By Justine van de Beek, Youth Ambassador for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.
It’s this phrase, with an accompanying illustration of a coat hanger, that has become a recurrent visual in worldwide women’s marches. It symbolizes a dark history for many and a dark current reality for too many still.
Today is International Safe Abortion Day. This day originates in Latin America and the Caribbean where women’s groups have been mobilizing around September 28 the last two decades to demand their governments to “decriminalize abortion, to provide access to safe and affordable abortion services and to end stigma and discrimination towards women who choose to have an abortion.”
In high school, it was the visual of Dutch feminist protesters in the 60s and 70s, pictured in my society sciences book, who took to the streets with the Dutch phrase ‘Baas in eigen buik’ (roughly translated as ‘Boss in own belly’) that sparked my first interest in feminism. Years later, I remain humbled by the efforts of feminists in my own country to achieve the right to decide. Before 1984, it was illegal to conduct an abortion in the Netherlands, which meant women and gender diverse people with wombs* had to risk their health to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. They would use objects like knitting needles or coat hangers, or intentionally fall, to hopefully end the unwanted or unintended pregnancy. Feminist activism, a sexual revolution, a declining influence of religion and legalization in other countries are considered contributing factors to the end of the criminalization of abortion in the Netherlands. And thus, we finally became bosses in our own bellies.
To this day, the case for legal and safe abortions remains challenged by few in the Netherlands: anti-choice protesters frequently stand outside abortion clinics, harassing patients that step inside and spreading incorrect information about abortions; there is still a yearly march of thousands of Dutch conservatives opposing the right to abortion; a few months back a right-wing national politician publicly questioned the right to abortion. Dutch feminists argue there is still work to be done on the availability of medical abortion and on the mandatory five day waiting period before the procedure is done (seen as paternalistic and unnecessary by some, as it implies people with wombs need time to reconsider and cannot decide immediately).
Barring this criticism, The Netherlands is one of the most modern abortion policies worldwide. In the Dutch law, it is specified that abortion is only allowed in emergency situations: in practice, this means whenever it is the person’s choice. The general Dutch public supports the right to abortion, even though support rates decrease for reasons other than rape, fatal risk for the mother or the child, and psychological illness of the mother.
In many countries worldwide, it is these kind of criteria that limit the access to safe abortions. Women and gender diverse people with wombs are held hostage by a strict hierarchy in which it is decided for them when abortion is accepted, and when it is not. Even worse, in many countries - 26 worldwide, abortion is completely forbidden and many people with wombs can face imprisonment for exercising their right to choose over their own bodies.
When women and gender diverse people with a womb decide they want to have an abortion carried out, policies must make it as comfortable and accessible as possible for them. It is a government’s duty because not doing so will lead to unsafe abortions with possible fatal consequences. According to the World Health Organization, 23,000 women die of unsafe abortion each year and tens of thousands more experience significant health complications. Research shows time and time again that legislation that criminalizes abortions, does not lead to fewer abortions - on the contrary. So, not only are laws that partially or fully forbid abortion ineffective, they also endanger a significant part of the population. This is unacceptable. We cannot stand by whilst the lives of those with wombs are deemed worthless.
The current push back on abortion is part of a larger attack on human rights, often led by men in position of power who deny the freedom and choices of others. They force us to stay alert, and motivate us to keep building further on a movement that stands for the right to decide. The right to abortion is fragile. We must protect it. Vote for politicians who stand for the right to decide, discuss the topic with friends and family to break the taboo, share and amplify the messages of those who stand for it.
*People that do not identify as women can also have wombs, such as transgender men or non-binary people.