CSW: the battle over women's sexual and reproductive rights

The battle over women's sexual and reproductive rights is at the centre of much debate at the CSW and the anti-abortionists are out in force. At one event participants were confronted with a pile of small pink plastic foetuses on a table at the entrance of the room. Valeria Costa-Kostrisky reports

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky
7 March 2013

On International Women's Day, the Endeavour Forum Inc, an Australian pro-life organisation, and The Howard Centre for Family, Religion and Society, an American NGO which affirms that “the natural human family is established by the Creator and essential to good society” held a pro-life meeting at CSW entitled “Reproductive Health, Choice and consequences”.

In the middle of the meeting I was handed a small pink plastic foetus by the woman sitting next to me. Seeing the surprise on my face, she told me: “Just look at it, look at it and pass it on.” A pile of small pink plastic foetuses was on the table near the entrance of the room, along with other pro-life propaganda.

Congratulating the audience on having made it at an early hour despite the sludgy snow, Denise Mountenay, president of Canadian Silent No More organisation, exclaimed : “You're probably going to hear things that you have never heard before”, saying that she was “excited to bring this information to the UN”. In a pro-life take on this year's CSW theme, she said she would address “the elimination of all sort of violence against women and the girl child.”

As I sat through the event, women shared highly emotional tales designed to demonstrate how damaging abortion is. Abortion is painful. I had an abortion a few years ago, and even though it was quite a sad experience, it is not one I want to be shamed for. This event felt manipulative, and it angered me. 

Patricia Maloney, an Australian pro-life supporter, explained how she resisted unfounded pressure to have an abortion for medical reasons in 1980, and subsequently gave life to a daughter . “And here's what she looks today!” she exclaimed, brandishing the photo of a young woman, triggering a burst of applause in the room.

Maureen Brown,  an indigenous women from “Turtle Island”, said her life had been shattered by two abortions and engaged in mystical considerations on the sanctity of life. “Abortion is an unnatural act,” she said. “The lives of our children are not our own. We must stop violence against those safely hidden in the womb. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

Mountenay also took the microphone to share her life story. “I know all about violence against women,” she said. “I was raped at 13”. Explaining that she had had two abortions, at the age of 16 and 26, she confided about the excruciating pain she experienced after the second one: “I felt like my brain had snapped. I felt I could never be the same”, which gave way to an emotional crescendo that led to tears: “This is what this abortion did. It killed my children!” More tears were subsequently shed on the pain of “one of her friends”, a mother of four who hides in a closet on every mother's day to cry over the five children she aborted.  Mountenay also called for a woman called “Hildy” to join her in front of the audience, claiming she had been born out of a rape. “My mum says I'm her joy,” said Hildy. “Amen! Right on!” responded Mountenay.

There was also 'medical' expertise from Dr. Sandy Christiansen, who gave a presentation on what she believes is a threat to women's health worldwide. After initially acknowledging that “the majority of the problems threatening women's health are not related to abortion”, we were told that abortion is not only linked to increased risks of preterm birth, but also increases risks of depression, suicide and - even breast cancer. Christiansen proceeded to the present graphic 'scientific' information  listing risks for the preterm neonate, and linking higher risks of preterm birth to women who had previously had an abortion. She also showed a photo of a nine week-old foetus, insisting on its level of development. It was painful to listen to – a tried and tested way of presenting abortion as murder.

Christiansen was followed by an intervention by two well-dressed men who came to talk about forced abortion in China and gendercide, and told the heart-breaking story of Feng Jianmei. No one would argue that these policies are not extreme violations of women's rights and a most threatening form of violence against women.

Mountenay concluded the event with the words:  “Abortion is not a black and white issue, it's blood-red.”  What we listened to at this event was a very selective use of data, women crying on demand, and a desperate attempt to go back in time, before the moment when contraception and abortion became available, changing women's lives for good.

The agenda of the various pro-life organisation at the CSW is very clear. Pro-life supporter Babette Francis, from the Endeavour Forum, explained their perspective during the CSW in a newsletter published on the organisation's website: “What pro-lifers watch for, and try to eliminate by lobbying delegates, are phrases such as sexual and reproductive rights, which are code words for the promotion of abortion, contraception, condom distribution, permissive sex education and homosexuality,” she writes.

The battle lines between those who want to roll back women's sexual and reproductive rights, and those who want to preserve and defend these rights are clearly drawn at the CSW.  Professor Gita Sen, who spoke at an event entitled “Countering Religious and Conservative Forces at the UN” organised by DAWN later on that same day, explained that 20 years ago, during the preparation of the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, discussion was still possible with the Holy See. “There is no such thing today, and neither can there be,” she said, explaining that the pro-life lobby had become “more sophisticated and far more sneaky”, using “a combination of money and falsehood”, pouring funds into Africa to fuel evangelical movements.

Family Watch International, another well-known pro-life organisation, which pushes abstinence programs in Uganda, campaigns to “de-fund” family planning and claims that homosexuality can be cured, held an event at the CSW three years ago entitled “Recognizing the Critical Role of Mothers in Society”, co-sponsored with the Permanent Missions of Iran, Nigeria, Qatar, Saint Lucia & Syria. This year, the organisation is holding an official side-event with Indonesia called “Promoting sexual health through education”. Alliances, alliances...

“Why are they here? Can we not stop them from being here?” asked a woman of the audience at the DAWN event. The answer is of course that  pro-life NGOs have as much right an any other group to attend the CSW, but as Sen put it: “freedom of expression presumably includes the freedom to lie.” Of the pro-lifers here to oppose some of women's sexual and reproductive rights, Sen said, “they get sneaky, we get better.” The outcome of this particular battle will be reflected in the Agreed Conclusion ( if there is one) to this year's CSW.












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