The other silence

Jane Gabriel
25 October 2007

by Jane Gabriel

Legal barriers, sheer physical pain, stigma and fear are not reducing women's demand for abortion, and the number of unsafe abortions is still rising. What is driving this need and this demand by women?

The conference was the world's first international conference on safe abortion, and at the plenary session declared that it had broken the silence of this "preventable pandemic" (Lancet).

But there was another silence throughout the conference: a silence about what causes women to seek abortions. In even the most restrictive legislation permitting a woman to have an abortion, being raped entitles a woman to an abortion. Why? Because women experience sexual violence and rape day in, day out, in peace and in war and regardless of culture, geography or wealth. No matter how restrictive the legislation is, rape is written in as a reason a woman may qualify for an abortion. Rape and abortion go together.

Only once in the two day, 700 delegate conference of men and women from 60 countries, did a delegate raise the subject of men's role in unsafe abortion, Elnora Mann, a mother of four boys, raised the lone voice when she asked in the final session of the conference "what about the boys? What about the sperm providers?". Throughout the conference the global phenomenon of sexual violence against women, the unequal power between men and men and the widespread culture of impunity for rapists that fuel the demand by women for abortion were barely mentioned.

Like Professor Sai, Professor Malcolm Potts from the University of California Berkeley, has worked all over the world for more than sixty years for safe abortion. Speaking at the final session called "Breaking from the Past: Looking to the Future" it was left to him to raise the issue of gender and power clearly and loudly when he said that he believed that "the abortion battle is as much about the male desire to control women as it is about abortion. It is about patriarchy, not the sanctity of life".

Providing safe abortion is one way of reducing the number of women dying, but reducing the levels of rape against women which so often drives them to seek the abortion in the first place, must surely, in the 21st century, be part of the campaign. It's hard to see how the numbers of women dying and being mutilated from unsafe abortions will ever be reduced without challenging patriarchy in all its forms. It may be that delegates responding to Professor Sai's advice to change their tune to reach the right audience is not enough, they will also need to re-write the words of the message.


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