Plus ça change…


Marianne Mollmann is Advocacy Director for the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.

In French they have a saying: "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." (It means something like: "The more things change, the more it's all the same.")

This is the feeling I have as I travel with Verónica Cruz – my Mexican colleague who helps rape victims get access to legal abortion – from New York over Washington D.C., Ottawa and Toronto to Chicago. Women everywhere – and in particular poor, uneducated, young, or non-white women – are ignored and abused. The justice and health service providers charged with helping them, instead insult and mistreat them.

In Ottawa, for example, we spoke with a researcher from Canadians for Choice. The researcher had called public hospitals all over Canada, posing as a young woman with a crisis pregnancy who was looking for information on how to get a safe abortion. In Canada, abortion is, by law, considered a medical procedure the state has to provide. Even so, some hospital receptionists treated the researcher with cruelty and disdain ("No one will want to talk with you or help you!"); others referred her to anti-choice organizations that lied to her ("Virtually all young women miscarry anyway"); and still others simply hung up.

And in Chicago, Verónica only had to present her work briefly to grassroots groups working on access to health care and justice for women, before it became clear that situations were so similar in Chicago and Guanajuato that it made sense to set up an exchange program to share ideas, strategies, and work-methods in both directions.

Everywhere, women are beaten, abused, and raped. Family members and public officials ignore them, or worse: they convince women that the women themselves are to blame for the crimes committed against them.

"Women are seen as things, not as human beings," Verónica said to a local journalist this morning. "So much so, that I don't know one single woman who has not at one point or another in her life been sexually harassed, grabbed, or fondled. This happens on the street, at her work, in her home, or at school."

Me either. Including myself.

And for me, this really is the key issue when we talk about access to abortion. It is not only about abortion per se, though it is also about that. It is about choosing who we are, as women, and deciding who and what we allow to touch our bodies. It is about controlling how we want to live our lives, and if, when, how often, and with whom we want to have children. It is about the fact that women are human beings. It is about fundamental dignity.

And perhaps this is what makes abortion such a threatening topic to so many people in Mexico, in Canada, and in the United States. Many of those who oppose equitable and legal access to abortion explicitly or implicitly argue that access to abortion on demand (and free for all) will unleash women's irresponsible nature. Some say – as if it is a bad thing – that such a policy reform might convert women into the equals of men. "It's not conscious," Verónica said to me. "And that's perhaps the worst part of it: many are inherently afraid to let women make choices over their bodies because they sense this would change power and control structures. And as a consequence it would change the world as we know it."

Indeed it would. But change is not a bad thing when what's changing is women being beaten, abused, and raped.

Plus ça change…

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Follow Marianne Møllmann on twitter: @cluelesscamper