FEATURE: What binds us?
Keynote speech by Sylvia Estrada-Claudio ************************************** 27 June 2016
Abortion and Reproductive Justice: The Unfinished Revolution II
2-3 June 2016
Ulster University, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Good afternoon everyone. I have been thinking a lot about what binds those of us who have come to this conference and others like us who are not here. What are we trying to say to the world?
I believe it is this: abortion, if made accessible within a package of other reproductive and sexual health and rights initiatives and elements would allow women to control their bodies and sexuality. Such control is central to ending inequitable structures that oppress women now. Structures that, to appropriate an old feminist phrase, we would rightly call the four horsemen of the apocalypse: neoliberalism, patriarchy, racism and heterosexism. Of course, as the Bible needs updating, I would add others, such as ageism, sizeism or ableism.
We know this and we have been saying it before we came here, as we have gathered together in Belfast: it is the right of women to control their bodies. Full stop.
Whatever words we use to call it: control of one’s body, choice, self-determination, reproductive and sexual health and rights and freedom, what we mean is that if we are to end oppressions in this world it can only be done if women are given a full range of health services including abortion. Abortion, like any technology, if properly ensconced in programmes, policies and systems of justice will ensure that women will not be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
A woman’s right to control her reproductive destiny is central to our efforts for equity and justice. Justice – the necessary condition to achieve human liberation but also the outcome of that liberation.
We know this and I believe that those invested in systems of oppression also know this to be true. At one level, it is very clear that there is something fundamentally transformative of our lives, our communities and our societies if women are able to choose to give birth or not.
Little wonder that this struggle, women’s rights to bodily self-determination, has been met with the full force of hegemonic power. And this is what we need to do: resist hegemonic power in its myriad iterations in the terrains of the particular, the quotidian, the everyday. In culture, in law, in the economy, in church, in academe, in bathrooms, and in clinics. We need to be everywhere (and we are).
The power of the medical establishment has been used to keep women from accessing safe abortions. And so we have activists, many of them health care professionals and organizations that dare and risk and innovate. Some bypass medical gatekeepers altogether, some mesmerize the gatekeeper and some become the gatekeeper in order to throw the gate wide open.
Where the law makes abortion a criminal act, activists fight for its decriminalization. And we are very pragmatic. If the law does not allow for abortions in the morally indefensible extremes of rape, fatal fetal malformation, threat to the life of the woman, then we work to decriminalize that. If these exceptions are made. we work to decriminalize all the other abortions. And where abortion is decriminalized, we work to make it legal. Where it is legal, we work even harder to demand that laws ensure it is safe, accessible.
And religion? Oh, that. Much to the disgust of the patriarchs who thunder at us, we thunder back at them. Asking: who do you think you are? Why do you think you can impose your religious interpretations on our secular representatives? And why do you make such silly interpretations of scripture anyway? Why shouldn’t more women, especially feminist ones, be allowed to interpret scripture? You see, what you find immoral and appalling, we find rather moral. And either it isn’t our religion or it is our religion too. So whatever space you think you are occupying, well, move over.
In the academe we are told not to be ideological or political or too feminist because scholarship is about neutrality and objectivity and disciplinal constraints and canons. And so we say, but that is really a very interesting interpretation of scholarship, and one which has a long tradition that we understand. But now, in the true spirit of the word academic, let us tell you how we can make this system of knowledge production and application better. Let us show you how engaged scholarship leads us to ask questions you would never have dreamed of asking, find answers that ring so true, you wonder why people whose job it is to be smart never thought of it. Let us tell you how we help movements with our research and teaching, and how movements help us in return to be better scholars. Let us hold a reproductive justice conference in Ulster University where nerdy activists and activist nerds come together to assess important and ground-breaking stuff and create new and important and ground-breaking more stuff.
And lest you think that our ability to meet you at the level of the everyday, such as when we fight to bring people through a phalanx of abortion protesters, tires us out. Well, no, it doesn't. We are keeping an eye on your neoliberal erosion of the welfare state too, with your austerity measures and moves to deprive women of health care, reproductive health care, abortions, education, and all other aspects of social security.
And everywhere you seek to stigmatize our sexuality, we are there to tell you – our sexuality is the good stuff. So go deal with your envious, restrictive, violent complexes and leave us to our pleasures – our myriad pleasures, which we intend to enjoy without your guilt tripping, thank you very much.
Let me now identify an important aspect of the truth-saying of these last two days. Which is that we say things in context. I am deeply grateful that the organizers have given me the privilege of giving you the only context that I can talk about with authenticity – mine. The realities of the Philippines, a poor developing, post-colonial society. And right away let me thank the other Filipina who is here for allowing me to describe and interpret what is also her reality, and all the other women here from similar contexts for their generosity in allowing me to name the realities that put us in similar positionalities across class, caste, national and racial divides.
Here is where I come from: for more years than I care to remember, I had been dreaming of coming to a conference where extremely restrictive abortion policies would be a common theme. I would then set up discussion groups of increasing similarity – say all Christian countries with extremely restrictive laws with a strong Catholic flavour thrown in, and where perhaps the Catholic Church has had an intense, multifaceted and extremely mediated and nuanced role in the history and identity of the people.
This is the Philippines essentially. Of our population of 100 million people, 92.3% are Christian, of which 82.9% are Roman Catholic. Another 4.65% practise Islam.
Spain introduced Christianity to the Philippines in 1565 with the arrival of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi. Earlier, beginning in 1350, Islam had been spreading northward from Indonesia into the Philippine archipelago. Actually, the Spanish did not come upon a country, but a set of islands and communities practicing various animist religions, except of course in those communities practising Islam. Spanish colonialism, if I am to believe our Southeast Asianist colleagues, was unique in the Philippines for the length of and depth of its penetration. For over 500 years, Spain held us as a colony and at the end of it every local town had its colonial overseer, usually a very corrupt Spanish friar. Literally, my nation became one because of a sense of unity built on a common desire to rid ourselves of Spanish colonialism, which we succeeded to do in 1898.
As bad luck would have it, our revolution succeeded at the time of the Spanish-American War. Having lost the islands, the Spanish turned around and sold us to the USA for $20 million in a package deal that also included Cuba and Puerto Rico. The US subsequently engaged in a war of pacification at the turn of the 20th century. We became a colony again, until we were given formal independence in 1945. The US brought various Protestant denominations with its occupation, but its approximately 50 years of control could not compete with 500 years of Catholic proselytization. A common way of summarizing our colonial history is rather witty: we spent 500 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood.
Aside from its deep entrenchment in Philippine society and culture, however, the Catholic Church has always participated in Philippine politics. In recent history, after a period of collaboration, it helped to lead the People Power Revolution that toppled the 20-year dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. That bought it a lot of credibility. It continues to weigh in on social issues with a somewhat progressive stance, such as its position on land reform (it is one of the largest landholders still, but Church lands remain exempt), the struggle for a Freedom of Information Law, the banning of the death penalty.
This would all be nice for progressives, I suppose, except that the Catholic Church has taken fundamentalist positions on all things women, all things reproductive, and all things sexual. But I will return to this later... Read the full speech on our website
Philippines: "Although there is still much to do, I believe indeed that despite the lack of an abortion provision,
we are in a far better position to achieve the goals of reproductive justice with a law in place." The RH Bill passes 29 Dec 2012