Recentering the Margins: A Conversation on Youth, Abortions, & Intersectionality
Today is International Safe Abortion Day. For the last two decades, people have been mobilizing on September 28th to demand their governments decriminalize abortion, to provide access to safe and affordable abortion services, and to end stigma and discrimination towards people who choose to have an abortion. This year’s theme is “Unstoppable Movement: Movement building, solidarity, and justice for the right to safe abortion.” We believe the only way to embody solidarity and justice is to ensure the movement is truly inclusive and intersectional.
So, today we will revisit what was an invigorating, innovative, and important session at the recent Women Deliver conference to join activists worldwide in marking International Safe Abortion Day to demand safe, accessible, legal, and stigma-free abortion access for all people.
The Recentering the Margins—Youth, Abortions, and Intersectionality session at Women Deliver was led by EngenderHealth and inroads with SOS Jeunesse et Defis Burkina Faso, WE-Change Jamaica, and Women Space Africa. The session centered traditionally marginalized groups with speakers who are community-focused, locally and regionally engaged, and persons who have had abortions in diverse contexts. Speakers shared their experiences and invited the audience to discuss recommendations for creating an inclusive, intersectional global abortion movement, free from stigma and grounded in feminist theory.
This session was different from other sessions at the conference. How? Well, yes, there was a panel in the traditional sense. But this panel brought together experts with unique lived experiences that hold intersecting identities from the ‘global majority’ and are part of the historically marginalized communities they represent. They were not your usual suspects—as they say. The participants were not high-level ministers or executive directors of large NGOs and UN agencies. This is not to say those people are not important champions for abortion access—they are, and we need them! But this session was carefully crafted to create space in the large global fora to bring the perspectives of people who are often left out of these conversations to the forefront— people who are on the frontlines fighting abortion discrimination and stigma, people who provide abortions, people who advocate for more inclusive abortion language, recognizing that women are not the only people who have abortions.
Say Hello: Meet Today’s Participants
Joining us from Jamaica, Malaysia, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, and the United States are panelists and moderators from the Recentering the Margins—Youth, Abortions, and Intersectionality session at Women Deliver.
Hi everyone! Please take a minute to introduce yourselves.
“Hi! I’m Saint-Saëns Ashley (he/him), an essayist and activist based in Montego Bay, Jamaica. My work is rooted in analyzing the tumult of social change and centering transgender liberation. I’m nonbinary and transmasculine and prefer he/him pronouns.”
“Hello! I’m Lilian Kivuti, a pioneer of abortion and disability work in Kenya. In 2014, through mentorship and support from inroads, this work expanded into co-founding Women Spaces Africa. I am a program manager at Women Spaces Africa, where I have advocated for SRHR rights and access to services for persons with disabilities for the past ten years. I am passionately building a stigma-free society where adolescent girls and young women with disabilities are custodians of their rights, can make informed choices, and are given equal opportunities and spaces for sustainable development.
“Hi! I’m Zalissa Bande, a project manager at SOS Jeunesse et Defis, a youth-led organization and partner of EngenderHealth in Burkina Faso. I am a young champion for safe abortion in francophone West and Central Africa. I am also the coordinator of Share-Net Burkina Faso, where we facilitate a community of practice for safe abortion in Burkina Faso. I am passionate about women and girls’ access to more inclusive SRHR services.
“Hey! I’m Zemen Yeshitela, a public health specialist with 11 years of experience in healthcare. I have progressed from a nursing diploma to a BSc nurse and am currently pursuing a master’s in public health. My expertise lies in family planning (FP) and comprehensive abortion care services (CAC). I have implemented referral systems and collaborated with community health extension workers to increase SRH service uptake and debunk misconceptions about long-term contraception. I also tackled negative attitudes towards CAC service among health professionals by providing value clarification and attitudinal transformation orientation. I produced a documentary on FP and CAC services and am a certified trainer on SRH topics. I have worked as a team leader in health centers.
“Hello! I’m Amanda Tiew (she/her), the Member Capacity and Accompaniment Manager at the International Network for the Reduction of Abortion Discrimination and Stigma (inroads), where I walk alongside inroads members in their stigma-busting journeys through gatherings, grantmaking, and programming, as well as managing opportunities for membership needs through programmatic collaboration and capacity strengthening. ”
“Hi there! I’m Ana Aguilera (she/her), the Director for adolescent and youth sexual and reproductive health and rights (AYSRHR) at EngenderHealth, where I work with our teams to partner with young people in increasing access to SRHR, GBV, and maternal health information and services. My personal experiences as a youth abortion advocate fuel my deep commitment to elevating the voices and work of young people in all their diversity.”
The Juicy Part: Question & Answer Time!
Often in conference sessions, we wish we could answer every question, but there just isn’t time. Here we give our session participants time to answer questions they wish they had time to answer during the original session, answer questions that weren’t asked but that they think we should all hear the answer to, or ask questions we should all be thinking about.
Saint-Saëns Ashley: “Yes! The nature of a conference is multiplicity and movement: multiple people, multiple ideas, and multiple spaces, with all of these being irreversibly dynamic. When hosting a panel or a plenary, it is implicitly understood that any conversation will have to be cauterized in the interest of time, as well as numbers regarding attendees. During our own session, Recentering the Margins, the physical space in which the session took place was consecutively booked. As such, the panelists and moderators were ushered out quickly but politely. Our conversation, then, migrated into hallways and dispersed as audience and speaker alike, headed to other sessions. What follows below is an abridged call (question) and responses of those conversations we didn’t get to foster.”
Exactly! On that note, let’s jump right in. Take it away, Saint-Saëns.
Saint-Saëns Ashley: “The first question I’d like to answer is: How can the abortion movement support transgender organizing in the way transgender and non-binary people support the abortion movement?
My answer to that is: Transgender and other genderqueer people form a large part of the abortion rights movement that continuously goes unsung. This intra-movement subjugation of LGBTQ+ people, voices, and perspectives is rooted in cissexism and biological essentialism that, ironically, fuels the ideas that drive the anti-choice movement. With this in mind, cisgender women (the predominant voices in the abortion movement) bear an onus to make space for the marginal experiences of queer and transgender people who are often seen as interlopers or somehow overshadowing the plight of the “real” victims of abortion legislation who are ostensibly cisgender, heterosexual women. Supporting the autonomy and liberation of transgender people starts with honoring and privileging the way they problematize long-held notions of community, identity, and who “owns” a certain hardship. This support expands into understanding how the axis of hegemonic gender harms all people marginalized by gender, including but not limited to, cisgender heterosexual women. When this seeing of one another’s plight comes to be seen as worthwhile and necessary for all forms of justice, we will all be one step closer to the unity needed to affirm our right to self-determination in protest of fascist declaration.
Next, I want to answer the question: What can a cisgender person in the abortion movement do to be better equipped to be an abortion advocate or companion to a transgender abortion seeker?
In order to create and perform better gender-just praxis, dispel existing notions about who gets abortions. Discard previous ideas about how people have sex, get pregnant, or use their bodies. It is easy to understand that bioessentialist beliefs about who has the capacity for gestation and what “capacity” means in every situation. Additionally, it’s important that this changed behavior is an exhibition of a belief and not a performance. This means that it is essential to fold transgender people into your worldview as opposed to tacking entire communities on as an afterthought. Practical examples of this look like understanding that men can conceive and be gestation parents once you consistently identify transgender men as men. Similarly, cisgender lesbian women can also become pregnant and seek abortion care because transgender lesbian women are frequent partners of the former group. Understanding that transgender sexual behavior exists outside of cisheterosexist assumptions of who and how one can get pregnant goes a long way towards fostering compassion in the minds of cisgender people as well as refining thought and action behind the movement, to accomplish justice for all.
And lastly, how can we meet the needs of transgender abortion seekers as we design interventions within the movement?
Ask transgender people what we need. Believe us when we discuss our experiences. Involve us in the design and implementation of resistance tactics. Think of us alongside yourself.
These three ideas are central to my abortion activism as a transgender person. If you would like an additional expansion on any of the topics posited here, please reach out with questions, comments, or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Thank you so much for your insight, Saint-Saëns. Your insight is so powerful and critical to abortion activism. Next up, another panelist, Lillian, has some questions about disability and abortion for us to consider as we approach our work!
Lilian “Why is it crucial to integrate disability justice with reproductive justice? How has abortion stigma affected access to abortion services for people with disabilities? How can we use the importance of storytelling as a tool for evidence building?”
Thank you for bringing these important questions to the forefront, Lillian. Now we’d love to hear from Zalissa about common misconceptions about abortion rights work.
Zalissa: “A common misconception people have about our work is that people think abortion is a crime, that working on abortion promotion is a crime, that abortion is a Western policy used to reduce the African population. To improve access to safe abortion, we should improve the narrative to counter opposition, communicate the positive impact on women’s rights, especially the right to abortion, to at least reinforce the achievement gained so far, and responsibilize young people so that they can be ambassadors for women’s rights.”
Thank you, Zalissa! Another of our panelists, Zemen, has some questions for us working in the abortion rights world to consider.
Zemen: “What is the relationship between abortion regulation and restriction with increasing unsafe abortion rates, and its significant impact on women’s health? What strategies can healthcare providers use to center the experiences of and be more sensitive to the unique healthcare needs of individuals from marginalized and diverse backgrounds in conversations about abortion? How can healthcare providers collaborate with community organizations and advocates to promote inclusivity and intersectionality in reproductive healthcare?”
Great questions, Zemen. Really important for us to think about those questions as we work together to make safe, stigma-free abortion accessible.
Next up, we’d love to hear from one of our moderators, Amanda Tiew
Amanda Tiew: “When we were brainstorming for and coming up with the concept of this session, something that came to mind at the center of what we hoped to address was those who are too often left behind when we talk about abortions. This encompasses so many groups; those who are regularly marginalized, such as people with disabilities, queer communities and individuals, and indigenous folks are often left out of the conversations that we have about abortions, to the detriment of all. Taking from the lesson that bell hooks and many other queer, Black/brown feminists gave us, marginality must become a starting point for us to understand and rewrite new narratives, in order to imagine and create better worlds where all abortions can flourish and thrive. So I suppose one simple question that leads from that is: Who are we leaving behind when we talk/work on abortions in the reproductive rights space? How do we call out and call in for accountability, beyond listening and lip service, when we demand inclusion and justice?
At inroads, our abortion cohorts make up a significant part of our thriving global network of stigma-busters. From acompañantes walking alongside self-managed abortions to artists busting abortion stigma together, the cohorts and fellowships we have built with our powerful members across the world make us stronger and more vibrant as a network. In moving from the margins to the center, this type of community weaving and gathering is crucial. It leads me to wonder—how do we peer into the cracks and invite others to join us when we are in positions of privilege to do so? How do we keep each other safe and heard as we are doing so? (I’m biased when I think of the work that inroads is already doing in these ways, but I think these are very important questions to keep with us in our individual and collective activist journeys!)
This was brought up many times during the session, but remains significant to remember: What do we lose when we do not re-center from the margins in abortion justice work? Who are the voices that we end up not hearing from, and who do we leave behind as a result?”
Thank you, Amanda. So wonderful to hear about the “thriving global network of stigma-busters!” Finally, we want to check in with another moderator Ana Aguilera.
Ana Aguilera: “I’ve been thinking a lot about movements—movements that advance human rights. The anti-choice movement does a lot of things that make me angry. One thing they do really well is band together for a common cause, and that cause is to oppose abortion access and abortion rights at all costs. Perhaps one may think a solution to countering their hate and tactics is to band together and compromise more in the name of advancing our common cause of making abortion a universal and accessible human right. BUT, what kinds of compromises are we or aren’t we willing to make to create alliances and movements that advance our collective rights to access abortion? We can’t be willing to make compromises that undermine or go as far as erase the voices of those who have needed or may need access to abortion at one point in their lives. If we do, aren’t we just perpetuating harmful rhetoric about who can have abortions (i.e. not just women and girls!) and feeding into the trap the anti-choice movement is setting for us? Those of us who claim to be allies in the abortion movement need to be ready to be allies in other movements, too—like the climate justice movement, the movement to expand voting rights, and the movement for quality education for all, just to name a few. We as human beings don’t have single-issue needs, we are beautifully complex and messy, and we live at the intersection of so many identities, needs, wants, and dreams. Instead of ‘compromising’, why can’t we adopt a new motto, ‘Defend abortion access and abortion rights 4 all’?”
Thank you, Saint-Saëns, Lillian, Zalissa, Zemen, Amanda, and Ana, for coming back together and sharing your time, insights, and expertise with us. We are inspired by your commitment to ensuring abortion access and rights for all people by creating an inclusive, intersectional global abortion movement.
EngenderHealth has a decades-long commitment to supporting national and local partners to increase access to comprehensive abortion care, and we recognize the vital engagement of many other global, regional, national, and local organizations in this critical work. We also understand that to have the most significant impact and be the best partner we can be—especially amid current challenges—we must crystallize our approach to supporting safe abortion. In this context, earlier this year we shared our updated strategy for expanding abortion rights, equity, and access for a gender-equal world.
*EngenderHealth’s work on comprehensive abortion care is supported by donors other than the United States government. We take seriously the requirements of the United States Government and have a robust set of standards and practices in place to ensure compliance. We also take seriously the need to expand access to safe abortion as a core component of SRHR and are grateful to the committed donors who fund this work.