In 1994 at the ICPD, governments from around the world recognized unsafe abortion as a major public health concern, and affirmed that reproductive rights include the right to make decisions concerning reproduction free from discrimination, coercion and violence, which were reaffirmed again in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.
Yet as of 2014, unsafe abortion continues to be one of the leading causes of maternal mortality and morbidity, where an estimated 47,000 women die each year, accounting for approximately 13% of maternal deaths worldwide, and an additional 5 million women are annually hospitalized because of abortion-related complications.
Abortion-related stigma is one of the primary factors that places safe, legal and accessible abortion care and services out of reach for individuals worldwide, particularly in the Global South and particularly for young, poor, and unmarried women. Moreover, while socio-cultural factors entail that abortion stigma may take different forms in different places, abortion stigma is a global issue, demonstrated by the rise of legal and policy restrictions in places as diverse as the United States, Spain, Lithuania, and El Salvador, among others.
Why is abortion stigma so pervasive? It largely draws its strength from gender stereotypes used to deny individuals access to abortion, particularly the stereotype ascribing women to the role of motherhood. This stereotype implies that women “should prioritize childbearing and childrearing over all other roles they might perform or choose. […] nothing should be more important for women than the bearing and rearing of children.” As a result, abortion stigma and gender stereotypes, which in some cases are exacerbated by religious fundamentalisms, negatively impact the way a given society perceives abortion, as well as those who seek or have had an abortion, those who work in abortion care, and those who actively support abortion rights. At the legal and/or policy level, in turn, abortion stigma plays out in either justifying restrictive laws, or in preventing politicians or government representatives from speaking out on abortion rights, for fear of being perceived as too “radical” or “controversial,” and losing popular support. No space better illustrates this challenge than the intergovernmental deliberations regarding the Post-2015 Development Agenda, where UN bodies and governments have set out to establish the development framework that will replace the Millennium Development Goals, and where discussions surrounding universal access to safe and legal abortion have been virtually inaudible.
This silence, however, is unacceptable. In limiting individuals’ access to safe and legal abortion, abortion stigma and wrongful gender stereotypes fuel discrimination against women, and violate their human right to reproductive choice, as enshrined in article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
20 years ago, governments reaffirmed individuals’ rights to bodily integrity, autonomy, control over their fertility and privacy. This September 28, join us in calling on governments to speak out against abortion stigma, uphold their human rights commitments on eliminating wrongful gender stereotypes, and ensure the inclusion of the human right to safe and legal abortion in the Post-2015 Agenda!
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