A novel idea for International Women's Day

Carolyn Moynihan
March 8, 2016
Reproduced with Permission

International Women's Day has brought the usual hand-wringing over gender pay-gaps and glass ceilings. On the other hand there are acknowledgements that "progress for women" is not just about their participation in paid work but social recognition of the unpaid and undervalued work put into raising children and other care.

Australian feminist Eva Cox says it is time to "acknowledge that women cannot "have it all" because men can't either, but ensure that both can take on fairly shared responsibilities for essential paid and unpaid roles." Melinda Gates is sort of onto this too, dedicating half of her and Bill's annual letter to women's unpaid work:

"If we can add 10 trillion dollars to the GDP by looking at the unpaid work that happens at home and really calling it what it is - work - to me it doesn't make any sense that we're sitting in 2016 and we're not labelling it like this.

"Why don't we call it work and then why don't we recognise the women who are predominantly doing it?"

In the normal course of events Melinda, like most feminists, also has a lot to say about women's reproductive health. She and Bill are onto that in a big way. I just wish they would wave the flag for one of the really neglected issues in that field.

Today, if it is an average day, more than 100,000 women worldwide will have an abortion. There are said to be 40 to 50 million abortions a year. Many of these may be illegal, but in the United States and most Western countries women have a legal right to an abortion with very few restrictions; in the US this involves about one million women a year.

Let's leave aside for a moment the morality of these operations, about which most of us have made up our minds. The question posed insistently by a documentary film made in Canada and awaiting general distribution is this: how many women wanting to end a pregnancy know that abortion poses serious risks to their health?

How many have heard about the risks of breast cancer, future preterm births and miscarriage, and psychological disorders?

Very few, as the film, Hush , demonstrates.

The film's director, Punam Kumar Gill, an Indo-Canadian in her 30s, raised by a single mom, was one of the uninformed majority. A feminist and pro-choice, she had always assumed induced abortion was safe and without harmful effects. That assumption was severely challenged when she began working on a documentary with pro-life producer Joses Martin.

As Punam read studies, talked to women who had undergone an abortion, and interviewed experts like New York breast surgeon Angela Lanfranchie and researcher Joel Brind, she learned of these well-documented risks - and also of the denial that exists in professional and research circles. "There are no long-term consequences, the case is closed," insisted a leading authority, Dr David Grimes - virtually the only pro-choice expert who would talk on camera.

Such flat denials might have put her off, perhaps, except that during her research the issue confronted her in a very personal way. She was pregnant and in her second trimester when she was rushed to hospital with severe pre-eclampsia - and lost her son in a spontaneous abortion. When she tried to gather information about the risks that, and abortion generally, entailed she met a wall of silence.

None of the major institutions - including the National Cancer Institute of the US, the World Health Organisation, and the O&G colleges of the US, the UK and Canada - would give her an interview, and when she turned up at one of them she was escorted off the premises by a security guard. Punam and Martin write on the film's website:

"Any truly neutral scientists, doctors, psychologists and researchers who had looked at the subject chose to zip their mouths, ignored our calls, or deferred to others."

Those professionals who cared about women's health rather the sanctity of abortion rights, however, spoke calmly and convincingly about the solid evidence for elevated risks. In the film, with the help of wonderful graphics, Angela Lanfranchie describes the biological mechanism whereby both induced abortion and spontaneous abortion at a certain stage of pregnancy could trigger breast cancer.

This was information highly relevant to Punam, but almost nobody else wanted to tell her about it.

Nor they want to tell women in general. They don't want them to know that it is much healthier to start a family in your mid-20s than mid-30s; that a first full-term pregnancy protects a woman against breast cancer and that aborting it may expose her to breast cancer; that after an abortion it is more likely that that she will have a premie or miscarry; or that when the next child does come regrets may come flooding in for the one she was so relieved to get rid of years ago.

How patronising is that? How much more serious an offence against women's right to be treated as equal in intelligence and dignity to men than sexist remarks at the office or unequal pay. This is her health and life itself at stake.

Tell women the truth. They can take it. And then have the discussions about gender equity and equal pay.