Image of Helena Stolnik Trenkić and Sophia Smith Galer
Helena Stolnik Trenkić and Sophia Smith Galer

My first year leading the reproductive rights society

PhD student Helena Stolnik Trenkić (History 2022) is the co-founder and Co-President of Cambridge University for Reproductive Rights (CURR). One year after CURR’s launch, Helena writes about the Society’s first year, what drives her passion and what advice she would give to other Jesuans keen to set up their own society.

Why I co-founded the Society

Cambridge University for Reproductive Rights (CURR) is a non-partisan and evidence-based forum for students to learn about, discuss, and campaign for reproductive rights. That’s a wide remit, including contraception; abortion; fertility treatment; sex education; reproductive healthcare. The vast majority of the UK public are passively supportive of these rights, but they’re often considered taboo and remain undiscussed.

We know that Cambridge students want to engage more productively with reproductive rights. In February 2022, I surveyed my peers to ask what social issue they wanted to learn more about. Out of 24 options, ‘reproductive justice’ placed third. In summer 2022, noting widespread shock at the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, Laura Ryan (PhD Neuroscience, Downing), Emma Munday (MEng, Queens’) and myself founded CURR. We advance the conversation on reproductive rights, empower our local community with information, and contribute to the wider movement for reproductive rights.

Why this is important to me

I feel passionately about reproductive rights for many reasons, but these are my top two. Firstly, reproductive rights form part of the most important civil rights: bodily autonomy and integrity. These protect us from torture, slavery, rape, non-consensual medical treatment, and other exploitation. Not having one’s body interfered without consent with is a basic security and must be sacrosanct in a democratic society. And yet, laws and customs continue to tell women and other vulnerable populations that we lack the capacity or privilege to make decisions about our bodies and fertility.

Secondly, this is a public health emergency. Globally, 70,000 women die every year from unsafe abortions. That’s a completely preventable loss of life when considering that professionally-administered abortions are generally considered a very safe procedure and most women will not experience any problems. Comprehensive sex education reduces gender-based violence, one of the most widespread human rights violations of our time. The evidence is clear: access to reproductive healthcare saves lives. In a world where reproductive rights are guaranteed, everybody will be able to decide when and if to have children, without risking their life, body, or future opportunities.

What we accomplished in CURR’s first year

So much! We combine nuanced information events with opportunities for practical action. Last year’s highlights include an address from former UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore; a Q&A with journalist and sex education author Sophia Smith Galer; our fundraising pub quiz for The Sex Education Forum; and compiling and sharing data on British politicians’ voting records on reproductive rights.

What’s planned for this year?

This year, we have a packed Michaelmas termcard – including high-profile speaker events (eminent US feminist Brenda Feigen; health activist Dr Annabel Sowemimo), panel discussions (on decriminalising abortion in the UK; and faith and reproductive rights), practical workshops (a Wikipedia edit-a-thon with Sophia Smith Galer, to fact-check entries on reproductive rights), a comedy night fundraiser for Abortion Talk, and more! We’re covering a huge variety of topics, of great importance and interest to so many in our community!

Proudest moment so far 

Getting an audience of over 200 people at our launch event, a panel on ‘Post-Roe America’, was surreal. But I was most inspired by our reading group on commercial surrogacy. It was a low-key gathering of interested students, coming together for a good-faith discussion of an under-considered topic. We considered our moral and ethical standpoints; practical examples from India, the US, and elsewhere; and where we held common ground, and where we differed. Some people changed their minds. Others maintained a stance for or against the practice, but nuanced their arguments and appreciated the other side. There was no animosity or arguing, just respectful and passionate debate. In what can feel like a polarised time, it was a reminder that ‘reasonable pluralism’ (John Rawls) is alive and well when given a space to flourish, and that we can find rights- and evidence-based paths forward which don’t alienate.

What I have learned from this experience

Aside from event planning and management, teamwork and leadership skills with an interdisciplinary committee, resourcefulness in organising on a tiny budget, broadening my knowledge of reproductive rights, and graphic design… I’ve enjoyed considering how to make the biggest impact in my local community. That’s different from my previous experience in more ‘high-political’ contexts like UN conferences and procedures. I’ve also become far better at public speaking, on topics I know some people have very strong views about. I’ve been able to defuse tense moments and find common ground with people who initially think they’d really disagree with me, while firmly dismissing misinformation. That’s been a valuable learning experience.

What I would say to a Jesus College student thinking about doing something similar

Identify a cause where you really see a lack of action in Cambridge, and brainstorm enough ideas for at a year-long vision to fill it. Be sure to clearly define that vision in a short concept note, so you can keep on-message. Most importantly, choose a cause that evokes a deep enough passion that you’ll stick with it! Practically, it takes a while to wade through administrative tasks, so make the most of vacation periods to jump through hoops like registration. Finally, don’t be scared to reach out to groups working on related topics; we’ve had wonderful and fruitful collaborations with societies like the Human Rights Law Society and Cambridge FemTech! If you’ve set up a society and might want to collaborate with CURR, I’m only an email away.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are Helena Stolnik Trenkić’s.