Every year 47,000 women, mostly from developing countries, die from complications of unsafe abortion. Unsafe abortions, according to the World Health Organisation are “procedures for terminating an unintended pregnancy carried out either by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment that does not conform to minimal medical standards, or both.” There are several causes for unsafe abortion, most notably restrictive legislation or the unavailability of proper health services, for example in rural areas or post-conflict regions. While the second refers to the inability of the State to provide services and protect their citizens, the first is primarily related to their unwillingness to do so. There are more than 50 countries around the world, mostly in South America, Africa and Asia with extremely restrictive abortion laws – abortion is illegal in all cases or permitted only to save a woman’s life.
Making abortion illegal does not decrease the number of abortion but increases unsafe abortions
A study from Guttmacher Institute shows that, when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, women all over the world will choose to have an abortion regardless of the legal conditions of the country there are in. The legality of procedure does not influence their decisions, however, when abortion is illegal, the risk of them dying from complications is significantly higher. Ultimately, the decision to terminate or not a pregnancy is an extremely difficult one and it is strongly related to the specific situation of the respective woman.
“I used to be against abortion because I was so sure there’s still something else you can do about it besides terminating the pregnancy. However, I would say that I was so wrong in that kind of thinking; once you’re in a situation that you don’t have any other options other than terminating the pregnancy, then you will begin to understand how other women felt during that time in their lives; you will see others differently for making that decision.” – woman who had an abortion, www.womenonweb.org
The view individuals may have on the morality of abortion or the position of different religions has no place in a state’s legislation. Governments have a duty to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of their citizens. Women have the right to life, to healthcare, to education and to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children, to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights. Denying access to abortion, states are not only not fulfilling their obligation but allowing innocent women to die from a totally preventable cause.
Abortion and social injustice
All over the world women are unable to avoid unwanted pregnancies because they do not know how, are afraid of the side-effects, do not know about, cannot afford or do not have access to modern contraception, they are victims of sexual violence or they just cannot say no to their partners. But in both developed and developing countries, the women who suffer the most from lack of access to abortion services are poor women. Different from the image one may have on the type of women who have abortions – young, irresponsible – in the Philippines these women are married, are already mothers and are Catholic. The most common reasons for their decision are financial – they cannot afford a child, or another child. What they care the most about is the well-being of their family.
Once they decide to have an abortion, if they live in a country where abortion is legal, these women depend fully on state or NGO operated health facilities – which in some countries are scarce and their services increasingly restrictive and not always free of charge. If they live in a country where abortion is illegal, they are dependent on the black market, which increases the chances to be cheated, to be reported or to undergo unsafe procedures, leading to post-abortion complication.
On the other hand, wealthy women, regardless of the legislation of their country, will go to private clinics, will find trained medical personnel willing to provide the services or will travel abroad, suffering significantly less from the legal restrictions. Access to safe and legal abortion is a social injustice issue as it affects poor women significantly more than anyone else.
Abortion as a public health issue
Millions of women are hospitalized each year with post-abortion complications, costs that are incurred by the public health care systems. Some of these complications may result in long-term disabilities or health problems. Hospitalization affects women’s emotional well-being, especially if they encounter hostile medical personnel. Women lose time that they could spend working, studying, caring for their families, contributing to the communities. Therefore, providing safe and legal abortion is not only beneficial for the women but for the entire country.
When all women, regardless of where they live, how old they are, their religion, economic or marital status will have full access to family planning services, modern contraception and sexuality education, they will be able to make informed decisions and avoid unintended pregnancies; abortion will then become almost redundant.
But, until then, the only way to avoid women dying from unsafe abortion is to make it legal.
Started by women’s movement in Latin America and the Caribbean to “demand their governments to decriminalize abortion, to provide access to safe and affordable abortion services and to end stigma and discrimination towards women who choose to have an abortion”, September 28 is now the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion.
Follow the campaign on Social Media: #BustTheMyths #Sept28
Amnesty USA campaign: My body, my rights