By: Tavisha Sood
Around the world, abortion rights have always been a contentious issue and are constantly questioned, overruled or quite simply disregarded. The last few years in particular have shown to be a tumultuous time when it comes to the universality of women’s rights. The push against decriminalisation and liberalisation of abortion has been met with a lot of criticism and anger; whether that anger stems from cultural or religious conservatism, politicians furthering their agenda in times of political turmoil or economic crisis is always a guess. Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights is recognised as a Human Right by the United Nations, in specific ‘the right to make free and responsible reproductive choices’ being of them. However, this hasn’t stopped the rising backlash against women’s right to choose.
This constant tug of war over a woman’s fundamental right to her own body and reproductive functions was exacerbated by the recent news of Poland’s new abortion law. Poland, already known to have one of the strictest abortion laws within Europe, recently passed new legislation restricting all terminations with an exception of cases where there’s rape/incest or where the mother’s life is at risk. PiS, had a track record of curbing abortion rights since 2016 when they tried to pass legislation that banned abortion in all cases except when the mother’s life is in danger. The party was forced to back down after mass protest by women who rightly claimed that being forced to carry their rapist’s child to term is inhumane and can lead to severe distress for mothers. This time, the ruling on October 22nd, 2020 meant that women could no longer obtain abortions under the third exception which is ‘fatal defects’. However, this isn’t the first time politicians’ such as Jaroslaw Kaczynski have waged war against women’s basic right to bodily autonomy. In 2016 he claimed women should give birth even in cases whereby children have such severe deformities that they are “condemned to death", just so they can be “baptised, buried and have a name”. This is despite a number of medical professionals such as Urszula Ajdacka, a polish gynaecologist warning of the risks and complications that come with the foetus dying in utero. Forcing girls/young women to carry a child with severe defects actively puts them at a high risk of obstetric fistula, anaemia, eclampsia and postpartum haemorrhage amongst other complications. Girls younger than 19 years of age have a 50% increased risk of stillbirths and neonatal deaths yet legislation such as this is seen to be for the “health of the child AND the mother”.
However, while this is the most recent restriction placed on abortion rights, earlier in the year we saw a number of states in America wage the same war. Legislatures in Ohio, Missouri, Kentucky, Mississippi and Georgia were all amongst the states that passed legislation banning abortion once a heartbeat is detected. This could be as soon as 6 weeks, proving to be extremely distressing since a large number of women at this stage don’t even realise that they are pregnant. However, a particular bill that received massive backlash was the ‘Human Life Protection Act’ passed in Alabama that banned abortion in all instances except for where a mother’s life was at risk, banning abortions even in cases of rape and/or incest.
While all the laws above were blocked by the Federal Judges, they still shone a light on how this ‘chipping away’ of bodily autonomy for women is becoming a norm in the name of religion and politics. These bills while being emotionally and mentally exhausting are also proving to be extremely expensive for the government. Randall Marshall, an executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama described how ‘the State’s attempts to push out these unconstitutional laws have estimated to have cost the taxpayers around $2.5 million.’
These laws are introduced as a way to ‘reduce’ the number of abortions, however, World Health Organisation’s study, amongst others, has explicitly shown that in countries where abortion is banned or only allowed in instances where the mother’s life is at risk actually sees a higher proportion of unsafe abortions. With only 1 in 4 abortions being safe, the key thing to remember is that abortions still occur, and the only thing compromised is the safety with which those abortions are carried out. In fact, the WHO has also demonstrated how in countries with very restrictive abortions laws, safe termination is a privilege only the rich are able to afford while the women from economically disadvantaged families have no choice but to resort to unsafe practices. This is indicative of the severe discrimination against women from a low-income or middle-income background. This was also the case in Northern Ireland until recently, where women had to travel to England, Wales or Scotland in order to obtain an abortion since it was illegal in Northern Ireland. This again led to a number of unsafe and illegal abortions with women ordering pills online since they could not afford to make the trip across the Irish Sea.
Furthermore, Covid-19 has also been used as a catalyst by many politicians to push their anti-abortion rhetoric. A key example is Texas, where politicians deeming abortion services as non-essential were able to halt a majority of abortions and women's access to their reproductive healthcare. Texas Attorney General, Ket Paxton, commented on how the reason for banning abortion during Covid-19 was to ‘preserve hospital beds and personal protective equipment for workers’ without any clarification on how and why he believes pregnancies would somehow stop or be ‘on pause’ for the duration of the pandemic. Data has actually shown us the contrary, where unemployment is on the rise and uncertainty in all aspects of life, there is actually a rise in demand for reproductive healthcare.
Women, all around the world have been barred from accessing safe abortions due to Covid-19 and this has only given rise to unsafe, at-home abortions. The World Health Organisation earlier released data on how two-thirds of 103 countries surveyed between mid-May and early July had their sexual and reproductive health services disrupted. We have heard of horror stories such as one where a mother in Tennessee with two twins and a baby boy couldn’t obtain an abortion. Epileptic, she was at risk of being left unable to care for her other two kids had she gone through with the pregnancy. Marie Stopes International has estimated that around 1.5 million women will have unsafe abortions, and an estimated 3.000 maternal deaths might occur; all due to the lack of basic reproductive choice and healthcare. What makes this worse is that this isn’t news to our politicians, since reports from the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic suggest that the shutdown of routine services resulted in more maternal and child mortality and morbidity than the outbreak itself. Despite this compelling evidence, we see the global community repeat its mistakes as it not only neglects but actively stifles access to safe abortions and contraceptive services which are known to reduce numbers of potentially fatal and debilitating pregnancy-related complications.
While the criminalisation of abortion seems abhorrent, it does make you question why people forcing the restriction of abortion don’t pursue other preventative measures. Historically contraception and sex education are seen to be more of an ‘elective’ rather than basic healthcare. The politicisation of abortion and contraception has overshadowed their important role as a life-saving health service. Studies done as early as the one in 1999 by CEDAW conveyed how instead of criminalising abortions, countries should focus on ‘prioritising the prevention of unwanted pregnancies through family planning and sex education and reduce maternal mortality rates through safe motherhood services and prenatal assistance’. Despite this, we see a move towards marginalisation and de-prioritisation of contraceptive and sexual healthcare.
Already with the pandemic, movement restriction and social distancing have led to clinics closing temporarily and restricted women from accessing those that might still be open. In fact, we often see countries cutting down on these facilities such as PiS which rolled back state-funded IVF and made the morning-after pill more inaccessible. A study conducted by the WHO/BZgA in 2010 showed how out of 25 countries of the WHO European Region, only 10 had comprehensible sex education in a place that met the standards set.
As we talk about all the ways abortion rights are being stripped back, we do see some light when we look closer to home in Northern Ireland. In October 2019 abortion was decriminalised and became lawful in Northern Ireland and a new framework for lawful abortion services came into effect on 31 March 2020. The High Court in Belfast rejected the legal challenges put forward by anti-abortion organisations backed up by churches, ruling that Northern Ireland’s 158-year-old abortion laws are incompatible with the United Kingdom’s human rights commitments. Sections of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 meant women up to 12 weeks' gestation can get an abortion without conditions. Abortion is viable up to 24 weeks in cases where continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl, greater than the risk of terminating the pregnancy. There is no gestational time limit in cases where there exists a fatal abnormality or there is a risk to the woman/ girl life or there’s a risk of grave permanent injury. This progression in a women’s right to choose gives us a glimmer of hope and leaders and governments around the world try to strip back one of women’s back human right.
· Elizabeth Chloe Romanis et al, ‘COVID-19 and the reproductive justice in Great Britain and the United States: ensuring access to abortion care during a global pandemic’
· United Nations Human Rights Special Procedure, ‘Women’s Autonomy and Reproductive Health in International Human Rights: Between Recognition, Backlash and Regressive Trends’.
· Rehana A. Salam, Anadil Faqqah et al, ‘Improving Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health: A Systemic Review of Potential Interventions’
· BZgA, Federal Centre for Health Education, ‘Sexuality Education in Europe and Central Asia: State of the Art and the Recent Developments’
· Williamson N. United Nations Population, ‘Facing the challenge of adolescent pregnancy’.
· Haldre K., Rahu K. et al, ‘Is poor pregnancy outcome related to young maternal age? A study of teenagers in Estonia during the period of major socio-economic changes (from 1992 to 2002) Eur J Obstetrics Gynecol Repord Biol. 2007;131
· Michaud P.A., Ambresin A.E., ‘The health of adolescents around a world In transition
· The Economist, ‘Poland’s conservatives are pushing one of the Europe’s toughest abortion laws’
· The Economist, ‘Poland already has some of the strictest restrictions. In Europe’ – an Abortion Law sparks outrage
· Centre for Reproductive Rights ‘The Worlds Abortion Laws’
· CNN, ‘States passed a flurry of new abortion restrictions this year. Here’s where they stand’
· BMC Public Health, ‘Sex education in Poland – a cross-sectional study evaluating over twenty thousand polish women’s knowledge of reproductive health issues and contraceptive methods’
· Human Life Protection Act 2019, also known as House Bill 314 (HB 314) and the Alabama Abortion Ban.
· The New York Times, ‘Alabama Abortion Ban is Temporarily Blocked by a Federal Judge’
· World Health Organisation, ‘Worldwide, an estimated 25 million unsafe abortions occur each year’.