Pro-Choice Demonstration in Utrecht
The 16th of November 2019, the annual ‘Pro-Life march’ took place in the Netherlands. About 11.000 people marched in silence through the city center of Utrecht. Among them were many grandparents accompanied with their grandchildren, religious activists and pregnant women holding up banners with pictures of babies and people with down-syndrome.
Abortion in the Netherlands
Abortion was legalized in the Netherlands 35 years ago with the introduction of the Termination of Pregnancy Act (in Dutch: Wet Afbreking Zwangerschap) in November 1984. Women can officially opt for abortion up until 24 weeks of pregnancy. However, abortion after 22 weeks only happens on very rare occasions, for example when the fetus suffers from severe complications. Abortions mostly take place in the first trimester of pregnancy. There are many general hospitals that are certified to perform abortions, and 14 specialized abortion clinics. The majority of abortions (about 90%) in the Netherlands take place in a specialized clinic. The number of abortions in the Netherlands has been relatively stable over the past decade, about 30.000 per year.
The Pro-Life movement (also referred to as the ‘anti-abortion’ movement) consists of people who oppose abortion and who take a stand for the rights of the unborn child. They are of the opinion that abortion is wrong and that the law should not allow it. The anti-abortion activists believe that modern technologies in embryology and reproductive health care system form a threat. The Pro-Life community, especially the Dutch Christian pro-life organization “Schreeuw om Leven” (literally translated “Scream for Life”), is very much against abortion and considers it a practice of murder in any stage of pregnancy. They push towards criminalization of abortion (and euthanasia). Their objective is to end abortion in the Netherlands, which would “create a culture of life that honors God, the Creator of life.” They were the organizers of the ‘Pro-Life March’.
When the Pro-Life march approached the Dom Tower in the center of Utrecht, the Pro-Choice counter movement appeared. A Dutch organization called Humanistisch Verbond took the initiative to organize this silent counter-protest by appearing in costumes from the popular HBO series ‘the Handmaids Tale’, a symbol of the oppression and abuse of women. We joined the counter movement and we held a banner with the words “nog steeds baas in eigen buik”, which roughly translated means “I still decide over my own body”. This slogan was introduced in the ’80s by the Dutch feminist group ‘The Dolle Minas’ while they campaigned in the Netherlands for equal rights for women. It was sad and frustrating to realize that we have to use the same slogan again in 2019 to defend women’s right to abortion.
The pro-choice movement takes a stand to protect and promote the rights of women, including women’s right to abortion. Even though the law is on our side in the Netherlands, it is important to show why this law is so important, despite of the Pro-Life noise. Unfortunately, international politics at the moment show frightful backlash in laws on abortion rights for women. Politicized religious conservative movements are making a concerted effort to roll back the rights of women and girls by pushing for criminalization of the procedure, with harsh punishments for those seeking and providing abortions. It was just this month (November 2019) that the State of Ohio passed the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the United States.
But also in the Netherlands, there are many conservative pro-life protesters who – for example – go to abortion clinics where they approach and try to convince women to abstain from the procedure. Unfortunately, they do this often in a very aggressive way and women are increasingly being harassed by anti-abortion protesters. It was also just this month that everyone in the Netherlands received an anti-abortion brochure in their mailbox. In this brochure, women are portrayed as weak, thoughtless and in need of help. To our mind, this is an alarming sign of the growing pressure on abortion practice and rights in the Netherlands. As a counter-reaction, Humanistisch Verbond has designed a special mailbox sticker for everyone who does not want to receive the anti-abortion advertisement in their mailbox. Thousands of stickers have been distributed and they are still available here for those interested. Of course we have put this sticker on our own mailboxes as well!
A fundamental human rights issue
We believe that if a woman is unintentionally pregnant, her right to make a free choice must be guaranteed. Governments must protect that freedom by providing acces to a legal and safe abortion. To our mind, the autonomy and freedom of choice are intrinsically linked to the dignity of the human being. The international community has recognized Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights as fundamental human rights that protect some of the most important and intimate aspects of the lives of women.
During my travels for assignments for the UN and NGOs in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, I have seen that abortion takes place everywhere in the world… Also in countries where it is illegal. It is estimated that 25 million unsafe abortions take place every year. I find it very disturbing to see that abortion takes place in non-medical environments with horrifying methods. In addition, it is often performed by unqualified practitioners that result in life-threatening consequences for women. Unfortunately, the lives of many women (it is estimated that 22.000 women die every year as a result of unsafe abortions…) are at stake.
Therefore, we believe that we need to continue to fight for the protection of women’s bodily autonomy and integrity. Not only in developing countries, but – unfortunately – also still in our own country!