Boots, Trump and Northern Ireland…Why are we still having to talk about abortion and contraceptive rights in 2017?

DSC_0195

For many people, 2017 will be remembered as a year when moralistic and reactionary arguments around abortion rights and women’s contraceptive rights were dragged back into the mainstream. Yesterday, Boots decided to wade into the debate around abortion and contraceptive rights by refusing to lower the price of the morning after pill, which costs around £30.

Despite the fact that other chains, like Superdrug, agreed to halve the price after a campaign by Bpas (The British Pregnancy Advisory Service), Boots wrote a letter to Bpas explaining that the “EHC [emergency hormonal contraception] polarises public opinion”  and that they “receive frequent contact from individuals who voice their disapproval of the fact that the company chooses to provide this service”. Boots went on to make the revolting, moralising statement that they “would not want to be accused of incentivising inappropriate use, and provoking complaints, by significantly reducing the price of this product”.

The notion that we stupid women should be punished if we are worried we may fall pregnant after unprotected sex, whether that be because of a split condom, forgetting to take the pill, or a drunk night of unprotected sex, is insulting. What’s more, the suggestion that lowering the price would lead to a stampede of irresponsible women in Boots, post-sex, frothing at the mouth and raring to take the morning after pill “inappropriately”, feeds the suggestion that we are incapable of making contraceptive decisions independently, and that we are all just horny, irresponsible whores looking for a bargain on our mission to murder unborn children. Unfortunately, this Boots saga comes in a year where it seems our reproductive rights are once more up for grabs in many respects.

In 2017, a bill in parliament to decriminalise abortion in England was voted in. Shockingly, the 1967 Abortion Act did not actually do this, but rather made it legal only if two doctors approve the procedure – if you failed to meet these conditions, you would have been committing a criminal offence. Online abortion pills are now widely available and abortion was the only medical procedure governed by such old legislation. As Boots have now been shown to think themselves – why were women still being questioned on their ability to make these choices independently?

In the USA, we have seen the election of the racist, misogynist Donald Trump who, in his first day in the Oval office, signed a federal ban on international groups that give information about or provide abortions. He and his ilk are pro-life and anti-women. Lest we forget that during Trump’s election campaign he suggested that there should be “some kind of punishment” in place for women who have abortions (if it was banned). More recently, there has been a proposed revision of the contraception mandate (which saved women more than $1 billion in birth control costs in 2013) of the Affordable Care Act, which would make it much more difficult for women to get protection. When this is paired with the fact that abstinence is taught in some schools in the USA as a part of sex education (and often instead of education around contraception), Trump’s administration will put women at risk of pregnancy as their ability to have free, safe abortions is being threatened more every day. A Donald Trump appointed judge recently compared abortion to slavery, calling them “the two greatest tragedies in our country”…

Of course in the UK, Northern Ireland has been at the centre of the struggle for free, safe and legal abortion since the 1967 Abortion Act has never applied there. This fact has become more prominent of late due to the Tories’ dodgy deal with the fiercely pro-life DUP.  Abortion is not permitted in Northern Ireland even in cases of rape and incest and in 2016, a 21-year-old woman was given a suspended sentence after she bought drugs on the internet to induce a miscarriage as she did not have the money to travel to England for an abortion. It was recently announced that the government would provide free abortions to Northern Irish women in England. Although this is a step in the right direction, women would still have to have the funds to get to England in the first place, after most likely having to take days off work and/or organise child care.

Like women in Northern Ireland and USA, the disturbing common thread is that women who have money are more likely to be able to access safe and legal abortion and contraception services, whilst women who do not, have their right to bodily autonomy taken from them. What’s more, companies like Boots are putting their profits before our reproductive rights whilst condescending to us with their sneering moralism.

The fight is no where near over whilst an estimated 22 million unsafe abortions take place worldwide each year. Women are driven to this when they cannot access safe, legal and free abortions and/or access free contraception due (often) to the sweeping moralism of the state and religious institutions and the contempt with which they view the concept of our right to choose what we do with our bodies.

We must continue to oppose any suggestion to limit our abortion and contraceptive rights in the UK and across the world, and in the case of Northern Ireland, keep fighting for the right to access free and legal abortions. Boots will likely see the effects of openly showing contempt for our contraceptive rights after a boycott has been called. What is horrifying, however, is this reminder that, in the year where millions flooded the streets to join the Women’s Marches, the hard fought victories that were won by reproductive and contraceptive rights campaigners must be held onto with all of our strength to protect them from those that are waiting to pounce and drag us back to much darker times.

Pride Ungroomed

©Maya Holliss

Harpy1

Harpy2
Harpy3

Harpy4

Harpy5

Harpy6

Harpy7 (1)

Harpy8


Aged twelve I shaved my legs for the first time, locked in my family bathroom. I scraped the ‘unsightly’ and ‘unwelcome’ hair from my legs using my dad’s blunt razor. My inexperienced younger self did this with no water or shaving gel – the result was disastrous. The red cuts and angry rash left me looking quite unlike the ‘goddess’ that Venus adverts had promised, but resembled more of someone suffering from a nasty skin condition. This was the first of many shaving, waxing, plucking, epilating catastrophes throughout my teens that left me broke, itching, with ingrown hairs, uncomfortable and in pain. 10 years later and I am just beginning to come to terms with why I felt compelled to wage war with the hair on my body.

My choice to shave had nothing to do with my upbringing; my mother – an ardent feminist – was horrified when she found out. What I am aware of now is that I actually didn’t have a choice. As my body dealt with the painstakingly confusing transformation into adulthood, it became obvious society had picked and chosen what parts of a woman’s body were ‘allowed’ and ‘sexy’ and what was ‘disgusting’ and had to be modified. Body hair undeniably fell into the latter. Growing up, the focus and scrutiny of the appearance of the female body, its sex appeal and attractiveness just didn’t exist in the same way for the opposite gender.

The pressure from commercial shaving companies holds a large responsibility for the cultural rejection of female body hair. Mainstream media, music and the film industry have also contributed to our disillusioned view of women’s bodies. Imagine Beyoncé was an advocate of tufts of armpit hair and fuzzy legs. If this were the norm and being celebrated, would we think being clean-shaven was disgusting? The porn industry is another well-known culprit, often depicting women’s bodies and genitals appearing hairless and child-like. It seems body hair has been monopolised as a typically male attribute, and cultivated as a symbol of masculinity (although this is also coming under scrutiny in some worlds of male grooming).

Unshaven women threaten and challenge the authority and power behind gender stereotypes. This narrative fits into our patriarchal model, keeping women as the weaker more vulnerable gender, by looking like children (apart from where breasts are concerned). This consolidates the false idea that women need ‘strong’ and ‘powerful’ men to protect and look after them. Some women would argue feeling less feminine at the prospect of growing their body hair. But what could be more feminine than the natural processes of the female body? It is purely the way we have been conditioned to feel about that hair that makes it seem masculine. Naturally, it is normal to want to have control over our bodies, choosing to shave (and do anything else to our bodies) is a completely valid choice to make. What isn’t right, is the generations of women believing a perfectly normal part of their body is inherently disgusting.

Entering my twenties I became more familiar with women who had chosen not to shave, I respected their decision but still maintained it was easier and less hassle to remove my hair (that had never really been allowed to grow) than to take a stance and become one of those ‘hairy women’. I also began to identify some political and sociological values with unshaven women. These women were almost always middle-class, feminist, politically-engaged, left-wing and often labelled as ‘hippies’. My own friendships formed from a wide variety of classes, backgrounds and political views, it felt such a shame that I would have to belong to a certain social tribe to make my own decisions about my body. It has increasingly become obvious the decision to shave at the age of twelve, and continue removing my body hair as I entered womanhood was made, not of my own accord, but for me by society, sexual expectations, the media and often, surprisingly, from other women.

‘Pride Ungroomed’ began as an idea to portray beautiful women who don’t shave their armpits. But throughout the project it became apparent that I was falling into the same trap that I was trying to question, with the view that portraying a woman’s beauty with her unshaven body made it somehow more acceptable. The project has evolved to become more about removing the taboo from the subject and hopefully creating a space to start a well-needed conversation. The response from male and female friends alike was surprisingly open and positive. It seems the view that women should shave is more part of a group mentality rather than any individual view. Like so many other things in society we all choose the easiest, most trodden path.

Whether you choose to shave or not, that’s not really the point, what’s more important is that we are aware that we have a choice, that our decisions about our bodies are coming from within and we strive towards a society that supports us either way.

©Maya Holliss

This is an ongoing project if you want to find out more or get involved email m.holliss@hotmail.com.