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Global campaigner for women’s health rights dies at 78

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Joanna Perkin
WVoN co-editor

Joan Dunlop, a global campaigner for women’s sexual and reproductive rights, has died of breast cancer at the age of 78.

Dunlop was instrumental in convincing the United Nations (UN) to define a woman’s right to say ‘no to sex’ as an essential human right.

She was president of the advocacy group International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) between 1984 and 1998.

In 1995 she lobbied delegates at a Beijing conference over a woman’s right to say no to sex, a stance that was endorsed by 180 nations.

A year earlier, together with 15 colleagues, she wrote the first international guidelines on population policy based around women’s rights. The guidelines were later adopted by the UN.

Her interest in, and passion for, women’s sexual and reproductive rights grew from her involvement in organisations dedicated to population control.

She worked for John D Rockefeller as an advisor on population issues, introducing him to feminists including Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, and later as vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood in New York.

She believed that if women were more independent and had better living standards, they would be better able to decide how many children to have.

“When we say population policy, people think family planning, and we’re saying it’s far more than that,” she said in an interview with The New York Times in 1994.

Dunlop had an illegal abortion while a young woman in England, an experience that drove her campaigns.

She was angry at the rise of the anti-abortion movement in the US, which she viewed as “an organising tool” for conservatives promoting their broader political agenda.

She often directly attacked the Vatican and conservative politicians, including President Ronald Reagan, on the abortion issue.

“To give the unborn child – I don’t care what stage of gestation they are – preference over the woman in whom parents, teachers, society, culture has deeply invested, and say that investment has less value than a bunch of cells, is just to me an outrage,” she said.

Dunlop was born Joan Marie Banks in London on May 20, 1934. She grew up in a London suburb that she described as ‘Stockbroker Tudor’. Her father was deputy chairman of British Petroleum. Her mother was American.

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