I'm Affected: Why We Must Trust Women with Their Own Reproductive Health

By Vanessa Geffrard

"When it comes to HIV/family planning/reproductive health, you are either infected or affected."

After spending a month in Africa for a work trip, I was completely enthralled with the experience, the people, and the stories I heard everyday. The above quote was said in a conversation with a pastor of the NKST Church in Benue State, Gboko, Nigeria. A pastor who talks about sex!? Mind. Blown.

I was completely "affected" with what I was experiencing and it got me thinking about my life and my work in the U.S. and I came to a conclusion – some of us aren't paying enough attention to abortion rights.

Sure there's a news story here and there about it and propaganda has probably gotten so out of hand that we've lost count of how many states are chipping away at women's rights, but one of the running themes of my month in Africa was lack of abortion access. And while they're fighting for theirs, we're losing ours by the minute

While I was in Gboko, I did the most challenging, exciting, inspiring, scariest, eye opening things I'd ever done in my professional life. I traveled to a rural village health clinic, where 138 women were waiting to receive reproductive health services ranging from health education, cervical cancer screenings, birth control, and STD testing. I stood on my feet with the nursing staff for 10 hours (with no break) helping see these women.

We didn't have sterilization machines. We had buckets of bleach and water to clean off the instruments.

We didn't have air conditioning.

We didn't have electricity and shout out to the iPhone for that powerful flashlight. The ladies thank you.

I share this because all my experiences in Africa have taught me that we are living in a damn dream world anticipating the hands of time to be turned back. These women waited in line because they own their bodies, they care for their families and their communities, and they need/want care. I can no longer be silent about this issue for the sake of avoiding "controversial" discussions. Sitting back and being silent is no longer an option after looking in the eyes of a 25 year old with six kids, clueless about how to stop having them and desperate to feed and educate the ones she already has.

I am completely affected. Women here and all over the world are dying because of unsafe childbirth, home abortions, and lack of access to care and education that they rightfully deserve. According to the Guttmacher Institute, worldwide, unsafe abortion accounts for a death rate that is 350 times higher (220 per 100,000) than the U.S. and, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the rate is 800 times higher at 460 per 100,000.

At home we’re arguing semantics, morals, and letting our politicians call the shots on our health. I sat in a law office in Nairobi a few weeks ago and heard a case where the cops took a woman to jail who performed a home(self) abortion on a Friday night. Scared and bleeding, she left her home to seek help and was arrested, was forced to carry the fetus in her hands, and sat in jail for two days until Monday morning where she showed up to court still bleeding.

Will it have to get to this extreme for us to take this issue seriously?

Our politicians have completely taken/are trying to take away people's humanity and agency over their bodies... and we think this does not "affect" us. In the U.S., states have enacted 231 abortion restrictions over the last four years. For example, in Texas, a dozen of the state’s abortion clinics have been forced to close because of weird laws requiring that abortion centers have the same standards as hospitals, which are very expensive and if a center can't meet those standards, it has to close. None of this has anything to do with providing women a safe, clean space to get an abortion. Would you believe me if I told you laws like this are called TRAP provisions? (It tickles me!).

In 2000, 31% of women of reproductive age lived in a state hostile to abortion rights, by 2014, 57% of women lived in a state that is either hostile or extremely hostile to abortion rights. All of this means more hardship for women and their families. If a woman doesn't have access to an abortion clinic in her state, she'll have to take off from work, find a clinic in a bordering state and, even with all of this, has no guarantee that she'll be able to get the services she needs within an appropriate time frame. All in all, these restrictions hinder women's access to safe services.

Our experiences, from national to international, affect each other. Someone you know will have an abortion (it's said that one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime) and as long as we continue to be silent or indifferent, we will have these types of cases happening at home.

Instead of shame and disconnecting from the conversation, we can do a few a things.

1. STAY WOKE AND VOTE. This political landscape is filled with so much bullsh, I mean diverse, opinions! And I'm not just talking about presidential campaigns. It's many of our local politicians who are strategically chipping away at statewide abortion laws, so you have to stay woke! Check out where your state stands here. Once you do that, join your next reproductive justice rally or participate in your leading women's health organization’s next lobby day.

2. Listen to women's stories. Usually the narrative about women seeking abortions is the irresponsible young woman (usually woman of color) who does nothing but open her legs and oopsies! Not true! Women from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and relationship statuses have a variety of reasons for seeking abortions. Check out what women have to say here and fight the shaming attitudes. Women are capable of making their own informed decisions about their lives and families. Trust us.

3. Be a resource. If a woman is in need of options counseling, if she's unsure of what she wants to do, take her to the experts. Seek out healthcare providers that provide medically accurate and have non- shaming conversations with women. Experts should fully present all of a woman's options to her and can help her with next steps whether she wants to keep the pregnancy, adopt, or terminate. DO NOT take her to a crisis pregnancy center (CPC). CPCs are usually non-profits that are very biased in their counseling and will do everything in their power to get a woman to have a baby (even if it means lying to her about having a positive pregnancy test... but that's a story for another time!).

As women, and folks who care about women, we have an obligation to stand for our rights. Each day that goes by with an attack to shut down women's health clinics or shut women out conversations about their health and wellbeing is another day that our foremothers’ efforts to ensure our health and safety is being dwindled. This isn't about beliefs with 73% of women seeking abortions having a religious affiliation. This is about the reality of what's happening all around us. Abortions don't go away because we're quiet about them. Abortions don't go away because we shame them. They also don't go away because they're outlawed (anyone ever seen a wire hanger?) Women will always find a way to try and claim their God given rights.

Are you affected?

Photo: Shutterstock

Vanessa is a passionate health educator residing in West Baltimore. She is the founder of VagEsteem™, a workshop series for women who are committed to learning, sharing, and building knowledge about their sexual health and the components to lead healthy and satisfying relationships and sexual lives. You can follow her thoughts on sex and women's empowerment at www.vagesteem.com and on Facebook at VagEsteem.

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