Five badass women blazing a trail for reproductive rights you need to know about

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Elle Griffiths
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There’s no denying it, these are trying times for those of us who believe in bodily autonomy and reproductive rights for all women. 

With the ascendancy of Donald Trump and his openly anti-choice Vice President Mike Pence, the ongoing struggle for legal abortion in Ireland and encroachment on abortion rights in the UK, it is understandable that many women may be feeling worn out from the struggle to be seen as fully human in the 21st century.

With the hope and optimism of the Women’s March perhaps starting to fade in our memory, it’s time for a reminder of how  much women can achieve when when they organise and fight back. These five badass activists,politicians and volunteers have been doing just that. And the good news? They’re winning...

1. Cara Sanquest- UK&Ireland

Cara Sanquest is an Irish woman living in London who set up London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign (LIARC)  to form a bridge of solidarity between the large Irish community in London and those fighting for their rights at home. 

Ireland’s laws are among the most restrictive in Europe - and if you break them, the punishments are severe. Women who procure abortions in the Republic of Ireland can be jailed for 14 years. In Northern Ireland, they face a life sentence. There is no exception for rape or fatal foetal abnormalities in either jurisdiction.

Explaining how the group came about, Sanquest tells Stylist: “Eleven women a day must travel to Britain to legally access the care they need. Even though I no longer live in Ireland, that fact haunts me.”

“But bad laws breed good campaigns. In November last year, myself and a group of like-minded women decided enough was enough. We organised an open meeting in Mile End, London. Two hundred and fifty people showed up - every one of them determined to bring about legislative change and support women in Ireland.”

Since those humble beginnings, LIARC has grown to over a thousand members and now plays a huge part in the wider movement. They recently organised a comedy event at the London Irish centre; “Stand up for Choice” which featured performances from comedians Grainne Maguirem and  Aisling Bea and was hosted by Father Ted creator Graham Linehan. 

Speaking of the type of volunteers the organisation attracts, Sanquest tells Stylist: “We are mostly first generation Irish emigrants from all walks of life: nurses, teachers, journalists, receptionists, accountants. We’ve got full-time jobs, the ups and downs of living in a big city, and too little time and money. What unites us? Anger for sure, but also hope.”

As well as supporting their sisters across the Irish sea, Sanquest is passionate about raising awareness among British women about the situation in Northern Ireland.

She says:“The path to change in Northern Ireland looks longer. Despite being a part of the UK, women there do not enjoy the same rights as their counterparts in Scotland, England and Wales - a fact that is often overlooked. The 1967 Abortion Act was not extended to the North of Ireland.

“These women pay into the NHS, but cannot access its services if they need to end their pregnancy. They must travel - and pay for private care.”

Despite acknowledging the long road ahead, Sanquest’s resolve is unshakeable. “No government can stop abortion. All they can do is impose barriers. These barriers are higher for women who have caring responsibilities, those who have a disability, or an unstable visa situation - or women who are in an abusive relationships. Restrictive abortion laws disproportionately impact those who face disadvantage.

“Charities like the Abortion Support Network provide information and grants to help cover costs. But they shouldn't need to exist. The law must change. We won't rest until it does.”

2. Regina Fonseca- Honduras

The Central American country of Honduras has some of the most restrictive abortion laws anywhere in the world. The procedure is illegal in absolutely all circumstances and even the procurement of emergency contraception is prohibited. Amnesty International last year released a report on the region documenting cases that amounted to torture of women who were forced to carry life-threatening and non-viable foetuses to term. Some women who needed urgent treatment for cancer were denied it because of their pregnancy, meaning both mother and foetus died.

Regina Fonseca has been campaigning for women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights for over 30 years and she is currently the director of International Advocacy at the Women’s Rights Centre (Centro de los Derechos de Mujer - CDM) in the capital of Tegucigalpa.

In a country where the Catholic Church still has a remarkable stranglehold on public policy, Fonseca’s position is a dangerous one. She is regularly abused, threatened and called a murderer in daily life.

However, things are finally starting to look more optimistic for the country with the Honduran congress this week set to debate the state’s draconian stance on abortion.

As part of a wider debate on the country’s Penal Code, they will debate proposed changes that would allow for abortions when the health of the pregnant woman is at risk, when the pregnancy was the result of rape and in cases of foetal impairment that is incompatible with life.

While activists such as Fonseca would push for further amendments to this, it would be a huge step forward and a monumental achievement.

Despite the consuming events in her home country, Fonseca has shown admirable solidarity with women in Ireland and is currently engaged in a speaking tour around both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. She is talking to women and activists about similarities between the two countries and what steps can be taken to continue the fight.

Speaking from Belfast on Tuesday she said of those against abortion access in both countries: “They claim to be pro-life. In reality they are killing women.”

If you’re in Ireland and interested in catching Fornesca in action and soaking up her wisdom, you can book here.

3. Wendy Davis- US

The former Texas state Senator first burst onto our feminist radars in 2013 when she performed a one-woman, 11 hour filibuster against a bill that aimed to severely restrict Texas women’s access to abortion. The US politician managed to talk for 11 hours straight until the bill ran out of time, even using a catheter to make sure she didn’t have to leave and go to the toilet.

Despite temporarily preventing the bill, it was ultimately passed by Republicans in a session a few days later. And in the following three years, over half the clinics in the large US state of Texas shut down, severely impeding access to reproductive healthcare for resident women. In June 2016, the Supreme Court finally struck the law down, declaring it unconstitutional. 

But Davis’ devotion to the pro-choice cause is more than just political, it is personal. The American politician has spoken candidly about her second trimester abortion due to an abnormality. In her memoir, she recalls the decision to abort her unborn daughter, who she had already named. “With the heaviest of hearts, we let our doctor know of our decision: that we would terminate our pregnancy, that it was the most humane and compassionate thing we could do to spare Tate the further pain and suffering that would surely follow if we decided otherwise.”

During her epic filibuster, Davis read out personal stories of other women’s  experiences of later abortions of wanted children- something the bill was likely to affect dramatically. 

And Davis is not throwing in the towel with the latest administration – far from it. She recently spoke to Vox about how to galvanize into action in the face of a national government so hostile to reproductive rights, saying: “We have a lot of work to do.”

4. Ailbhe Smyth

Ailbhe Smyth has been involved in the women’s movement in the Republic of Ireland since 1970 but recently became the go-to figurehead for the coalition to repeal the eighth amendment; a collection of organisations fighting together to confine the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution, which gives a foetus the same rights as a woman and therefore outlaws abortion in all circumstances, to the dustbin of history.

A former academic in the Women’s Studies department at University College Dublin, Smyth retired ten years ago and now devotes herself to the cause full time.

Speaking to Stylist, she says: “I don’t think of myself as ‘leading the charge’ as there are so many brilliant women involved. But maybe because I’m the oldest I’m seen in that way!”

This weekend, the Citizens Assembly in Ireland recommended unrestricted access to abortion after meeting to take a ballot on the current situation.

The ball is now in Irish politicians’ courts after the government got what Smyth calls “a more radical and progressive outcome than they bargained for.”

Smyth and other repeal the eighth campaigners are now calling on the Irish government to give the public a referendum on the issue, similar to the Marriage Equality Referendum of 2015 which saw same sex couples granted marriage recognition.

Acknowledging that there is still some resistance to the issue in Ireland, Smyth says: “I am confident that the majority of people in Ireland want change. They don’t trust politicians or the church as much as they used to; they trust women and they trust doctors.”

While the veteran campaigner supports women who have to travel abroad to access abortion, she is also a huge advocate for women who do not have the option; for financial reasons or because of abusive relationships.

“The attitude to these women for too long has been ‘so what?’ I’ve had enough. I am a mother and a grandmother and I’ve been waiting three generations for this.”

And the feminist firebrand has some advice for anyone new to the movement or feeling the strain of the current political climate.

“Whether it’s something small or something big- keep at it. Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s worth it. Oh, and Vitamin C helps.”

5. Barbara Nowacka- Poland

Polish politician Barbara Nowacka will forever be known as a feminist force to be reckoned with after she helped bring Warsaw and other parts of Poland to a standstill when the “Black Monday” protests took place last year. Nowacka lead the campaign, as tens of thousands of Poles took to the streets wearing all black to fight  back against a proposed law that would ban abortion in the country without exception.

Nowacka’s ability to mobilize a huge resistance so quickly forced the Polish government to do an embarrassing U-turn over the legislation. Talking to crowds of supporters at the time, Nowacka argued the law would “turn doctors into prison guards” and drag the country back to “medieval times”. 

A Warsaw native, Nowacka has long been active in the city and the wider country’s politics. She even made a bid for Prime Minister in 2015 and hasn’t ruled out doing so again.

Images: Rex Features/Getty/Twitter/Resistencia Feministia