affected in the centre of the fight

Abortion affects people differently depending on their backgrounds and identities. Even when abortion is accessible through legal means it doesn’t mean it is accessible for all people. Low-salary workers cannot often afford travelling to another country or state and PoC have poorer access to health care. Abortion fights should support those who are affected the most severely through lack of accessibility to abortion care.

This is why lots of initiatives that offer self-help have redistribution components in them through organising funds to make abortion care possible for all. A good example is the National Network of Abortion Funds in the States, among many others. These are perfect examples of organising as people can both join groups and support pregnant persons in the abortion process and also through collective funding to make it all possible. Making donations is obviously a common call to action among organisations working in advocacy and also self-help areas. Other activities to consider for putting social justice in the centre of work could be: 

  • organising story-telling groups that tap into the experience of people most affected,
  • gathering stories through surveys of organisers’ work,
  • amplifying stories through social media and traditional media

  4. Build broad allies through supporter involvement

In Poland various organisations were actively reaching out to doctors to find allies that would be able to speak publicly to present fact-based, scientifically proven perspectives on abortion to balance misinformation that was spread by far-right and anti-choice groups. 

The other area in building alliances is working with the media to make sure they are not spreading stigma and that they do not engage in mystifying abortion. 

And lastly there are members of parliaments, judges, senators, presidents etc. - who are decision makers and who at some point will have a say and will make decisions regarding law. Building allies among them so they can speak with clarity, amplify our narratives and also move their colleagues is important work. 

We find a great example of international solidarity by looking at what the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion is doing through collecting and amplifying requests for solidarity. 

Supporters can and should have a role in building these alliances, so they are solid and will not flip with time. Some examples of how this can be done is through contacting media outlets, being recruited from mailing lists as spokespersons or networking by reaching out to gynecologist doctors. 

   5. Build your own narrative and collect coming out stories 

An important aspect of abortion rights work is destigmatizing medical abortion. In Poland we observed important milestones in transforming the language. Abortion Dream Team was a pioneer in openly using the word “abortion” as it really was not present in the language, as the level of stigma was so high. Also the Polish Women’s Strike catalysed the outrage felt by people through bringing strong language into public spaces that had not been used before (“f*ck off from our bodies” was a very popular phrase at the protests, after the critics weighed in people started modifying it in a humorous way - “please mince slowly away from our bodies” which made it even more popular). 

A part of building narratives in a decentralised and distributed way is to collect stories from people and amplify them. Decentralised and distributed tactics build ground for cultural change. For example, The Abortion Project is “a documentary photography project aiming to demystify and destigmatize medical abortions”. It encourages people to document their abortions. Another example is to collect and also encourage abortion coming-out stories of various kinds to show that abortion is the experience of various people and also could have many faces.

Translating support into ongoing political actions

Even in these darker moments of history, where the Polish government is implementing even more restrictive laws or Roe v. Wade is overturned, I am staying hopeful. Just like in Poland, I believe that this unsettling step of overturning Roe v. Wade will likely result in even higher levels of acceptance towards access to abortion. It will spark greater levels of mobilisation and organisation, considering that the majority of people already support it. The crucial role of organisations and grassroots groups is to translate these political views into sustained political actions, moving beyond one-time actions driven by momentum. The tide of social movement mobilisation, and more importantly, effective organising, is laying the foundation for comprehensive reproductive rights that will ensure dignity and safety for all those in need.