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Story and Perspective

The Case for Optimism

Sarah Peck

Last month, the Supreme Court did what staff across Pathfinder have been dreading: They overturned Roe vs. Wade, and with it, the rights of millions of American women to an abortion. Trigger laws have gone into effect in states across the country, though some temporary blocks have held off the most restrictive iterations, for now.

It would be easy to despair in a time like this. In fact, the media, and the surrounding cacophony of our socially connected world, insist that there is a global movement to degrade rights. And while now feels like an extremely dark time for women in the United States, and for rights globally, one could argue that our arc is one that is, in fact, bending towards justice.

In her recent book, Evidence for Hope, human rights scholar Kathryn Sikkink examines the efficacy of the global human rights movement, and from it, draws a surprising conclusion: “Cognitive and news biases contribute to pervasive cynicism.” But Sikkink’s investigation into past and current trends indicates that human rights is not in its twilight. Instead, “this is a period of vibrant activism that has made impressive improvements in human well-being.”

With regards to abortion access, the US has just become an outlier to the global trend of expansion of access. In fact, it is now one of only four countries in 28 years to restrict abortion rights. In our global work, we have watched an evolution of sexual and reproductive health and rights as countries globally expand access and decrease barriers. In terms of abortion, the trend is clear: Mozambique, where Pathfinder has worked for 25 years, decriminalized abortion in 2014. Ireland repealed its ban with overwhelming public support in 2018. Just last year, Mexico made it unconstitutional to penalize abortion. Soon after, Colombia’s Constitutional Court also moved to legalize abortion.

And, it’s no small consolation that at Pathfinder, we aren’t alone in our beliefs, or our work. Over the last 65 years, Pathfinder has worked to create deep, lasting impacts on sexual and reproductive health and rights globally. In the last year alone, we reached millions of women, adolescents, girls, and communities with reproductive health care, and more than 20 million with modern contraception consultations. Across our country, the fight is already being waged. The global business community is speaking out, creating policies for staff that would cover expenses for abortions out of state. (Pathfinder has such a policy in place).

Colleague organizations are in rapid motion. Reproductive rights organizations JHPIEGOPower to DecidePSI, and the National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda are working at home, and globally, to ensure all women maintain their rights. The Red River Women’s Clinic in North Dakota, the last abortion clinic in the state, filed a lawsuit alleging the state’s abortion ban, due to go into effect July 28, is unconstitutional.

There is much to grieve with the overturning of Roe. And, I don’t underestimate the global challenges of climate change, political instability, persistent attacks on democracy, nor the toll they take on our ability to continue to find the will to fight. But for each of these challenges, we are working on solutions, and at Pathfinder, are part of a broad network of partners, civil society organizations, governments, and health workers who work every day to ensure women have access to the care they need.

Across our programs, Pathfinder is empowering women to speak out, expand access, promote inclusivity, and develop solutions to problems that feel intractable. Our push to develop more inclusive programming for LGBTQ+ families in low- and middle-income countries supports marginalized groups to exercise their rights. And our work with adolescents and youth, who make up nearly a quarter of the world’s population, is building their knowledge, skills, and agency to make decisions about their own lives. Future generations will be empowered through their work.

Timothy Snyder gives us concrete suggestions in his book, On Tyranny, for the long road ahead. But he also warns us clearly: “The danger we now face is of a passage from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity, from a naive and flawed sort of democratic republic to a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy,” Snyder writes. “The path of least resistance leads directly from inevitability to eternity.” In plain words: Fight back.

Grieve, then fight. But don’t lose hope. Psychology tells us that the best way to cope with suffering is to face it.  Women’s rights – and lives – are at stake. At Pathfinder, we won’t stop fighting.

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