Oct. 07 2019

In the Fight for Reproductive Rights

In August 2018, hundreds of thousands of women—many wearing green—stood vigil outside Argentina’s national parliamentary building in Buenos Aires. Inside, votes were being counted on a bill to expand legal access to elective abortion during the first 14 weeks of a pregnancy. Despite passage several months earlier by the country’s lower house, and a pledge from President Mauricio Macri that he would sign it into law, the bill was ultimately rejected by the country’s senators.

For Jennifer Friedman, MPH ’06, the moment was bittersweet. As associate director of programs for International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region, Friedman coordinates multiple regional reproductive justice initiatives in 11 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean—including Argentina. “Even though the law didn’t pass, there was such an outpouring of support and mobilization led by young people, young women in particular,” she says. “It was amazing to see people just come out of nowhere, and mobilize around this issue.”

Friedman joined International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) in 2006, as soon as she finished joint master’s degrees from Columbia’s School of Social Work and the Columbia Mailman School, where she focused her studies on sexuality and health. “I took courses with amazing professors who gave me an analytical framework around health and human rights that is very useful and relevant to the work I do,” says Friedman. “Especially as I’ve gotten more involved in abortion advocacy, understanding that lens—the international human rights framework—has been very valuable.”

Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, rates of unintended pregnancy are among the highest in the world, and yet for 97 percent of women living in the region, abortion is either limited or totally illegal. Meanwhile, illegal abortions cause one in eight maternal deaths in the region and each year more than 760,000 women seek out healthcare for complications due to unsafe procedures.

While Planned Parenthood of America has long championed abortion access, IPPF has historically focused on preventing unintended pregnancy. “It’s only in the last 15 years that we’ve started working on the abortion issue with our affiliates in Latin America and the Caribbean,” says Friedman, whose portfolio focuses on service delivery—working with partners around implementing and delivering safe abortion services—and advocacy for increased access to legal abortion services. “It’s taken time to get people on board and understanding how it fits in the larger mission of what we do.”

Working primarily from the IPPF office in New York City, Friedman supports and coordinates the efforts of myriad coalitions in the region. Her colleagues are not only the handful of fellow IPPF staffers in Manhattan, but also the activists, healthcare professionals, lawyers, and feminists working with IPPF member organizations to promote safe and legal access to abortion in the countries to which she’s assigned. “It makes the work interesting, because it’s really diverse in terms of who we’re collaborating with,” says Friedman, who is fluent in Spanish and visits the region between six and ten times each year. “I’m working with people on the ground, implementing programs and services, and also getting a birds’ eye view of what’s happening at a regional level with sexual health and reproductive rights.”

Given that mix of responsibilities, Friedman credits the array of concrete, technical skills she mastered at the Columbia Mailman School with ongoing relevance. “Putting together a logical framework, program planning and basic evaluation, survey design, data analysis,” she says. “I use all of that still, to this day.”

Even as abortion access in the U.S. and internationally becomes increasingly restricted, Friedman sees cause for hope. “I work with really amazing people, both on the IPPF staff and in the region who have dedicated their lives to this, fighting for women’s rights and reproductive rights,” she says. “That’s humbling and inspiring.”