UN Special Rapporteur: Abortion Restrictions Don’t Work

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Restrictions on abortions just don’t work in that they don’t result in the desired outcome.  This is the predictable, yet bold, conclusion of a report to be presented at the United Nations on Monday, October 24th by Anand Grover, a UN-appointed independent expert on health.  The report, which is part of an annual report-back from various human rights experts to the United Nations’ General Assembly, consolidates years of legal analysis and empirical evidence from other experts and concludes that abortion restrictions are unworkable and damaging to women’s health. Instead, the report advocates access to full, accurate, and complete sex education and information about contraception, as well as to all forms of modern contraception, because these services and state support for women’s equality actually do work to reduce the need for abortions.

Abortion restrictions are generally justified by reference to a desire to lower the number of terminations, be it by limiting access to abortion for all women, as in Chile, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, or just for the “undeserving,” as in most of the rest of the Americas including the United States. Some explicitly prefer pregnant women to die rather than having access to a life-saving abortion, but most refer to some sort of makeshift hierarchy of morals. 

“Most people, of course, should have access free of charge,” a high school friend from Denmark told me the other day. “But women who just keep having abortions: there really should be some sort of punishment for them.”

I have heard this sentiment echoed so many times.  “Seriously, I believe in access to abortion,” a young Mexican friend told me. “But really women need to show a minimum of responsibility.” This friend had, in the course of the same conversation, told me he recently had a condom break during intercourse.  When asked if he believed the woman in that case, if she were to become pregnant, had shown the requisite minimum of responsibility he was confused and horrified.  Of course she should have access to an abortion.  At least they had tried. 

These considerations about who, if anyone, deserves access to abortion are often at the core of public debate on the issue.  All but the most radical anti-choice activists would say that pregnant rape victims should have access, as well as those whose lives or health are threatened by the pregnancy.  This distinction between the vulnerable madonnas and the physically healthy sluts is, in fact, the bright line in determining public funding for abortion services in the United States today.

The truth of the matter is that abortion restrictions in law and policy have little if anything to do with how women and girls deal with their pregnancies.  Of the hundreds of women I have spoken to about their abortions, none mentioned the law as a deciding factor in whether or not to continue an unwanted or unhealthy pregnancy. Sure, the criminalization of abortion might be an impediment to getting a safe and timely abortion, but never a real barrier to getting one at all.

In fact, the only two questions policy-makers can helpfully ask themselves about their approach to abortion are 1) is it workable; and 2) does it actually work.

Most policies that allow only partial access to abortion for the “deserving” women are not all that workable. You need a process for determining the validity of rape claims, for example, and a solid definition of just how unhealthy a pregnancy needs to be to be unhealthy enough for the woman to be entitled to care.  In Ireland, where abortion is only theoretically legal for women who will die as a result of their pregnancy, a doctor asked me in visible distress: “How terminal does she have to be?  Can I help her if she has a 51 percent chance of dying, or does it have to be more?”

The notion proposed by my Danish friend—that irresponsible women who just have one abortion after another need to be punished—is equally unworkable.  How do you determine responsibility? And how many abortions are too many?  And what would be an appropriate punishment?  Carrying the pregnancy to term?  For many, the key moral question in the abortion debate is whether women who want their pregnancies terminated actually care.  But any policy based on a value-judgement on that count raises more ethical questions than it solves.  It is not workable.

Spread the word: abortion restrictions just don’t work.

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  • crowepps

    For many, the key moral question in the abortion debate is whether women who want their pregnancies terminated actually care. 

    And if the women DON’T care, then they should become mothers?  Ooooh, lucky kids, to have a mother with zero sense of responsibility who loathes children.  Does ANYBODY think these things through?

  • kirsten-sherk

    “Most people, of course, should have access free of charge,” a high school friend from Denmark told me the other day. “But women who just keep having abortions: there really should be some sort of punishment for them.”

    If I had a penny for every time I heard, “I’m pro-choice but…” Sadly, this sentiment is heard again and again around the world, even within the health community.

    These restrictions only reinforce the stigma around abortion, discussed in the September blog series on RH Reality Check, “Stigma, Shame and Sexuality.” For women in restrictive legal settings, stigma can have serious health consequences when women feel that their only option is to turn to unsafe abortion. (Shameless self-promotion: this topic is also the subject of our latest issue of Because.)

    This is a really important report, reflecting what so many of us who work in this field already know: restricting abortion doesn’t make it go away, it just makes it unsafe. Thanks for your post.


  • sophiah

    Speaking from my own experience as I near my 75th year end of this month…

    When there was NO chioce I and millions of women CHOSE to do our own abortions for our own reasons

    In my case my husband, women were slaves totally  at that time, would rather gamble with his buddies than buy  groceries so I often had NO FOOD  for my three children.


    At 21 YO I tried many methods to abort the 4th and finally got a way that worked and was hospitalized twice for a total of 15 days. To this day, over fifty years later, I have  major health problem I have learned to  live with by  following a healthy diet and  exercise.

    Years later I helped other women find ways to get assistance illegally and some suffered horribly

    This is what women WILL  DO  if  the religious fanatics make CHOICE  illegal again

    When any  female of any  species  cannot feed her offspring  she will eat some herbs or, if  human,  use an instrument to release the next mouth  she cannot feed.


    She will not harm  those earlier offspring but MAY  be forced to give them up so they can have food and shelter.

    IMV the PTB know all this and it is to them inconsequential as  long as they can get MORE BABIES from  uteruses  to raise to be troops in their never ending WARS. They  crave OVERPOPULATION  so as to  maintain the NEED for more WARS

    women are simply a automat for  producing  those  babies for a nickle a slot. 



  • zyllakoon

    I’m sick of the ‘I’m pro choice BUT’ mentality. It’s NEVER okay to force someone against their will to bear a child any more than it is okay to do anything else of violation to their body.

  • jayn

    Along those lines, the “abortion should be a last resort,” sentiment needs to go as well. There’s no logical reason a woman would resort to abortion as her primary means of BC (or Plan B, for that matter). The price of one abortion can buy a LOT of condoms, and while abortion is about as safe as medical procedures can get, it’s still better off health-wise to avoid that situation to begin with. If she isn’t using other methods of BC, figuring out why she isn’t and working to fix that would be better than trying to restrict abortion access to the ‘deserving’.