This interview by Alexandra Beste is republished from Palatinate, Durham University’s student newspaper.
The Abortion Act of 1967. Roe v. Wade in the United States in 1973. The repeal of Section 58 and Section 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act in 2019. Since the second half of the 20th century, abortion has been one of the battlegrounds of civil and women’s rights movements across the world.
Durham itself has borne witness to this phenomenon, seeing the emergence of both a pro-life and a pro-choice group on campus within the past year. In light of this, I decided to speak to Chelsea Lowdon, the President of Durham Students for Abortion Access (DSAA).
Talking about the foundation of the society, Chelsea explains: “We were founded last year in second term and it was because the Durham Students for Life group started. One of my friends sent me a link to their very first event called a ‘Voice for the Voiceless’. A lot of my friends said, ‘We need to do something about this.’”
The budding pro-choice group decided to attend the event with the intention of having an honest debate about abortion. “But they banned us, they banned us from the church and said that if we tried to get in, they would call the police. So instead, we had to do a protest outside.”
It was in that moment Chelsea realized just how important abortion access was to students: “We were outside while everybody was walking in, and I honestly didn’t expect us to be there when they came out. But people wanted to stay because there was such anger about the fact that there was a group that were trying to stop people from having the right to their own body.”
Inspired to take further action, the pro-choice group applied to be a society in the Student Union. Their goal is to help pregnant students find resources in Durham and support them with whatever decision they make. “I think people often assume that because we’re ‘Durham Students for Abortion Access’ that we’re for abortion. But the emphasis is on the choice. If you want to continue with your pregnancy, that’s fine and we’ll support you through that. And if you don’t, that’s also fine and we’ll support you through that.”
The right to bodily autonomy lies at the heart of pro-choice activism, and the DSAA President emphasizes how, in this way, “the right to abortion is intersectional with a lot of other rights. We saw that abortion and same-sex marriage were both legalized at the same time in Northern Ireland. That shows how these issues are intersectional and that there’s a common goal that we’re working towards.”
Chelsea explains this intersectionality of abortion in the context of feminism. “I think, inherently, abortion is a feminist issue, but I don’t think that it’s only women that should be involved. Something we are trying to do this year is work with Be North, which is an organization in the Northeast for transgender young people. We are trying to emphasize the fact that it’s not only women that can get pregnant, it’s not only women who can get an abortion. So we need to be careful about our language and how we talk about it and how we frame it.”
In this context, feminism has provided another platform outside of language to address abortion and related issues: art. “Feminist artwork,” as Chelsea explains, “has been used throughout the years as a way of activism, because it embrace(s) a different way for women and other marginalized groups to talk about things like gender inequality, in a way different to using man-made language which feminists have often found hinder the ability to talk about these issues.”
She continues: “It was also important in the art scene, because it challenged its male dominated nature and creates alternative spaces for women to engage. So it’s only natural really that we’ve seen feminist artwork be used in the fight for reproductive justice, for instance in Northern Ireland around the Repeal the 8th activism, and increasingly on online spaces.”
Despite this output of pro-choice positivity, Chelsea believes there is still a lot of misinformation and stigma regarding abortion. She discusses how this is largely due to pro-life views and efforts. “One thing that pro-life groups always say is if you legalize (abortion), then you can decide 32 weeks in you don’t want the pregnancy. But nobody goes through 32 weeks of pregnancy and then just one day decides, ‘Oh, actually I don’t want to go through with this.’
“By the (end of) the 24 week period, people’s minds are made up about what they want to happen. It is only a small minority of abortions that take place after 20 weeks anyway. It’s only ever done in that late stage when there’s a massive risk to the woman’s life.”
In tandem with this misinformation, Chelsea believes pro-life groups stigmatize abortion by “really push(ing) that people who get abortions are vulnerable and they can’t make fully informed decisions themselves and that they need support. They think that they know what’s best for people, that people aren’t able to have their own opinions… and that’s what pregnancy crisis centers are formed around, that ‘we can tell you what’s best for you, you don’t know what you’re doing.’”
The DSAA President also sees a connection between the stigmatization of abortion by pro-life groups with the rise of “more conservative ideology”. “Donald Trump’s election, that was a big one. That’s normalized people being able to come out and say, ‘Oh, actually I don’t think you should have the right to bodily autonomy.’ That’s normalized people being able to say racist and homophobic and transphobic things.”
What concerns her about these inflammatory attitudes is the potential consequence of restricting or criminalizing abortion. ‘One thing we really push is that it’s got to be free, and safe – done through the NHS, done through a proper health service. Because what you see when abortion is highly regulated, like it was in Northern Ireland, is women buying abortion tablets online, which is really unsafe because you don’t know where the source is from… You can never ban abortion, you can only ban safe abortion.”
Chelsea stresses how fragile the right to bodily autonomy and pro-choice can be, but she also believes in the power of the individual voice.
“In this political climate, with heightened conservative and right wing views both in our country and overseas in the USA, for instance, where law makers and political leaders are trying to push pro-life views – you can see Jacob Rees Mogg’s views for one example of a prominent UK politician – it legitimizes other people being able to share their stigmatizing, anti-abortion views. That’s why it’s so important, that if you are pro-choice, you’re vocal about it, so we can try and reduce the stigma and open up these discussions.”