This week, I join youth activists, leaders of civil society, ministers and parliamentarians, and others committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, to mark the five-year anniversary of SheDecides. The high-level convening, hosted by His Excellency Alexander De Croo, Prime Minister of Belgium, will reaffirm our collective action to uphold the right for all women and girls to make informed decisions about their bodies, lives, and future.
SheDecides launched as a global movement in March 2017 in the fraught aftermath of United States President Donald Trump’s signing of the expanded Global Gag Rule, which prohibited foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who receive US global health assistance from providing legal abortion services or referrals, while also barring advocacy for abortion law reform—even if it’s done with the NGO’s non-US funds.
As President of the Population Council—a US-based nonprofit committed to ensuring people have the information, services, and supplies to advance their sexual and reproductive health and rights—I am proud to join my fellow SheDecides global champions in Brussels. Together, we will celebrate the victories of the past five years, redouble our efforts in the face of emerging attacks on bodily autonomy, and set our priorities for the next five years. There are three things that will be front of mind for me.
First, reflecting on success stories since 2017, I want to honor the principled leadership and coordinated advocacy that led to the legalization of abortion in Argentina and Ireland, both countries that previously had among the most stringent abortion restrictions in the world. These victories at the ballot box and in legislative chambers vividly demonstrate the power of collective action, when communities, governments, funders, and civil society rise up to protect the rights of women and girls.
Nevertheless, despite these hard-fought achievements, we know reproductive rights are constantly and vigorously contested, as evidenced by the leaking of a US Supreme Court draft decision that would overturn the constitutional right to abortion granted in Roe v. Wade nearly 50 years ago, and usher in a wave of state-level anti-abortion laws. We must take due inspiration from our recent wins, while girding ourselves to confront these ongoing and increasing threats.
Next, as COVID-19 forced restrictions on every aspect of our lives, we saw policy and program changes that transformed reproductive health care overnight—using telemedicine to take care out of facilities and delivering prescriptions by post, among others. We must capitalize on this momentum and push for further innovations in products and services that increase access to reproductive health care.
Mifepristone, the medical abortion pill, was one such innovation. In 2000, the Population Council, in the face of virulent opposition, developed and secured US Food and Drug Administration approval for this safe, effective, and discreet option for women in the United States. More than 20 years later, medication abortion accounts for over half of US abortions, used by more than 4 million women, with a time-tested record of safety.
Our efforts bolstered calls to put medication abortion in the hands of women and girls worldwide, and our research has informed the World Health Organization’s guidance on self-management for medical abortion. We applaud UK Members of Parliament who voted in March to enable women in England to continue to access medication abortion by mail—another innovation for a safe and effective option for early abortion, temporarily introduced in 2020 at the height of COVID-19.
Lastly, SheDecides is a movement with young people at its center, recognizing that youth are our greatest asset in affecting social change. Upholding their rights as they age into their reproductive years is our charge.
We know from Population Council research that equipping today’s young people with comprehensive sexuality education—including content on gender inequity, and relationship power dynamics—is a proven strategy for reducing risk of unintended pregnancy and HIV. And, contrary to alarmist narratives touted by naysayers, research also shows that medically accurate, age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education does not increase sexual activity, but can actually delay sexual debut. I’m thrilled that SheDecides will increase its focus on comprehensive sexuality education. We know this works, and there is no excuse from withholding this empowering, essential knowledge from young people.
When SheDecides was conceived in 2017 in a climate of alarmed urgency, we were fighting for a world where women and girls had the knowledge, power, and autonomy to make informed decisions about their bodies and lives. Five years later, our mandate remains unchanged, and we are as emboldened as ever to continue to rally the financial and political support to achieve a world where every girl and woman can decide what to do with her body, with her life and with her future. Without question.