‘Let a woman’s body be all hers’

KC Deusdedit Ruhangariyo reports on Dr. Mahmoud F. Fathalla's moving defence of a women's sexual and reproductive health rights.

By Deusdedit Ruhangariyo

“No society – primitive or advanced – no religion and no legal code have been neutral about sexual and reproductive life. A woman can claim as her own her head, her hair, her hands, her arms, her upper body, her legs and her feet. She cannot claim the same right to the remaining area of her body, which appears to belong to certain male species, moralists, lawyers, men of religion and others, all of whom claim the right to decide how this part of a woman’s body can be utilized.”

This is one of the propositions in a presentation by Dr. Mahmoud F. Fathalla, a professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Assiut University, Egypt and a former president of the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics.

Dr. Fathalla was presenting an oration in honour of Allan Rosenfield, who fought for the reproductive rights of Thai women, at the First International Congress on Women’s Health and Unsafe Abortion. I attended the conference, which was held in Bangkok, Thailand in January 2010 and have tried to sell this article to owners of websites and newspapers since but failed. Because I think this information makes sense, and will always make sense, I have decided to share it with you now. Thanks to the Key Correspondents team for making this possible.

In his speech Dr. Fathalla shared ten propositions for a world where no woman is denied access to her right to health and life. His propositions were as follows:

Women’s rights are human rights

Prof. Fathalla said the world had been slow to recognize that women’s rights are human rights. For a long time the human rights movement has been gender blind, focusing on the ‘public’ arena, which is largely populated by men, and neglecting the so called ‘private’ sphere of home, family and community in which women have been traditionally enclosed.

No woman is coerced into motherhood

As far as the health of women is concerned, the doctor argued there is little to choose between coerced contraception and sterilization because society does not want the child, and coerced motherhood because society wants the child. Both interventions deny women the dignity of making a choice in their reproductive life.

According to the World Health Organization, surveys indicate that in lower and middle income countries more than 120 million couples have an unmet need for safe and effective contraception despite their expressed desire to avoid or to space future pregnancies.

In spite of the great advances in contraceptive technology, many women are unable to access such technologies. Women need and do not have vaginal microbicides, which they can use and control themselves in order to protect themselves, not only from unwanted pregnancy but also from sexually transmitted infections including HIV.

Dr. Fathalla said: “Women still need modern, acceptable male methods that would allow men to share actively the responsibility for fertility regulation. Women still need retro-active contraception, methods which they can use when exposed to unprotected sexual intercourse and when their periods are delayed.”

No woman risks her health or life because of unwanted pregnancy

On the issue of health risks during pregnancy, Dr. Fathalla said that women may not want abortion, but many need it, adding that they have always needed it, and that it was even described in the writings of Hippocrates, 400 B.C: “When the woman is afflicted with a large wound as a consequence of an abortion, or the womb is damaged by strong suppositories, as many women are always doing, doctoring themselves, or when the foetus is aborted and the woman is not purged of the afterbirth, and the womb inflames, closes and is not purged, if she is treated promptly she will be cured but will remain sterile”.

Beware: a dangerous human genetic mutation is spreading

The doctor warned, that there is a dangerous genetic mutation which is spreading and that, that genetic mutation is the homo dogmatic us gene: “We already know that this dangerous genetic mutation spreads beyond boundaries of continents, countries, race or religion. We know that the great majority affected are men, and that men in robes are highly susceptible. The clinical picture is that of a tunnel vision, obsession with a single issue focus, and an illusion of a given mission to force the vision on others. Women are often the target for those with this dangerous genetic mutation.”

No woman gives up her life in the process of giving life

The doctor sadly noted: “Every minute, one woman dies from complications related to pregnancy and child birth. In addition, each year eight million of the estimated 210 million women who become pregnant suffer life threatening complications related to pregnancy, many experiencing long term morbidities and disabilities.”

He added that these maternal deaths do not need to happen because the interventions that make motherhood safe are known, the resources needed are obtainable, and the necessary services are neither sophisticated nor very expensive. He added that reducing maternal mortality is one of the most cost effective strategies available in the area of public health.

Dr. Fathalla quoted Allan Rosenfield : “From a human rights perspective, expanding access to maternity care is an obligation. The tradition of acquiescence and neglect must end. All women have a right to a safe pregnancy and delivery.”

Open the safety exits on the maternal death road

Dr. Fathalla said there are millions of women now marching along the road to maternal death. The road, he added, is easily accessible at a number of points along its treacherous course: poor socio-economic development, excessive fertility, high risk pregnancy, and finally the well-know life threatening complications.

The doctor noted that opening the safety exist starts with better status for women (including nutrition, education and gainful employment), then family planning information and services, community based maternity services and essential obstetric functions at first level referral services.

The health profession should stand behind women

On the relationship between women and the health profession, he said: ‘”My encyclopaedic medical dictionary in defining the word obstetric, states that it comes from the Latin word obstetrix, meaning a midwife, and is derived from obstare, meaning to stand before. I submit to you that our noble profession will not be fulfilling its duty to women by standing before them. Women need us to stand beside them and behind them.”

Women, all women, should fill their prescription to power

On the solution, he said: “Women need one prescription: power. Powerlessness of women is a serious health hazard. As to the dose of this prescription, my advice will be: take as much as you can get. There is no risk of over dosage and there are no reported side effects. The problem however, is that there is no pharmacy that can dispense this prescription. Women have to get it themselves, make sure they have enough of it, guard it and keep a sustainable supply of it.”

A call to action for sexual and reproductive health for all

He concluded by saying: “We call upon governments of developing countries, the donor community, intergovernmental organizations, NGOs, civil society groups, the women’s health movement, philanthropic foundations, the private –for-profit sector, the health profession, and the research community. Our common future is at stake.

“With a genuine, sustained effort we can together help bring about a brighter future- for women, for families, and for the world as a whole.”

He ended with a Buddhist quote as a tribute to Allan Rosenfield: “Neither fire nor wind, birth or death, can erase our good deeds.”

The conference was organized by the Women’s Health and Reproductive Rights Foundation of Thailand in cooperation with the Royal Thai College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and Thailand’s Department of Health.