On Women & Access: A Reflection on My Time at The United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women Conference.

April 15, 2024

by Kelly Salasin, GRR! Abortion Storyteller and Activist

It seemed impossible, but the line of women waiting out of doors to enter security at United Nations Headquarters in New York City was almost twice as long the second morning of the 68th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) as it was on opening day.

Each of us stood and waited restlessly in this line as it grew and grew, anxious about making it inside for our meetings. I turned to the young woman behind me, and we struck up a conversation in the way women do. We asked one another about the organizations we represented, and the respective meetings we might be missing. Hers was a session on Equity, mine on the Criminalization of Abortion–a session for which I had planned to arrive exceedingly early, not for this unexpected outdoor line but for the crowd I expected at the interior door to the program room. Conference Room #12 was built to accommodate only 129 people, according to the building–a number I knew would fall short for this urgent and universal topic.

“Abortion,” the young woman said when I told her the name of my session. “You’re American?”

I nodded, realizing that I was from “that” country in the eyes of women from around the world. A country so full of itself and its false promises of freedom, empty in so many ways when it comes to the human rights it is denying its citizens.

This young woman’s home nation of Indonesia was well-represented among the presenters in the sessions I attended. But mine, the United States of America, is almost always conspicuously absent at CSW, at least in any official governmental capacity (except, of course, for the lone year that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in attendance). More often than not, our nation is the “elephant in the room,”. Unspoken but infamous, for all the ways “the home of the free” falls short on so many markers for women’s health, safety, liberty and prosperity. 

* * * * * * * * * *

I begin typing this blog post on my phone, with a single thumb, while seated on a bench in the basement of the United Nations (after having finally been admitted entrance). I am outside the door to Conference Room 12, where I have arrived almost 90 minutes early. Another young woman takes a seat beside me, and we strike up a conversation. I learn that she is from a women’s college campus in Atlanta, where she is involved with Planned Parenthood. I tell her that I’m involved with Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights.  Neither of us is attending the 68th Commission on the Status of Women on behalf of those organizations. But despite the gap in our age, race and geographic region, she and I both know that bodily autonomy is the foundation of equity for women.

Soon the space around the bench grows crowded–tight and loud and edgy. Half of those waiting with us won’t get in. Half of those who do get in will be evicted by UN Security. There will be no crowding on the floors or standing (even though in more spacious rooms, this is sometimes overlooked).

Outside the United Nations building on this particular day, it grows unseasonably warm, and yet,  women around the world rush to the basement of the United Nations, compelled to gather together to listen to government officials and grass roots activists from the Philippines, El Salvador, Colombia, Uganda, Canada, Luxembourg, Poland, and even the United States.

As soon as the doors to Conference Room 12 open, and the attendants of the last meeting file out, we all rush inside to scramble for a chair–the only ticket to stay in the room. I find myself seated at the end of a row of very young women. I say hello to the one beside me and learn that her group is here from a Catholic girls high school in Ohio. The school sends a contingent to the Commission on the Status of Women every year, sponsored by a Catholic NGO upholding women’s bodily autonomy.

A short distance away from my desk seat, I spy the young woman from Atlanta whom I’d met on the bench. She’s in the row of seats beneath the small booths with darkened windows that house the translators. This is the role my late grandmother Lila dreamed of occupying at the United Nations. But a lack of access to reproductive freedom in the 1940s cut short her studies of French and Chinese at the nearby Rutgers School for Women.

The room is filled with voices from every language, but when the program gets underway, the room dramatically quiets.

As each expert speaks about the atrocities women face around the world with regard to health care and bodily autonomy, the room remains hushed. We listen to the case of a young woman in El Salvador who chose to continue her pregnancy, only to later miscarry and be arrested at the hospital–she and the doctor who treated her both sentenced to thirty years in prison.

In this room, we are bearing witness to women’s lives–what they are and what they can become–if we do not stand up for our bodily rights.

Each speaker emphasizes the ways in which criminalization of abortion disproportionately impacts those of lesser means. One notes that the hospitals that report women to the police are public hospitals–while there are no police reports from private hospitals.

The final guest speaker is from an NGO in the United States. The program host provides context for the USA, explaining how its Supreme Court struck down our federal abortion rights. Something about hearing this perspective in a room of multi-nationals from all over the world makes the reality of who’ve we become and who we are becoming land inside me with a thud.

The speaker from Louisiana is a researcher and statistician. Her state has criminalized abortion with a near total ban, one which exacerbates Louisiana’s exceedingly high poverty rate, high maternal mortality rate, and the ever-expanding maternal health care “deserts.” Healthcare providers in Louisiana face up to 15 years imprisonment and $200,000 in fines which makes them more reluctant to treat women, even those who are actively miscarrying, or those at high risk.

The program closes with a final address from one of its co-hosts, a minister from Canada. In her nation, there are no abortion bans. Abortion is fully decriminalized. It is widely understood, she says, in the context of healthcare. Her voice is strong and clear and a bit edgy, the way American women sounded once, I think to myself–leading the way forward instead of trailing behind.

“And yet,” the Minister adds, “Some men can’t help themselves, even in Canada.” She explains that individual men have put forth 48 different bills in opposition to women’s access to reproductive health care.

“What we see happening in places like the United States,” she says, “Is a strategic and methodological war on women, war on our bodies, war on our human rights.”

The Minister encourages women to run for office, and to put forward bills that counter men’s efforts to control our bodies.

She tells us of a counter bill that she proposed multiple times in her previous role as representative, a bill to create an abortion buffer zone around women’s reproductive health care clinics. The bill has failed again and again, but this year, on the day before International Women’s Day, the bill passed. It will go into law in June.

There is an explosion of joy in the room, and then the round of musical chairs begins again as the session ends and the next prepares to begin. Everyone stands and dashes out of the room to get in line for the next program or to grab something to eat or to use the bathroom while others rush toward one of the speakers.

I make my way toward the Minister from Canada at the center of the room, a room which has grown warm with 90 minutes of women’s breath and anguish and hope.

I tell the Minister about the young men who stand outside of our local Planned Parenthood clinic in Brattleboro, Vermont. They are bused in from a private Christian school across state lines, I explain. She listens and then refers me to her legislation, turning away toward someone else, while her aide hands me her card. The Minister turns back, however, seemingly irritated to hear about the boys outside our clinic. She tells me that she encourages all Planned Parenthoods to create these buffer zones to protect women’s access to health care.

As I step from the packed and stuffy Conference Room, into the cool hallway, I feel as if I have been reborn, thrust out of the birth canal, and I begin weeping.

I am weeping for no reason at all, I think, or for every reason, for every unnecessary hardship placed on life-givers around the world. 


Notes: This was a personal account/recollection of an official program at the 68th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the UN’s largest annual gathering on gender equality and women’s empowerment.  The program, “The Impacts of Poverty and Criminalization on Access to Abortion” was organized by the Center for Reproductive Rights and co-sponsored by the permanent missions of Luxembourg, Colombia, and Canada. The panel represented a cross-regional and intersectional perspective on the critical importance of addressing structural barriers to bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom–in order to address the cycle of poverty and achieve gender equality. The panelists included: Claire Padilla, Executive Director, EnGendeRights, Philippines; Justyna Wydrzyńska, Abortion Dream Team, Poland; Mariana Moisa, Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, El Salvador; Salima Namusobya, Vice President, Africa, Center for Reproductive Rights; Nia Mitchell, Policy and Research Center at Reproductive Health Impact, United States. The moderator was Rachana Desai Martin, Chief Government and External Relations Officer, Center for Reproductive Rights. 

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