Health, Human Rights, and Advocacy Elective – Fall 2013
Reproductive Health and Women’s Rights Lecture
During class today, we were fortunate to have two experienced OB/GYN physicians with a diverse array of experiences come speak with us about women’s health and reproductive rights.
Now, this was all very familiar because I am actually taking two different classes in Health and Human Rights. One is an MPH class and the other is this nexus course. My MPH classes (both Health and Human Rights and Introduction to Global Health) have recently covered the importance of reproductive health as well as the social injustices many women suffer throughout the world due to inequalities in healthcare access and delivery due to a myriad of reasons including stigma.
But throughout all these classes, I find myself a little disturbed by how the debate on women’s health is being framed. I will zero in on one particularly contentious issue to illustrate my point. Last night, the speakers repeatedly spoke about how Sinai is a forerunner in abortion care, being one of the few, if not the only one in this area, to teach residents how to perform second trimester abortions. When someone asked what the policy was for opt-in or opt-out training during residency, the speaker mentioned that it was opt-out but only for people who are doing it for religious or cultural reasons or something like that.
But continuously, I find that these “religious and/or cultural reasons” are framed in an extremely derogatory way. In fact, many times, I find myself feeling degraded after having left a talk on women’s health because speakers frame the issue as though anyone remotely against abortions is extremely backwards or perhaps just plain stupid or at its worst, a monster who wants women to suffer.
Cut. When did this all happen?
I spent a lot of time in college working on various global health issues concerning women’s health. I spent a winter break raising money to fund obstetric fistula surgeries in Tanzania and my senior honors thesis was on how iron deficiency negatively impacts women tea-leaf pickers in India. In fact, as someone interested in global health, I am acutely aware of how important it is to empower women and increase all aspects of healthcare delivery for women because not only is it morally right to do so but also it is one of the most cost-effective and efficient ways to improve the health of a society. Sheryl WuDunn had it right in her book; we need to focus more on women!
But despite my interest in these various issues, I find that my opinions in these discussions about human rights are looked at as though they are not even opinions worthy of discussion. I find that a violation of my human rights because when did my beliefs become so second-class? Although my faith is important to me, I approach the issue of abortion with more of a human rights framework. I believe that human rights is about speaking up for and giving voice to the most vulnerable, and in the case of abortion, I see the most vulnerable as the baby. And, when a couple is expecting a baby, the moment they find out that the woman is pregnant; they already acknowledge that the baby is there. To me, that is life that needs protecting.
But all of a sudden, in these discussions, those who believe this are scoffed at; the discussions are always framed as though there is only one right answer and if anyone believes otherwise… well, they need a lot of catching up to do. And I reject that. I consider myself just as strong a proponent for human rights, and, in fact, I am a 100% certain that I will be dedicating my life to the poor, the underprivileged, the destitute.
I sincerely appreciate all of the speakers’ opinions, and I have learned a great deal from their talks. But I want to make a challenge that the way human rights are presented should be reframed, ON BOTH SIDES. As human rights advocates, we must enter the issues at hand with humility, understanding that our views can possibly be wrong and that we are in a constant process of learning. We must create a space for voice and debate and opinions to flow for that is the only way we can bring everyone to the table and reach a solution that is beneficial for everyone.
I end with a successful example from global health. A US-based NGO has been supported by UNICEF and Macro International for it success in addressing female genital cutting (FGC) in Senegal. The NGO, Tostan, started its work not to decrease FGC but to offer educational programs on human rights and responsibilities to adults and adolescents. In fact, it made a point that it is not an anti-FGC organization but an educational one. But Tostan was able to bring all players to the table for discussion, and it is known internationally as one of the successes in decreasing FGC in many parts of the world. I think Tostan is an important example to look at when thinking about how to bring various players to the table for discussion – to find a solution to the problem rather than accusing one another from the onset and bringing in a set agenda.