Why we need to bridge the gap between sex workers’ movements and abortion rights activism

Kristin Francoeur, Surabhi SrivastavaIn plain speak, Tarshi, India, 5 April 2016…Barriers to sex workers’ reproductive freedom – including means and access to prevent pregnancy, options to terminate pregnancy, and the choice and resources to raise children – haven’t been thoroughly explored because sexual and reproductive health and rights have been applied in a limited fashion to sex workers. It is telling that the majority of studies concerning FSWs in the Global South address their sexual health but narrowly, focusing on prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS… Most outreach to sex workers does not seriously consider their sexual autonomy or reproductive lives, part of an implicit marginalising of FSWs even among activists, leading them to classify FSWs as a separate category at arm’s length from “other” women.…[B]arriers to accessing safe and legal abortion are sometimes intensified for FSWs because of their marginalised position in society. However, research indicates that because of the relatively high frequency of unplanned pregnancies FSWs face, they may differ from other abortion seekers with regard to their own attitudes toward termination of pregnancy, and how information, resources, and support related to abortion circulate within sex worker communities. Sex workers in Uganda report that because of the nature of their work, abortion information is readily available within their communities, in which women are an active support network for each other with regard to unplanned pregnancies and other issues. In Kolkata, Ghosh asserts that having an abortion is such a common occurrence among FSWs that it doesn’t carry the same “inhibition” as it does for women in a “family setting”.At the same time, it would be a mistake to assume that there’s a homogeneous narrative around FSWs’ lived experiences of abortion. In Laos, for instance – where both sex work and abortion are illegal – a more complicated ethical stance of FSWs emerges, challenging the idea that sex workers lack an ethical and/or emotional response to abortion and are merely annoyed by it as a work-related hazard. Though many interviewees had experienced abortion before or after entering sex work, about 70% thought that abortion should remain illegal in Laos, should not be culturally accepted, and that women who terminated pregnancies were immoral. Yet, 70% also strongly agreed that abortion is the best option they have when facing unintended pregnancy. Instead of positioning FSWs as a separate category, the authors of this study show that, of course, sex workers’ sense of morality is affected by broader social mores, even as they might intentionally or implicitly subvert norms by participating in a marginalised form of work.