On the 14th and 15th October I had the opportunity to attend the 12th International Federation of Professional Abortion and Contraception Associates (FIAPAC) Conference in Portugal, an international conference every two years for abortion and contraception providers. I received funding to do so from Medical Students for Choice, as I am a member of the Queen’s University Belfast chapter of this organisation.
It was an incredible experience.
I got to hear from world experts on abortion care, about new research, revolutionary advances in standards of practice and health care and most importantly, about how to adequately support our patients who seek abortion care.
According to the World Health Organisation, 1 in every 4 women will access a termination of pregnancy in their lifetime. The need for proper medical knowledge and social awareness of this issue is ever pressing, even where abortion care is restricted; prevalence studies by the World Health Organisation show that rates of abortion are just as similar where access is free, safe and legal, as where it is restricted or even illegal.
I learned about studies in South Africa, where it has become good practice for women to use medical abortion in their own homes, with a text message service to ensure safety. This is especially a pressing issue in Northern Ireland, where women can be criminalised for doing something that has the endorsement of doctors and the government in other parts of the world.
I participated in a stigma workshop, aimed at abortion providers, as we can all be responsible for perpetuating stigma, as well as suffering from it. Issues such as late term abortion and more than one abortion, and always framed in a way that puts the woman and the patient at the centre of the discussion, while also allowing us to express our own individual opinions in a safe, non-judgemental space.
It was wonderful getting to meet former alumni of Medical Students for Choice, including Jody Steinauer, the founder and Patricia Lohr, the current medical director of BPAS. It was so inspiring to hear their stories and what galvanised them to be so active in a student group, eventually becoming abortion providers themselves. It has made me even more steadfast and confident in my position of trusting and supporting women, my future patients, in the family planning and contraception decisions they make.
One of the concurrent sessions featured doctors who operate where abortion is a crime, or considered a crime and it made me realise how much solidarity and support is needed worldwide for providers and women alike. Jon O’Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice, was particularly focused on the stories of doctors and women from the Global South, where contraception and abortion access is extremely poor, and many women die every year from lack of safe and legal services. We see this reflected in a lack of abortion access, even in developed countries such as Ireland and Italy.
Perhaps the best experience of all for me was getting to meet other members of Medical Students for Choice from all over Europe, including Ireland, England, Poland, Germany and Bulgaria. We shared ideas for events, had discussions about our opinions as medical students and the position we find ourselves in, as advocates as well as future healthcare professionals. Our advocacy is ever needed in places where abortion access is restricted, and medical students and physicians must pose abortion as a healthcare issue, and definitely not a criminal one.
The conference ended with a rousing speech from Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS, who spoke so eloquently about abortion being a woman centred issue, and the fact that it is moral and right to support a woman’s right to choose. The moral argument is very often used in anti-choice rhetoric, but it must be reframed; it is a moral decision to be pro-choice. It is moral to allow women to make personal and complex decisions themselves about their lives. It is moral to support patients in exercising autonomy. It is moral to be pro-choice.
The conference provided me with confidence and support in my choice to be a Medical Student for Choice. I felt empowered to talk about the issue, I felt like I can be a powerful advocate for change in Northern Ireland. I was so inspired hearing from Patricia Lohr, that as an abortion provider, you really can change women’ s lives in a very short time. I also know that currently, women are not supported by the healthcare system in Northern Ireland. Abortion must become legal here, if we are to consider our society a just and moral one. We must begin to meet European Standards of Care; we must change legislation that restricts access to healthcare and most importantly, we must trust women to make their own choice.