Unsafe Abortion as Human Rights Abuse

Despite the new wave of "feminist" anti-abortion crusaders like Feminists for Life that spin legal abortion in this country as unsafe or harmful to women, the facts tell a very different story. As Tyler LePard and Katie Porter blogged last month, The British Journal, The Lancet, released a series of articles on sexual and reproductive health, coordinated by the World Health Organization. The study on unsafe abortion in developing nations called it a "silent pandemic" that is an "urgent public health and human rights imperative." Those are some pretty strong words – as well they should be.

Almost 70,000 women die every year (97% of them in developing nations) from unsafe and illegal abortion but millions more suffer complications such as hemorrhaging and infection. Many of those complications result in permanent damage for the women.

When are we, as a global community, going to treat this as a burning human rights issue and not just a political one? Access to safe and legal abortion improves women's health – despite the trendy taglines ("Women Deserve Better") that Feminists for Life has adopted. The first Lancet article noted that most of those 70,000 deaths each year could be prevented through access to contraception for the 80 million women each year faced with unintended pregnancies; 19 million of those end in unsafe abortion. But with U.S. public policy perversions like the Global Gag Rule and an administration that believes condoms are tools of the devil, it's unlikely that these countries will receive help from the United States to fund increased access to contraception and family planning for their citizens.

Feminists for Life is right – women do deserve better. The lack of investment in ensuring access to high-quality reproductive and sexual health care for women in developing countries is inexcusable and only growing, according to the World Health Organization. "These statistics represent an appalling catalogue of human tragedy," said Joy Phumaphi, WHO Assistant Director-General for Family and Community Health. "The issue is dropping down the international agenda."

Despite the evidence that barriers to abortion access in developing countries results in death and ill health for millions of women each year, 74 U.S. Senators saw fit recently to urge Amnesty International, an organization with a mission to prevent human rights abuses, NOT to take a position on this issue at their August 2007 meeting. Amnesty International clearly sees the connection between their newest initiative, Stop the Violence Against Women, and access to safe, legal abortion. Sexual violence directed against women and girls can often lead to unwanted pregnancies. For these women and girls the stigma surrounding first being sexually victimized and then pregnant leads them to seek out abortion no matter how unsafe or illegal. And in some countries where abortion is a crime even women suffering miscarriages are terrified of the stigma or legal consequences (prison time!) of seeking treatment, fearing they will not be able to prove that they did not end their pregnancy voluntarily, opting instead to put themselves in peril. Amnesty International puts it in perspective:

These are the grave and tragic contexts in which AI is undertaking its current policy discussion on issues relating to abortion. As a human rights organization, AI cannot remain silent in the face of such suffering and injustice

The tragedy here is that unsafe abortion is entirely preventable if only we would start treating this international issue as a public health problem and not a political one. As we in this country endlessly debate when life begins, whether or not young women should be government mandated to tell their parents about their plans for an abortion or whether non-existent "partial birth abortions" should be permitted, we allow millions of women around the world to die without access to safe abortion, and family planning and contraception.

Women are dying because we have not prioritized women's lives as worth saving. We must urge governments around the world to adopt reproductive and sexual health as a top priority for their public policies and rise above the political firestorm that rages in this country around abortion. This problem will not go away until we give it the attention it deserves. Until then women will continue to needlessly suffer.

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