Ensuring Access to Safe, Legal Abortion: A Global Movement Grows

Each year, 47,000 women throughout the world die from complications of unsafe abortion. That’s an estimated 13 percent of maternal deaths—more than 120 women every day whose deaths are entirely preventable. Approximately 220,000 children lose their mothers this way every year.

Maternal deaths caused by unsafe abortion are both devastating for the families involved and detrimental to their larger community. Guaranteeing access to safe, legal abortion—and removing barriers to access in countries where abortion is legal—is essential to saving women’s lives and reversing these tragic statistics.

On September 28th, national and international women’s health groups will come together to mark the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe, Legal Abortion. This Day of Action has its roots in a 20-year movement across Latin America to reverse restrictive laws that criminalize abortion and reduce stigma for women who have abortions. Unfortunately, after decades of struggle, we still have a lot of work ahead—internationally and even here in the United States.

In many countries, outright bans or stringent restrictions on abortion result in women turning to unregulated providers for unsafe, clandestine procedures. Persisting stigmas around abortion, lack of appropriate counseling and information, and inadequately trained health care providers lead to even more women turning to dangerous options for ending a pregnancy.

Sarah O., a young mother in Ghana, is one woman who faced an impossible decision about her body and health. Already struggling to support six children, Sarah learned she was pregnant with a seventh. She traveled to a local clinic where she sought the advice and counsel of one of the nurses on staff, in confidence. The nurse did not think Sarah should end the pregnancy. When she was unable to convince Sarah to raise another child, the nurse told Sarah to carry the pregnancy to term and then she or one of the other nurses would adopt the child. Sarah left the clinic and returned home. A few days later, the staff at the clinic learned that Sarah had died from sepsis after attempting to terminate the pregnancy herself. This sad loss might have been avoided if Sarah had received appropriate counseling, nonjudgmental care, and had genuine access to her full range of options.

Sarah’s situation is unfortunately not unique. Nearly 98 percent of all unsafe abortions occur in developing countries.

In the United States, legal abortion has led to a dramatic drop in the number of women put at risk by unsafe abortion after the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that de-criminalized the procedure. However, women in this country face many of the same barriers to access as women globally—stigma, lack of access to trained providers, misinformation, threatening political ideology, and government intrusion into women’s personal decision making.

More than one-third of women in the United States live in one of the 87 percent of counties that have no abortion provider. In 24 states, mandatory waiting periods make it even more difficult, and sometimes impossible, for women to access safe, legal abortion. Over the past two years, we have seen a drastic increase in threats to safe, legal abortion—with 1,100 bills to restrict access to reproductive health filed at the state level in 2011, and over 900 filed in just the first three months of 2012.

We know that access to safe, legal abortion saves women’s lives. Studies also show that in countries and states where policy ensures that abortion is safe, legal, and accessible, abortion rates are actually lower. In countries that place a premium on women’s health, access to safe, legal abortion goes hand-in-hand with access to contraception and pregnancy prevention strategies. In the end, women who have control over their health and are able to plan their pregnancies are also able to enjoy positive outcomes such as higher educational attainment and economic prosperity.

It’s up to us to ensure that restrictive laws and out-of-touch ideologies that put women’s lives at risk have no place here in the United States and around the world. We cannot allow politics to jeopardize women’s health, rights, or lives. We must continue to push forward. Join us today in the Global day of Action for Access to Safe, Legal Abortion and talk with friends and family, reach out to your elected officials, or get involved with organizations doing local and global advocacy to protect and expand abortion access.

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