Since coming to St Andrews from the United States, it has struck me how different perceptions of birth control and abortion are in the United Kingdom. While the pro-life vs prochoice argument rages on in the United States almost incessantly in the background, and sexual health is still a taboo in some areas of the country, it is barely a question which passes across people’s lips here. Sex education is an integral part of the school curriculum, and even at university most union maintained areas are plastered with information about sexual health centres and free condom dispensaries. By the nature of the international demographic of St Andrews, many British and European people who are used to a relaxed approach to these issues become friends with Americans to whom the debate is likely something on which they have a strong opinion on either way. But it is only now that both sides are engaging with the discussion in depth, and the genesis of the sudden upsurge in interest comes from the most innocuous of sources: Facebook.
The Facebook newsfeeds of university-aged students are usually filled with photos of people in clubs, the statuses of people who feel that it is their duty to inform all of their Facebooks friends what they ate for breakfast, or the endless stream of videos that can consist of anything from a celebrity twerking contest to a kitten webcam- hopefully the latter. But recently my Newsfeed, no doubt along with many others’, has been inundated with statuses about Planned Parenthood, or people sharing someone’s story with the beginning #IStandWithPlannedParenthood. For those who perhaps have not looked too deeply into the matter, this social media frenzy is in response to the news that the House of Representatives, one of the two houses in the United States Congress, voted to defund Planned Parenthood. I have not seen a reaction from young people on social media on this large a scale since the Ice Bucket Challenge that was aimed at raising money and awareness for Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or ALS. Realising that young adults care about a topic like this is refreshing. People who are pro-choice or pro-life can agree on one thing: abortion is an important topic. Planned Parenthood is a non-profit organisation in America that specialises in reproductive care. It promotes sexual education, smart contraception, and most importantly, offers affordable reproductive health care. Planned Parenthood has been targeted recently for supposedly using tax dollars to fund abortions, an act which would be illegal. According to the Planned Parenthood fact sheet, however, out of all of Planned Parenthood’s health services, only three per cent are abortion services.
The estimated number of abortions prevented not because of Planned Parenthood abortions, but because of its contraceptive services every year is 217,000. Out of the thousands of Planned Parenthood health care patients, 78 per cent have incomes at or below the federal poverty level. So really, the questions we should be asking about Planned Parenthood need to focus less on how it uses its federal funding, and more on how many women are indebted to its services, as well as how we can be helping. To those Americans who feel like the cut of funding sends the country back into the dark ages, a time when women were either forced to have children they did not want, or resorted to illegal and extremely unsafe abortions, the question of why this bill was even brought into Congress is being raised. A co-sponsor of the defunding bill, Representative Gus Bilirakis said, “taxpayers should not be forced to financially support organisations whose behaviours are at best unethical and possibly illegal. When it comes to defunding Planned Parenthood, the issue should not be partisan.”
According to social media, however, I have found that many Americans have no issues with their money being used to support an organisation that provides people with the freedom to make their own choices. Mr Bilirakis claims to speak for “fragile Americans who cannot speak for themselves,” but the fragile Americans he speaks of are the ones who benefit most from Planned Parenthood’s services. US Representative for Colorado Diana DeGette responded to Mr Bilirakis’ statement by saying, “no federal funds are spent on abortion services provided by the organisation, and yet the majority [of people] are taking the radical step of denying women of the basic health care they need. This radical agenda is wrong – it’s wrong for American women, and it’s wrong for us.” It takes a courageous person to announce to the world via the Internet that they had an abortion. Yet, people are so outraged about the attacks on Planned Parenthood that women have started another hashtag on Twitter: #ShoutYourAbortion. This hashtag is aimed at ending the stigma surrounding abortion. The Twitter account @tame_lioness tweeted “I was 20, in school and my [birth control] failed. I did not want a child. It was the right choice and I’ve never regretted it. #shoutyourabortion.” Another Twitter account, @mgnwrites wrote, “My abortion was in 2008. It saved my life and allowed me to escape an abusive, emotionally and physically violent man. #ShoutYourAbortion.” The posts go on like this, women blaming stigma for making their lives harder after their abortions, not the abortions themselves. Women have been sharing stories about how they were not ready to be mothers at the times of their abortions, but are mothers now, and thankful that they waited. While this has caused shock in some parts of America over the frankness of the discussion, many of the people I have spoken to about it here seem more surprised that there is a necessity to resort to social media campaigns such as this in order to keep hold of a service which is almost taken for granted as available here.
The Planned Parenthood Website explains the complicated history of abortion laws in the United States. Although Roe v. Wade, the court case that decided that abortion would be legal in the United States, is still the existing law on abortion, an abortion ban that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007 criminalises abortion procedures in the second trimester of pregnancy, even though, contrary to popular belief, these procedures are safe and do protect the health of the women undergoing them. Now that abortion is legal, it has a 99% safety record, which is a huge improvement from what it was when it was illegal.
The United Kingdom is fortunate enough to have the NHS, which can arrange abortions for women in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. In fact, there are two Family Planning and Sexual Health Clinics in Dundee alone. Even closer to home the most cursory glance at the sexual health page on the university website tells you that there is a clinic at St Andrews community hospital, and there is even one in the student services building every Tuesday. You can ask the staff behind the desk in the entrance to the union for a condom on a drunken Wednesday at 1 am and you will be given one without any further question. This is, of course, how it should be. Scared young women should have places to go where they will not be judged or made to feel ashamed of their choices. The United Kingdom legalised abortion in 1967, so why is the Unites States so far behind? The United States does not have a national health service provider, so Planned Parenthood is often the only way for women to receive affordable reproductive services. The United States Congress wants the number of abortions to go down, but defunding Planned Parenthood will only increase this number, as affordable contraception might no longer be readily available to the 5,180,000 men, women, and young people worldwide that Planned Parenthood has provided with sexual and reproductive health care, education, and outreach each year. Although there are many social media posts in support of Planned Parenthood, there is no absence of an anti-Planned Parenthood platform. There is a hashtag, #IStandSgainstPlannedParenthood, but it has not gained any significant amount of publicity or recognition. Posts with the hashtag contain statements such as, “I stand against Planned Parenthood because abortion is not healthcare, abortion is murder.” The fact that this hashtag exists is only to be expected in a country as divided on the matter as the United States, but the lack of popularity of this hashtag is encouraging, and indeed to see anything but mocking use of it in the United Kingdom is rare indeed. Another aspect of Planned Parenthood that is definitely less well known than its abortion services is the care provided for men and those over 20. Some representatives like to paint the picture that all the patients of Planned Parenthood are young girls who are manipulated into getting abortions that they do not really want. This is simply not true. Women in the US need to tell theirgovernment that they #StandwithPP, because it is every woman’s right to choose what she wants for her own body.
Planned Parenthood is not encouraging abortion. Rather, it is offering men and women the services required so that they can make informed and safe decisions about their sex lives. The scale of the debate in America is all the more reason to make sure that while in St Andrews people make full use of, the facilities available, even if that means just collecting condoms from the various sexual health clinics which exist in a town as small as ours.