Banning abortions isn’t particularly effective. When governments restrict access to abortion, abortions actually continue to take place at roughly the same rate, according to the World Health Organization. But they get less safe. When abortion services are denied or limited, coat hangers, toxic herbal medicines and unqualified practitioners step into the breach, while medical professionals who provide proper care are criminalized.
Total bans or restrictive abortion laws in countries like El Salvador, Poland and more recently several U.S. states (including Louisiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and Missouri) are designed to control and confine women and girls to stereotypical gender roles. They are an affront to their human rights and dignity and constitute gender discrimination. For transgender and queer people who need abortions, such restrictive laws are the latest in a long line of attacks on their rights and freedoms.
Organizations defending human rights have documented the agony and despair stemming from restrictive abortion laws around the world. One of the most harrowing stories is that of “Ms Y”, a woman who was granted asylum in Ireland after being beaten and raped by paramilitaries in her own country. Ms Y tried to kill herself several times when she was told she could not end her pregnancy, which was the result of rape. She was eventually forced to give birth by C-section. At every step of the way, the Irish authorities’ concern for the protection of the fetus trumped any consideration of Ms Y’s mental and physical health.
Last year Ireland joined the list of nearly 50 countries that have expanded access to lawful abortion over the last few decades. It was a historic move which came too late for Ms Y, but which will protect others from suffering the same trauma.
More recently, we have seen the horrific impact of criminal abortion laws being used to punish people for suffering pregnancy-related complications. In El Salvador, women who suffer miscarriages or stillbirths are routinely “suspected of having abortions” and charged with homicide.
In April 2016, Evelyn Hernández, a 21-year-old El Salvadorian woman, suffered an obstetric emergency at home, resulting in the loss of her pregnancy. She was arrested, tried and sentenced to 30 years in jail for aggravated homicide. In February this year, a higher court overturned this ruling and ordered a re-trial — which found Evelyn innocent. However, on Sept. 6, the Salvadoran Public Prosecutor’s Office announced that it would appeal that judgement – showing the authorities’ obsession with charging her under the country’s draconian laws.
We must continue to stand up to governments’ efforts to control women’s and girls’ bodies. According to the US-based reproductive health non-profit the Guttmacher Institute’s latest report, as of 2017, 42% of women of reproductive age live in the 125 countries where abortion is highly restricted (prohibited altogether, or allowed only to save a woman’s life or protect her health). Jurisdictions around the world are going to extreme lengths to restrict abortion access — stripping those who can get pregnant of their human rights and bodily autonomy.
Any person who does not control what happens to their body cannot be free. The debate around abortion should go beyond whether a person’s life is endangered by pregnancy. At the core of the issue is a person’s right to make decisions about what happens to their body. This right is critical to enabling all people who can get pregnant to fully exercise their human rights and to live their lives with dignity. Governments must not only decriminalize abortion and ensure access to safe abortion in practice, but also create social conditions in which people can make pregnancy-related decisions free of oppression, discrimination, stigma, coercion, violence, lack of opportunities or punishment.
More and more countries have woken up to this fact, despite the alarming rollback of reproductive rights in some countries, like the United States or Poland, driven by anti-choice groups and supported by populist politicians. Over the last 25 years, around 50 countries have changed their laws to allow for greater access to abortion. Although national contexts vary, one thing has united all successful campaigns to reform abortion laws: women speaking out. From Ireland to South Korea, activists have helped dispel the stigma and secrecy surrounding abortion by sharing their stories. In Argentina and Poland, over a million women have marched to demand that their voices be heard.
People who need, or have had, abortions deserve our support and solidarity. Whether by donating time and resources to national abortion networks, taking to the streets in protest or educating people in our lives about the need for safe abortion, we all have a role to play in reclaiming our rights.
At the same time, governments must expand access to safe, lawful and affordable abortion and contraception for all people. Not only is it the humane thing to do, it is a state obligation under international law. It will prevent countless deaths, life-long trauma and life-changing injuries.