Call for Action – Mobilise for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion on September 28

In commemoration of September 28 – The Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion and in solidarity with the September 28 Campaign for Decriminalisation of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights calls on her members, partners, allies, other SRHR advocates, individuals and communities dedicated to promoting women’s reproductive freedoms everywhere to mobilise for women’s right to access safe and legal abortion!

Every woman has the right to life, dignity, bodily integrity, personal liberty, privacy,  self-determination, the highest level of reproductive health, and the right to live free from violence and discrimination. In countries where abortion is criminalised or otherwise restricted by laws, economic, physical, and cultural barriers, women are systematically denied their basic human rights.

What is the impact of criminalisation of abortion?

Paradoxically, criminalisation of abortion and restricting abortion access through law, culture and lack of access to services does not inhibit its practice.  It forces women to seek unsafe methods, risking their health and their lives. This constitutes a serious economic, public health, and social injustice for women. According to WHO data, virtually all abortions in Africa, and Latin American and the Caribbean are unsafe (95%), and in Asia more than a half (60%) of all abortions performed remain unsafe.[1] Though most abortions in Europe and the United States are currently performed under safe conditions the number of women resorting to unsafe methods will likely increase in the coming years due to encroaching restrictions on access to safe abortion services.

Young women are particularly vulnerable due to restrictive abortion laws and are often denied access without parental or spousal consent. Economic, cultural, and physical barriers impact young women in harsher, more dangerous ways making them more likely to resort to unsafe, risky procedures.

What are the implications of unsafe abortion? Worldwide, an estimated five million women are hospitalised each year for treatment of abortion-related complications, such as haemorrhage and sepsis. 47,000 women die each year due to unsafe abortion, which accounts for an estimated 13% of maternal deaths worldwide. Almost all abortion-related deaths occur in developing countries, with the highest number in Africa.[2] Adolescents (women aged 15–19) are estimated to have 2.5 million of the approximately 19 million unsafe abortions that occur annually in the developing world[3]. Unmarried, pregnant young women face stringent barriers to abortion and are forced to seek unsafe abortions. They are also often ill-equipped with regard to accurate information, and fear stigmatisation should their families and communities become aware of their pregnancies. They may be forced to leave school, give up their jobs, and are placed at further risk of violence when they are painted as ‘promiscuous’.

What does lack of access to safe and legal abortion mean in a woman’s life?

In August 2012, a pregnant 16-year-old Esperancita died in the Dominican Republic as a result of being denied lifesaving treatment. The girl was diagnosed with leukaemia and desperately needed aggressive chemotherapy which would have probably cause the termination of her pregnancy while giving her a chance of survival. Because of the nation’s complete ban on abortion, doctors withheld chemotherapy for fear of being prosecuted under Article 37 of the Dominican Republic Constitution which holds all life sacred from conception.

Each of the 47 000 women who will die this year and the five million women who will end up with permanent or temporary disability as a result of unsafe abortion or denial of appropriate medical treatment has a bitter story to share. These women are married and single women, women with children or without, women of all ages, rich and poor, women of all levels of education, social standing, class, colour, origin, and gender identity. All of them face unnecessary barriers; battle with social stigma, discrimination and religious dogma; and navigate a web of patriarchal rules and prescriptions in order to assert their fundamental human rights.

Access to safe and legal abortion is a woman´s human right

Sexual and reproductive rights – including access to safe and legal abortion – are recognised in several international human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)[4] which states, that the right to health includes measures to improve maternal health, sexual and reproductive health services[5]. The Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)[6] affirms women’s right to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and thatwomen must have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise those rights.

The International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action, in 1994, upheld that abortions, where legal, should always be safe. It also maintains that “In all cases, women should have access to quality services for the management of complications arising from abortion”, which specifically refers to countries even where abortion is not legal or restricted.[7]

Most recently, in his interim report presented to the UN General Assembly on 24 October 2011, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Anand Grover, stated that “Criminal laws penalising and restricting induced abortion are the paradigmatic examples of impermissible barriers to the realisation of women’s right to health and must be eliminated. These laws infringe women’s dignity and autonomy by severely restricting decision-making by women in respect of their sexual and reproductive health.”[8]

The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) explicitly recognises that the right to health includes access to safe and legal abortion, at a minimum, in certain circumstances (in case of sexual assault, rape, incest, and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the foetus). It requires State Parties to “ensure that the right to health of women, including sexual and reproductive health is respected and promoted”[9].

Despite the strong international recognition of the right to safe and legal abortion as a human right, any progressive intention meant to alleviate the plight of women meets staunch opposition from conservative forces. Globally organised and mutually reinforced, the opposition holds to unrealistic ideas towards women’s sexuality, ideas that are often inspired by rigid interpretations of the religious texts or by traditionalist patriarchal attitudes towards women.

The global women’s movement

However, what the opposition underestimates is the power of the grassroots women’s movement. Numerous women-led groups mobilise in defence of sexual and reproductive rights of women in their communities, at local, national, regional and international levels. With a rich variety of skills, expertise, and levels of engagement – and, most importantly, united by shared passion – women’s groups come powerfully forward to make their demands heard.

However, due to the nature of the work of these courageous individuals, organisations, and collectives who speak out in defence of women’s reproductive freedom, they often find their own lives and well-being at risk. Worldwide, the efforts of defenders of sexual and reproductive rights are shunned, sidelined, ignored or feared by broader society whilst their advocacy work is be viewed as offensive to cultural/religious/social norms. Women’s bodily integrity and rights has always been a political issue, but we are increasingly seeing it become a political tool and pawn in the corridors of power, that continues to exclude women and continues to trade on women’s autonomy and integrity. This lack of official legitimacy contributes to the stigma, victimisation, harassment, attack, violence, discrimination, and even loss of life experienced by SRR defenders,[10]violating their human rights. This September 28 Call for Action is also to show solidarity and support for women’s human rights defenders and their allies among the public who advocate for access to safe and legal abortion.

On this September 28 – Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion, we call on governments to do the following:

○    Repeal all laws criminalising, penalising and/or restricting women’s access to abortion services. Specifically, repeal laws restricting young women’s access to safe abortion services on grounds of requiring parental or spousal consent. Ensure women who seek or offer these services are not subjected to judicial  and non-judicial persecution, including imprisonment, or to harassment and degrading treatment by state authorities, institutions, and non-state actors;

○    Repeal all laws and policies that pose specific risks to sexual and reproductive rights defenders, and those from marginalised populations who do not want to be coerced into sterilisation or abstinence programmes;

○    Take effective action to sanction state officials and non-state actors who harass sexual and reproductive rights defenders or curtail their legitimate activities for the defence of human rights and fundamental freedoms;

○    Take all necessary and effective measures that guarantee low-cost, universal, quality access to contraceptives and abortion services—including emergency contraceptive procedures—and ensure young people have equal access to these services, free from all forms of stigmatisation;

○    Ensure that religious institutions and groups do not influence the state’s judicial, policy and programming efforts in relation to sexual and reproductive health and rights. The sexual and reproductive rights and dignity of all must be guaranteed, not subject to constraints imposed by religious authorities.

○    Implement current laws and public health policies that guarantee and uphold women’s access to safe abortion services without restrictions, ensure that healthcare workers and health systems are equipped with the necessary knowledge, equipment and resources to provide safe abortion services.

○    Clamp down on unsafe, illegal providers that continue to endanger women’s lives and continue to profit from the inhumane brutalisation of women’s bodies.

○    Desist, immediately, trading political power and parity at the expense of women’s bodies, integrities, and autonomy.

[1] Guttmacher Institute (2012), Facts on Induced Abortion Worldwide

[2] Ibid

[3] Guttmacher Institutde Abortion Worldwide: A Decade of Uneven Progress

[4] The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

[5] Article12.2 (a). General Comment No. 14 of the Com. on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

[6] The Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women. See in particular articles 5, 10 (h), 11, 12.1 and 16

[7] International Conference on Population and Development 1994, Programme of Action, see in particular chapter VIII.

[8] UN, Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, 2011

[9] AU, The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) 2003, see particularly article 14.

[10] Amnesty International evaluation Stop Violence against Women Campaign 2010