In these challenging times, access to contraception and abortion are among the most vulnerable rights.
Shortage in production of supplies and stock-outs, shipping delays, restriction of abortion services by the government, no access to telemedical services… These issues reveal how sexual and reproductive health and rights are affected by the global crisis. A pressing need emerges: abortion is essential healthcare and should be put at the heart of the response to the pandemic.
But in The Netherlands, free and legal access to abortion had become a contested right before COVID-19 gathered political and media attention. Our Dutch member Humanistsich Verbond (HV) has long campaigned against harassment and intimidation of women in front of abortion clinics.
Recently, they launched the “buddy project”, an initiative to connect women who would like support when going to the abortion clinic and “buddies” that are keen on accompanying them.
On this occasion, we interview Project Coordinator Eva De Goeij, who tells us more about the latent needs behind the success of the buddy project.
EHF: For a while now, you have been campaigning to establish “buffer zones” or exclusion zones around abortion clinics that anti-abortion protesters cannot enter. Why is this an issue and why is it a priority?
EdG: For the past few years, there has been an increase of anti-abortion demonstrations in front of abortion clinics across The Netherlands. In spring 2019, the directors of these clinics and the medical coordinators contacted HV saying that these demonstrations are harsh and that people entering the clinics are often upset, angry or crying. The main issue for us is that free access to abortion healthcare is put in danger.
Recently, we did a survey among abortion clinics and municipalities with abortion clinics, in order to assess the situation. 11 out of 14 abortion clinics replied. 5 of these clinics have demonstrators several times a week, and 6 have them several times a month. That is a lot. If you think of how many people access abortion clinics every day, it means that these demonstrations touch a lot of people.
So back last year, HV started a petition to establish « buffer zones » based on examples from other countries, like Australia, the UK, and Canada. For example, the UK has successfully installed buffer zones and this actually worked quite well, which means that people who want to enter the clinic are not bothered by the demonstrators anymore. In The Netherlands, we ask for buffer zones in the clinics where it is necessary.
Can you describe your campaigning experience so far?
Last year, we focused on the national scope of the issue. Together with the feminist organisation De Bovengrondse, HV put pressure on national decision-makers to bring it up to the political agenda. Hugo de Jonge, Dutch Minister of Health, received many questions about this and had to come up with something. It was rather positive because, despite being a Christian Democrat, he agreed that these demonstrations were intimidation towards women and he committed to take action.
If you think of how many people access abortion clinics every day, it means that these demonstrations touch a lot of people.
But at some point he said that the issue falls under local jurisdiction and not national jurisdiction, so he would initiate a consultation process with local authorities. That was the end of the political commitments. So now our advocacy work is shifting towards local actors.
Our recent survey showed that nothing has changed since last year. A few weeks ago, this was in the news and it received much media attention. This gave a big boost to the petition, 32000 people have signed it so far, which is a lot. This happened at the same time we launched the “buddy project”.
Indeed, the “buddy project” is one of your most successful initiatives. Can you tell us more about it?
Last year, while I was working for De Bovengrondse, I personally faced an anti-abortion demonstration when I did my abortion. Then I found out that it was not just my experience, but actually a bigger phenomenon.
So together with HV and De Bovengrondse, we started the buddy project. We first issued a call to people living in The Netherlands, asking who wanted to become an “abortion buddy”. We expected around 50 replies. But in two days we had received 600 e-mails, in a week there where a thousand people interested, and in two months we had more than 3500 people wanting to become an abortion buddy.
It was overwhelming and very positive. So many people saying “I want to help” showed that the project was needed. For me, being pro-choice, this was very exciting. Then we decided to start a pilot programme in Rotterdam and The Hague, just to start with a manageable group of people. The Hague and Rotterdam experienced the demonstrations several times a week.
Even focusing on two cities, it must have been a challenge to gather so many people. What was the next thing you did?
We worked together with the Dutch Association of Abortion Specialists to organise a training for the people interested. We selected people based on their motivation and their availability. In the end, we trained 22 people. They learned about basic abortion healthcare and the legal aspects of it.
It was overwhelming and very positive. So many people saying “I want to help” showed that the project was needed.
We also made a podcast with people that anonymously told us they would like to have an abortion buddy and what they would like about it.
Together with legal advisers, we worked on a protocol to follow in terms of privacy and personal data, for instance deleting the telephone number of the person after the events take place.
We worked together with trainers and practiced some possible scenarios, like what to do if you encounter a very aggressive protestant or a person that strongly hesitates about undergoing the abortion. The most important conclusion of the training was that, as a buddy, you don’t ever take the role of a healthcare practitioner.
As an abortion buddy, you are only there to support the person, not to resolve her doubts. You are there as somebody that respects the choice of the person and supports her. Even if someone does not want to go into the clinic, your role is not to convince her to go inside. That is an important thing.
Your experience highlights the importance of “working in networks” for the well-being of individuals involved but also for the sake of our work as civil society organisations. Do you agree with this?
Yes, I completely agree, and I think it is very beautiful and powerful. And it is very much needed now. At a moment when the debate is quite polarised, initiatives like this are connecting people with each other.
We get reactions like “it is great you guys exist, and that I am able to ask you for support”. That is really nice.
One of the buddies, who is also a humanist moral assistant, phrased it very beautifully: “this is not about what I think, whether I am for or against abortion. It is about supporting somebody else. My opinion on abortion doesn’t matter”. And I think that is why this project is so appealing for so many people.
We haven’t been able to receive feedback from people that were accompanied. I received a lot of advice from different healthcare practitioners, who told us to be careful in the evaluation of the project. Somebody that just underwent an abortion is not ready to fill in an evaluation form right away. But we get reactions like “it is great you guys exist, and that I am able to ask you for support”. That is really nice.
In the spirit of working in networks we are also setting up discussion groups of women who have underwent an abortion. These groups are moderated by humanist professionals and the first one happened in January. We are exploring how the buddy project and the discussion groups could work together.
Both projects will be our focus this year, in order to raise the voices of these people. The anti-abortion movement has so much weight because we are missing out the voices of the people who have had an abortion. We want to focus on that now.
In some countries, like Belgium, abortion advocates campaign to remove it from the Penal Code. But in The Netherlands the debate seems to be focused on public opinion rather than on the legal framework. How do you explain this phenomenon?
The fact that the legal framework of a country restricts abortion and that there is a societal taboo about it are very much interlinked. Both make it easier for groups in society to be anti-abortion, because the voices of people who underwent one are not heard. That is why anti-abortion movements can freely say all kinds of things.
People are still very much convinced that this kind of harassment only happens in the USA. Almost every new person I tell about the demonstrations replies: “Is this happening in our country?”
In The Netherlands, I think we became a bit lazy. And that is boomeranging through different issues in society. We believe that we are super progressive and therefore we don’t need to fight or mobilise, that we don’t have any reasons to speak up.
And yet it is highly important to draw attention to this issue. People are still very much convinced that this kind of harassment only happens in the USA. Almost every new person I tell about the demonstrations replies: “Is this happening in our country?”.
In The Netherlands, the anti-abortion movement is growing. Every year, the people participating in the anti-abortion march is increasing.
One can see whether a country is becoming more conservative because the first things that are torn are women’s rights
Moreover, the Ministry of Health working on medical and ethical issues is composed by members of the Christian party. This is dangerous. In the coalition agreement, no references were made to medical and ethical issues.
This reminds me of HV’s campaign regarding state subsidies to organisations that unintentionaly assist pregnant people in their choice of having or not an abortion. Siriz, an organisation linked to the anti-abortion lobby, received big amounts of money. But in their website they did not even have a link to an abortion clinic. HV did a good job with this campaign.
In your opinion, why it is taking so long regarding the establishment of “buffer zones”?
For a few reasons. First, when you say the word abortion, people as scared. It is a sensitive topic.
Then, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are very important in The Netherlands, and of course HV strongly defends them. But local authorities uses these rights to justify the fact that they cannot establish buffer zones. “These people have the right to demonstrate”, they say.
In the UK it worked because the Court decided that the fundamental right to privacy is here more important that freedom of speech or assembly.
I am working together with lawyers and all kinds of experts to see what we can do, whilst respecting the right to freedom of assembly. This is a very interesting process, new for us. Our argument so far is that these protests are not just demonstrations, but intimidation in someone’s personal space.
Local authorities have the possibility to put conditions on demonstrations. For example, in the past a Court ruled that islamophobic groups could not gather to cook pork outdoors at a distance where visitors of a mosque could smell the pork meat. This is an interesting case, inspiring for the establishment of buffer zones.
Across Europe, we are noticing a trend to roll back on certain fundamental rights, notably sexual and reproductive rights and children’s rights. It seems what you are experiencing in The Netherlands is not an isolated case. Have you considered teaming-up with organisations in other countries for a pan-European campaign?
From a feminist perspective, women’s rights and abortion are like the bird in the gold mine, as they say. One can see whether a country is becoming more conservative because the first things that are torn are women’s rights. That is scary and is one of HV’s priorities. Indeed, we are planning to launch a campaign to draw more attention to these issues all across Europe.
I think giving our campaign on abortion a European scope would be super interesting, also given the international dimension of abortion issues in The Netherlands. Abortion Network Amsterdam is an organisation that mainly works with Polish people who are considering undergoing an abortion in the country. 30% of the abortions done here are to people that do not live in the country. This is also very relevant.
Eva de Goeij is a neuroscientist, feminist and humanist. She is Program Manager at Dutch organisation Humanistisch Verbond, i.e. advocating for free access to abortion healthcare. Before HV, she conducted research on the effects of cross-sex hormone treatment in people with gender dysphoria in Belgium and on sex differences in the gut in London. She also works for a partner of HV, the Dutch feminist organization De Bovengrondse, where she coordinates the ‘’abortion buddy project’’. She also has experience working in public policy and politics and worked for the Ministry of Health in the Netherlands.