Contraception, abortion and human rights

June 30, 2007

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that of the 46 million pregnancies terminated each year, some 19 million occur outside the legal system. Most of these illegal abortions are unsafe — performed by unskilled providers, or in unhygienic conditions, or both. Each year, an estimated 68,000 women die as a consequence of unsafe abortions.

Women in the world's most impoverished regions suffer the most from unsafe abortion. The poorest subregions of Africa, Asia and Latin America together account for 84% of all unsafe terminations. There are correspondingly high numbers of associated maternal deaths.

Women seek abortion for many reasons. A need to space births or limit family size is often driven by economic necessity. For women who already struggle to feed their children, another child could tip the balance toward starvation.

In war-torn regions such as the Congo and Sudan, where women are systematically raped by opposition combatants, carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term has severe social consequences for women, who may be ostracised by their community. In regions where contraception and abortion services are legally restricted or not widely accessible, women will often have no choice but to seek an illegal abortion.

This situation led the international executive of Amnesty International in April to add a call for the decriminalisation of abortion to its worldwide Stop Violence Against Women campaign. According to AI's Kate Gilmore, the new policy is "not for abortion as a right, but for women's human rights to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations".

AI was previously "neutral" on the issue of abortion. Although the new policy does not recognise abortion as a fundamental human right, AI's call for decriminalisation is an important step toward enabling millions of women to achieve some measure of control over their destinies.

The Catholic Church swiftly condemned the new policy. The church's catechism absolutely forbids abortion, and in a June 13 statement, the president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Renato Martino, said he expected Catholic organisations and individuals to suspend funding for AI.

Australia's most senior Catholic Church leader, Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell, has said previously that discussions within the AI leadership were supportive of a "universal right to kill". Father Chris Middleton, principal of Sydney's St Aloysius' College, told the May 28 Melbourne Age that the policy shift will have a significant impact on AI's membership in Australia because many Christian, and especially Catholic, members will resign from the organisation.

The Vatican's absolutist position on abortion is shared by the George Bush administration. The US's "global gag rule" bars US funding to organisations that perform abortions, or inform their patients about abortion, or advocate change in their nation's abortion policies and laws. As a result, many clinics that provided post-abortion care have closed due to lack of funds.

Research conducted by the WHO shows that women will obtain abortions whether the procedure is legal or not, and that liberalisation of abortion laws in particular countries has resulted in a major reduction in the number of women dying or developing severe complications from unsafe terminations. This has another practical consequence: the already stretched resources of hospitals and clinics in the Third World can be relieved from dealing with the results of botched illegal abortions to concentrate on delivering much-needed health care in other areas.

Research also shows that where effective contraceptive methods are widely available and people are educated in their use, the demand for abortion services decreases. Access to contraception and reproductive health services also greatly reduces the incidence of maternal mortality and raises living standards.

Despite this, the Catholic Church is vehemently opposed to any measure that allows women to control their fertility and it has conducted an anti-contraceptives propaganda war throughout the Third World, involving public condom burnings, denial of the effectiveness of condoms in reducing HIV/AIDS transmission and promotion of abstinence-based methods of family planning.

For women in the Third World, access to safe, effective contraception is critical. African women, for example, face a one in 16 chance of dying while pregnant. According to the WHO, many married women in poorer countries do not have access to the contraceptive methods they would prefer to use to space pregnancies or limit family size. The situation is worse for unmarried women, particularly adolescents, who rarely have access to reproductive information and are frequently excluded from contraceptive services.

The need for more accessible, safe and legal abortion and reproductive health services is not restricted to the Third World. In Australia, abortion is still on the criminal code of most states, and the 2006 debate over the abortion drug RU486 exposed not only the anti-choice attitude of many public figures, but also the overwhelming public support for a woman's right to choose.

The Vatican-led anti-choice crusade is part of its view that a woman's role as mother and wife is paramount. It bewails the "evils" of gender equality, according to which which women's life expectations and choices would be the same as men's, and strives to keep or put women back in their "natural place" as men's dependents. It is an ideology that prioritises religious dogma and political conservatism over the lives of billions of women.

Resistance rejects the notion that women should be defined by their reproductive capacity. Women's ability to control their own bodies is a prerequisite to achieving economic, sexual and social independence.

[Information for this article drawn from Ahman and Shah, Unsafe abortion: global and regional estimates of incidence of unsafe abortion and associated mortality in 2000. 2004.]

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