Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Will sexual and reproductive rights always be contentious?

I don't know why I was so surprised at the controversial energy I encountered in many of the sessions I attended related to sexual and reproductive health and rights at CSW. I have known for a long time how contentious women's sexual and reproductive rights are and that these are often narrowed down to solely the issue of abortion, but it's different to be in the midst of people with extremely different views, listening to their perspectives and feeling the tension between and within all of them.

I noted this tension in a session during which the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) spoke about the implementation of comprehensive sexuality education programs in conjunction with international NGOs in many Latin American countries. The purpose of this session was to discuss why considering gender and rights in the context of sexual and reproductive health information and services is crucial for fostering gender equality. I wasn't expecting the flood of questions that poured out from angry audience members. A woman from Mexico City asked why IPPF was implementing comprehensive sexuality education programs in Mexico when we didn't even have these in the majority of the U.S. Another woman challenged the panel to speak to PlannedParenthood's historical involvement in the eugenics movement and why the majority of PlannedParenthood centers are concentrated in minority communities (*I would like to note that IPPF and PlannedParenthood are two different entities with separate funding streams and purposes.) The hot, crowded room of over 100 people sat in awkward silence as the panel fielded these questions that brought up the larger issues of privilege and oppression, which fueled the disagreements that were happening during the session.

As many of you have probably heard or seen, women's sexual and reproductive is currently facing a serious attack in the U.S. with many bills being proposed that would cut public funding for the crucial sexual and reproductive health services that organizations like PlannedParenthood provide to women of various races, classes, and nationalities. One in three women in the U.S. has had an abortion and over half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended. With rates of domestic violence as high as one in four women, I believe that there is certainly a link between gender-based violence and the high rate of unintended pregnancies, as well as evidence that our sexuality education policies and programs are not providing adolescents with the comprehensive information that they need to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.

In my opinion, the socially constructed category of gender and the gender inequalities that women face are at the root of all of these issues. The dissent between pro-life and pro-choice groups, abstinence-only and comprehensive sexuality education advocates isn’t about the services being provided or performed. It’s about the fear that women will break out of their expected “roles” and be in power, autonomous to make their own decisions independently and freely. Until the socially constructed category of gender and gender inequality is truly addressed through educational initiatives and policy changes, sexual and reproductive rights will remain an extremely polarizing and controversial topic. This right, along with women’s rights to fair employment, pay, and safety, cannot truly be addressed without addressing women’s historical and current subordinate status and the intersecting racial, class, and national identities that also shape women’s inferior status.

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