My interview with Leah Hickman at WORLD, during which she asked me why I started working for Marie Stopes International and, perhaps more importantly, why I stopped.
Abortion provider Marie Stopes International attempted to break with its eugenicist and pro-Nazi founder on Tuesday by changing its name to MSI Reproductive Choices.
“Marie Stopes was a pioneer of family planning,” said Simon Cooke, the chief executive of the organization. “However, she was also a supporter of the eugenics movement and expressed many opinions which are in stark contrast to MSI’s core values and principles.”
Born in 1880, Stopes was a founding member of the Eugenics Education Society in Great Britain. She encouraged the sterilization of those deemed unfit to bear children—a viewpoint shared by Nazis. Like them, she wanted to work toward the creation of a super race. She also corresponded with Adolf Hitler. Stopes opposed abortion in public, but she coached women on self-managed abortions in private correspondence and sometimes euphemistically advised the “evacuation of the uterus.”
Marie Stopes International had operated under her name since its founding in 1976. Today, its mission statement is “to ensure every woman can have children by choice, not chance.”
“What [the new name] stands for is basically abortion on demand, by the choice of the woman, regardless of anything else,” said Kevin Duffy, a former Marie Stopes International employee. Before joining the group in 2013, he worked as a business consultant at a private hospital in Uganda. Duffy saw women using unsafe methods to abort their babies and bought into the argument that safer abortions were necessary in rough situations. Primarily, he admired Marie Stopes International because it created programs to promote quality maternity care for Ugandan women. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s great. That’s what Marie Stopes does,’” Duffy said.
But after becoming a facility director, he discovered that what he saw in Uganda was not the norm internationally. Universally, Marie Stopes International’s “core service” was abortion on demand. The organization even measured his performance based on abortion services.
Today, MSI Reproductive Choices provides abortion not only in countries like the United Kingdom, where the practice is legal in certain circumstances, but also in countries where it is illegal. In those places, the organization puts abortion pills in drug shops so women can obtain them for self-managed, chemically induced abortions. In 2018, Marie Stopes International provided almost 50 percent of its total abortion and post-abortion care in India, where the majority of abortions are self-managed using pills even though current law prohibits the method.
“What they’re saying is, ‘Look, we will stand for, we will empower women to make their choice, their reproductive choice, and to access abortion on demand regardless of the laws,’” Duffy explained.
During his 10 years working in Africa and Southeast Asia, he found that most of the women seeking abortions did not have the reasons he assumed. Like women in the United States or the United Kingdom, most wanted to abort for social reasons. “It’s not, therefore, a necessary intervention,” said Duffy.
Often, the drug shops provide incorrect doses or give the drugs to women too far along in their pregnancies. From 2017 onwards, when Duffy worked as an independent consultant for MSI, he noticed staff at facilities he visited often said more and more women were coming in with incomplete abortions. The drugs made abortions more accessible, but “the outcomes are not necessarily high quality or safe,” he said. He could not live with that strategy, and it contributed to his decision to step away from his consulting roles for the company in early 2019.
“Really, if you believe in trying to help young women in East Africa, providing safe abortion is not the best way to spend the money,” he added. “What we could be doing instead is we could be building up maternal health services, equipping and training maternity hospitals. Let’s help women have safer births.”
But the catchphrase of “children by choice” dismisses that option. “What that really means is not having children. You’re choosing not to have that child,” said Duffy. “That’s what abortion is.”