SUN 16 - 6 - 2019
Oct 1, 2018
The Daily Star
The tough task of normalizing and legalizing abortion
Last month in Buenos Aires, Elizabeth, a 34-year-old mother of two, died after inserting parsley into her cervix in a desperate attempt to induce an abortion. Days earlier, Argentina’s Senate had narrowly defeated legislation that would have legalized abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. If that bill had passed, Elizabeth might be alive today. Instead, she is a grim statistic: one of more than 40 Argentinian women who will die this year from botched abortions.On Sept. 28, activists around the world will mark International Safe Abortion Day, an opportunity to mourn those who have died because of oppressive anti-abortion laws. But this day is also about spreading a message on behalf of Elizabeth and other women like her: Abortion, while in many countries a political wedge issue, is simply a fact of life.
Each year, 25 percent of all pregnancies about 56 million are terminated. Abortions occur in every country and class. In the United States, 61 percent of abortion patients are in their 20s, 59 percent are already mothers, and nearly two-thirds identify with an organized religion. But abortion is most common in developing countries, where access to family planning services is often limited. In fact, a staggering 88 percent of the world’s abortions occur in the Global South. Abortion is a safe procedure that becomes hazardous wherever it is legally restricted.
Only about 55 percent of all abortions performed each year are safe, and complications from risky procedures often the only options available to women who live in places where effective methods are criminalized lead to some seven million hospitalizations and kill 47,000 women every year.
The struggle for safe abortion is centuries old. While the methods varied, abortion was a normal and often accepted practice in ancient China, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. It was only in the 19th century Catholic and colonial elites propagated anti-abortion laws to control women’s sexuality, bodies, and lives.
But, contrary to popular opinion, criminalization does not reduce the number of abortions; it only makes having one more dangerous. In Latin America and the Caribbean, where the procedure is banned or restricted, rates of abortion and resulting complications are among the highest in the world. By contrast, in North America and Western Europe, where abortion is legal and widely accessible, rates of abortion are comparatively low and safety is high.
Moreover, when abortion is decriminalized, death rates fall and maternal injuries vanish almost overnight. For example, a year after Romania decriminalized abortion in 1990, maternal deaths fell by half, while in South Africa, deaths plummeted 91 percent in the first four years after passage of the 1996 Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act. Simply put, there is no medical reason why any woman should have to risk her life to end an unwanted pregnancy.
Buoyed by these statistics, rights activists around the world are demanding changes to national abortion laws, and since 2000, more than 30 countries have liberalized their approach. In May, voters in Ireland repealed the country’s abortion ban, a significant victory in a society so deeply influenced by Catholicism.
Even in Argentina hope is high. Opinion polls show strong support for abortion rights, and the bill that could have saved Elizabeth failed by only seven votes.
Still, the fight is far from over. Globally, internet searches for misoprostol, a drug women use to induce abortion safely, are surging. In South Africa, only about 5 percent of public clinics and hospitals offer abortions, and a third of women still do not even know abortion is legal. In Morocco, meanwhile, women who campaign for abortion rights are arrested and harassed. And in the U.S., activists are preparing for a rollback of reproductive freedom if Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed.
The fiercest opposition to abortion rights originates with the Catholic Church and other conservative forces, and it has direct consequences both for women and for their countries’ health care systems.
Recent research conducted by my organization, the International Women’s Health Coalition, found that in more than 70 jurisdictions worldwide including 45 U.S. states health care providers can deny abortion services to patients based simply on doctors’ personal beliefs. These restrictions are unconscionable. Abortion is part of women’s lives.
It is time for governments to listen to the millions of women who are demanding reproductive justice and bodily autonomy. Laws must recognize and guarantee a woman’s right to sexual and reproductive care.
Services must be made financially and medically accessible. And women everywhere regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation must have access to safe abortion services.
Elizabeth never had these opportunities, and millions of women around the world are in the same position. Unless and until that changes, every one of them is a potential tragedy.
Francoise Girard is president of the International Women’s Health Coalition. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 27, 2018, on page 7.
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