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Gisela Foz on: Using data to transform the abortion discourse

Gisela Foz, Thrive Law Changer and activist for SRHR, recently spoke with Ruby at Thrive about AbortionData, an NGO dedicated to destigmatizing abortion by making accurate and reliable data accessible to the community and improve access to safe abortions. In this interview, Gisela introduces us to the work of AbortionData and the broader context of abortion rights in Latin America. She also discusses how we can critique dominant methods of data collection and methodology, particularly in Global South contexts, and the power of community, partnerships and research to create lasting and meaningful change.



Welcome, Gisela! It's lovely to see you again and congratulations on everything you have achieved at AbortionData so far. To start, could you introduce us to the team behind AbortionData, and the motivation for setting it up?


The idea was that we want to make sure that the information being shared about abortion is based on evidence and communicated in a comprehensive way. We also want to give a global perspective as often information is coming from the Global North. We are a team of activists, most of us from the Global South, and all with experience in the field across different contexts. I work in research and advocacy, Lina Lopez is the director, and we also have a team of people who are designers, tech experts, who have helped us to set up our website.


What all of us had in common was a concern about the misinformation we would see on abortion, but we were experiencing a very hostile environment where it did not feel safe to be an activist for human rights. This is what brought us together to start using data to promote accurate information around abortion.



What are some of the common misconceptions surrounding abortion, and why is it so important that accurate data is accessible?


One common misconception that we see is around post-abortion depression. There is enough research and data on the topic now to be able to say that this does not exist. Often when people are struggling with their mental health post-abortion it is because of the settings they are in. For example, if they are facing a lot of judgement, stigma, or if they feel unwelcome in their community because they’ve had an abortion, they will feel a lot of isolation and guilt. Therefore, women who are in more traditional, conservative and religious communities will feel that burden harder. But the depression is nothing to do with the procedure itself. In fact, often people will actually say they feel relieved, that having an abortion was the right decision for them and they feel good about having bodily autonomy. Also, research actually shows that taking a pregnancy to term can be harmful for someone’s mental health if it is unwanted and they have been denied the right to an abortion.


So in some respects it is easy to fight against this because there is a lot of external research on it and strong methodology to say that it is not true. However, we see a big gap where this research is often excluded from these debates and in conversations that happen in society that we want to fill. We want to manage how we communicate the data and research that is available to people in the community, particularly because often the misconceptions around abortion are used to judge, shame and objectify women and diminish their decision-making.


We also wanted to use the word abortion even though it could be offensive or controversial in some contexts. We want to empower people already involved in the fight and make sure that we engage with people working on grassroots conversations and to do that we need to use the right framing so it is translatable across contexts. We want to destigmatize abortion by making it a part of the daily conversation; this has to be a topic on the dinner table so that when someone brings up misinformation or stigma, people know how to fight that. So our main target audience is people who are involved in that process and are already in the fight.



You mentioned briefly earlier, and on your website, the importance of data coming from the Global South. Could you explain a bit more about what 'decolonising data' means, why it's so important, and how you would go about doing that?


For us, all of us are from the global South and most of us have had experience in the Global North. Lina and I have been through education in the UK and we have access to data coming from the US. How we see it is that science, as we know, has a lot of flaws and we need to acknowledge that. And a lot of science and research is coming from a USA and Eurocentric perspective. So we are asking - how can we take that into account and criticise, not to invalidate the data, but to make sure it is more accurate when it comes to other contexts? So, if we have used one research and methodology, and then take this to another place to run the same questionnaire, for example, we have to ask - is this questionnaire suitable for that place? How can we look to that population and involve that population and centre our research on their experience, rather than just bringing a standard questionnaire? You may use one methodology that worked across 27 countries in Europe, but will it work in 50 countries in Africa? Or not? And if not, why not?


So we need to have these kind of criticisms to make sure that the data we collect or the data we are spreading is accurate and beneficial to communities. Our goal is not to collect data yet but we want to make sure that we understand strong methodologies and their flaws, and when we are working with data to ask - okay, did they take into account the population they were studying, or did they just study the population as an object? Because the population is not an object, they may volunteer to join a project and support the research, but they are people and we want to approach research from this perspective.



Currently, most of the data on your website is focused on Latin America. Could you provide some context on what is going on across the region at the moment in regards to abortion?


We just released our research on abortion stigma in Colombia and I would say that, being in Brazil for the past four years, I was feeling really hopeless about working in sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR), but actually other countries in Latin America are doing great - Argentina, Colombia, Mexico. So we do see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, even with decriminalisation people are still facing a lot of stigma and this is the thing we’re diving into at the moment because we want to understand whether legal change is enough and what we need to do moving forward? People are still being denied access to abortion now even when it is a right and many tools are being used to do that, such as conscientious objection*. These are the things that we want to research and make sure we understand properly so we know how to move forward, and our research on abortion stigma in Colombia is one way to pave our work here.


(Excerpt from AbortionData's latest report in partnership with DisorLab- 'Abortion and Stigma in Colombia: A review of policy and social media'. Through an analysis of statistical information and Twitter data found abortion stigma in Colombia to be rooted in three key factors: (1) Criminalisation; (2) Traditional roles of femininity, and (3) Social identity. Discover the groundbreaking report at - https://www.abortiondata.org/abortion-stigma-in-colombia/)


In Brazil, we managed to vote Bolsonaro out. That was great because he implemented many anti-rights policies, however we still have a very conservative congress, including the Senate and the House of Representatives, so it is still hard to bring that debate to certain spaces. There are people who are trying to impose total abortion bans and wanting to give money for people not to abort in cases where abortion is legal in the country. We focus a lot on the presidential election and sometimes we think that all the damage is going to go away, but it is not how it works. There is still a very strong conservative movement in Brazil, they are still pushing it forward using misinformation, twisted and sexist narratives, to get to where they want to. But on the other hand, the current president has already repealed all of the damaging policies regarding access to SRHR. That does not mean abortion is legal, but he and the current health minister are at least trying to recover some of the services that existed pre-Bolsonaro.


(Graphic from AbortionData.org shows overview of abortion services available in Brazil. Data reveals, despite abortion only being legal in three instances. The data reveals how, despite abortion being legal in three instances, access to this right is not always guaranteed, and that several hospitals have now stopped providing the service. To find out more about abortion law in Brazil, abortion numbers, public attitudes, and a breakdown of demographic of abortion seekers, visit https://www.abortiondata.org/brazil/)


So this is kind of where we sit at the moment. We are a region that is pushing forward. I think it is especially interesting being on the same side of the world as the US that has always been sold as the land of the free, but now Latin America is showing how we get it done whereas the USA is moving backwards. It’s a nice thing to be and live, it’s history being made, but there is still a long way to go.



Moving on to the data that you share, how do you source your data? Are countries officially reporting on, for example, numbers of people seeking abortions, or do you mostly get your data from the third sector?


That is a really interesting question because we were trying to design an index so we could compare countries for abortion safety, but then we started to see that this is a very dodgy topic for most countries. There is no data whatsoever for many countries and many countries where the available data has not been updated for decades, so we also face the barrier of there being no transparency at all. As I understand, some of them don’t even have the data, they don’t write it down. For example, in Brazil we estimate that unsafe abortion is the fifth, fourth or even third biggest cause of maternal mortality, but we cannot have an accurate number on that because we don’t know. Often when women die from unsafe abortions, they write it down as something else, like 'haemorrhage' or 'birth complication'. But I also think that this is data. Not having data is data because it shows the lack of commitment, the lack of importance that our lives have for them. So mapping the lack of data is a way to hold them accountable. We can ask – “Did you sign the ICPD.3 back in 1994? Did you say you were going to provide healthcare for women and pregnant people? And what are you doing at the moment? Do you know what people are going through in your country?”. Therefore the lack of data is something that we would like to use as a tool for change.


(Graphic from AbortionData.org shows official reporting on abortion data around the world. Data reveals lack of comprehensive data collection on levels of abortion at a national level, and only 54% of countries had at least one record of annual numbers of abortion (including incomplete data). Find out more at - www.abortiondata.org/abortion-worldwide/ )



What are AbortionData's future goals and plans? Are you working in the community? Are you doing partnership work? It would be great to hear what the next steps are for you guys.


We are working in the communities that we are based, so I am involved in the Latin Institute here in the USA because I’m based in South Florida at the moment. Lina is working on in-person events back in Colombia because we feel that this sort of connection is very valuable. We do not want to move away from our roots in frontline movements, I’m still involved in the movement to decriminalise abortion in Brazil, and it's important to us to maintain these perspectives as activists. We feel that's really powerful.


We also want to move out of our echo-chamber, for example we do want to partner with LGBTQI+ communities. In Brazil, we have already been in contact with organisations to see how we can criticise research on abortion that does not take into account non-binary people. Often research talks about only women having abortions, but it is not just women. We also want to interrogate the concept of women. These partnerships bring us out of our echo-chamber and allow us to discuss abortion from different perspectives and to innovate in that way.


We want to keep doing research especially on stigma, we have a partnership at the moment with an institute that specialises in public opinion research and they will be running a questionnaire in Brazil about abortion stigma and we are really excited to see the findings of that research. AbortionData aims to be more of a community and platform for everyone to come in and discuss what they're doing and how they can use data to communicate for our rights and reproductive justice in general. So we want to partner with anyone who is willing to.


Also, as you can see on our website, we have an interactive map and we’re slowly adding information about the countries and people can contact us who want to provide some information on their country. Very often it is not on the internet, especially if it is not legal it is hard to access the information, so we want to hear from the people who know the information. There is a contact link so people can contact us directly.


Finally, we are also starting to fundraise - we have options of donation and we are starting to work on selling tote bags in Colombia but we are still managing the logistics of sending it overseas. We would rather work with individual donors because, from my experience, it creates engagement and accountability, so it would be nice to see people donating and holding us accountable and see some advance in the project as a whole.


Screenshot from AbortionData.org homepage


How to support AbortionData's mission:



Read the latest report - 'Abortion and Stigma in Colombia: A review of policy and social media'


To support their vital work to destigmatize and improve access to reliable information about abortion, please donate via https://www.abortiondata.org/donate/


To reach out to the team, including updates on latest abortion data in your region, visit - https://www.abortiondata.org/contact-us/

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