The global battle for control of women's bodies

February 16, 2007

"I voted yes and will always vote yes", Reuters quoted Laurinda Duarte as saying. "Abortions will always take place so why not vote to allow women to carry them out under decent conditions? I am a Catholic but that does not mean I am not free to vote."

On February 11, almost 60% of votes cast in a referendum in majority-Catholic Portugal were in favour of more liberal abortion laws. Under current laws, abortion is banned except in cases of rape, foetal malformation or when the woman's health would be endangered by continuing the pregnancy. Women can be jailed for having an abortion and health professionals have been imprisoned for performing the simple medical procedure. The proposal put to the referendum was to legalise abortion in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Only 44% of eligible voters participated in the referendum, short of the 50% required to make the result binding, however the centre-left Socialist Party government intends to introduce legislation based on the outcome. In 1998, a similar referendum was held in which 51% voted "no" to changing the laws, however just one-third of eligible voters participated.

Ireland, Malta and Poland are the only other European Union countries with stricter abortion laws.

The main opposition to the referendum came from the Catholic Church. However, aware of the widespread sympathy among its constituency for women's right to choose abortion, the church urged people who felt they could not vote "no" to abstain, a factor in the minority turnout.

BBC News reported on February 11 that Cardinal Jose da Cruz Policarpo, Lisbon's patriarch, claimed: "Whatever the motives that justify this dramatic act [abortion] in the eyes of the woman, it is always the denial of a place in the world for a human life that was conceived." Yet, as is typical of so-called "pro-life" proponents, those advocating a "no" vote showed little concern for the lives and rights of women, advancing religious arguments about human "life" allegedly beginning at the point of conception and calling for a "no" vote to redress low fertility rates.

Every year in Portugal, some 23,000 women are forced by the current laws to undertake illegal abortions, often posing grave risks to their health. Many other women travel to Spain to obtain abortions.

Legal battleground

There is an ongoing global battle to secure women's right to control our own bodies and to determine if and when we have children.

In Australia, abortion is criminalised in all states and territories apart from the ACT, where it is legal within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Legal precedents have expanded interpretation of the laws in the NT and states, giving women greater legal access to abortion. However, the laws remain on the books, leaving women and health providers vulnerable to prosecution.

In the US, abortion was legalised by the 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling, but states have introduced a wide range of laws posing barriers to abortion access. These include restrictions on late-term abortions; the compulsory viewing of anti-abortion information for those considering the surgery; the criminalisation of certain behaviour by pregnant women deemed to be potentially harmful to a foetus; restricting the use of public funds for abortion; and enforcing parental consent for young women seeking abortions. In a number of states, laws have even been passed approving the issuing of "choose life" car licence plates, with funds raised going to anti-choice women's crisis centres that refuse to offer advice or referrals on abortion services.

Abortion is legally restricted in most countries around the world, and according to the US-based Center for Reproductive Rights, as of April 2005, 26% of the world's population live in countries where abortion is outlawed altogether or allowed only when it is necessary to save the pregnant woman's life.

Before Nepal legalised abortion (in the first trimester) in 2002, up to one-fifth of Nepal's women prisoners were in jail for abortion-related charges.

Outlawing abortion doesn't stop it from occurring. What it does do is harm — and often kill — women. According to a study released by British medical journal The Lancet last November, every year some 68,000 women die from unsafe abortions, half of them in Africa. Millions more women suffer non-fatal complications, including permanent disabilities.

Of the 19-20 million unsafe abortions annually, 97% occur in developing countries. In the 82 countries with the greatest legal restrictions on abortion access, each year there are up to 23 unsafe abortions per 1000 women aged 15-49.

Last October, Nicaragua passed a law banning abortion under all circumstances, leaving women who undertake abortions or doctors who perform the procedure open to jail sentences of up to 30 years. The law was blamed the following month for the death of Jazmina Bojorge, who was five months' pregnant and died 36 hours after she arrived at hospital with severe abdominal cramps and fever. According to the Feminist Daily News Wire, Juanita Jiminez from the Women's Autonomous Movement of Nicaragua said: "It's clear that the fear of punishment kept the doctors from doing what they needed to do to save [Bojorge] — which was to abort the pregnancy immediately."

Access for the poor

In many poor countries where abortion is legal, it is still largely unavailable to the majority of women, particularly in rural areas, due to the lack of services and prohibitive costs. This also applies to poor women in many of the advanced capitalist countries.

Amber Abre, an 18-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic who has lived in the US for around 18 months and is still studying English, will face court for a pre-trial hearing in late February after she was charged with "procuring a miscarriage", which carries a maximum penalty of seven years' imprisonment and a US$7000 fine in Massachusetts.

The young woman took a drug used to prevent ulcers, Cytotec, which is also known to cause miscarriage and is widely used by women to induce abortions in the Dominican Republic, where they are illegal. On January 6, two days after Abre took the drugs, she gave birth to a 570-gram premature infant who died in hospital four days later. If an autopsy determines that Abre was more than 24 weeks' pregnant (up until which abortion is legal in Massachusetts), she may face manslaughter charges.

In South Carolina in 2004, 22-year-old mother of three Gabriela Flores was sentenced to four months' prison after she took Cytotec and caused a miscarriage. She couldn't afford a legal termination.

Women around the world are affected by the Bush administration's anti-choice stance through the "global gag rule", which bans non-government organisations that receive US funding from offering abortion services, counselling or referral — irrespective of the laws of that country — and from campaigning against anti-abortion laws.

The 1973 Helms amendment to the US's Foreign Assistance Act prohibited US funding from being used for these purposes, but the global gag rule means that organisations receiving any US funding cannot even use their own separate funds for the prohibited activities. This often means that family planning services must forgo their right to free speech and limit the services they offer women or risk losing funding and having to close down altogether. Anti-choice organisations receiving US funding are free to lobby for restrictions on abortion.

While performing life-saving abortions is excluded from the ban, there is reluctance to provide such services on the part of many organisations for fear of losing their funding. The same applies to provision of emergency contraception, even though it prevents rather than terminates a pregnancy so cannot be classed as an abortifacient.

Reproductive rights

Legalising abortion and increasing access to contraception reduce rather than increase the number of abortions performed. In the Netherlands, abortion is legal and free and contraception is freely available, and it has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world.

The Lancet reported that each year, 120 million couples have "an unmet need for contraception", some 80 million women have unwanted pregnancies (45 million of which end in abortion, 20 million of them illegal), and that pregnancy-related complications cause the preventable deaths of more than half a million women and leave some 210 million with disabilities. It also found that "sexually transmitted infections, excluding HIV/AIDS, are the second most important cause of loss of health in women".

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), even if proper and consistent contraception was used universally, there would still be some 6 million unwanted pregnancies annually. This indicates not only that abortion will remain necessary as an option for women, but also that greater resources must be invested in developing more effective methods of contraception. Yet funding for research into contraception has declined.

There have been some positive developments in increasing access to contraception. On January 29, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet signed a presidential decree to resume a program, first introduced last September but halted by a high court ruling, to provide free contraception (including emergency contraception) to all women aged 14 or older.

Restrictions on access to contraception have led to a dramatic spread in HIV infection. Last year's AIDS Epidemic Update, released in November by UNAIDS and WHO, reported that more women over the age of 15 are living with HIV than ever before. In 2006, there were 17.7 million women living with HIV — 1 million more than in 2004. In Sub-Saharan Africa, close to 60% of people living with HIV in 2006 were women.

And while the "pro-life" campaigners are busy undermining women's fundamental rights to control their fertility, in 2005, the WHO found that each year 7 million babies die from preventable causes within four weeks of birth.

Reproductive rights extend beyond access to safe, legal abortion. They encompass all aspects of women's control over their own bodies and fertility, including the right to effective contraception, to comprehensive and unbiased sex-education, to reproductive technologies that enable women to bear children irrespective of sexuality or relationship status, to free, decent health care, and to make choices free from violence or coercion.

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