Content note: This article contains discussion of abortion, rape, paedophilia and miscarriage. 

Women's rights are being attacked across the worldJordan Uhl/Flickr

News of Republican-controlled states passing archaic abortion bills to mount a challenge to the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, has been met with widespread outrage, and rightly so. To ban abortion is undeniably to violate women’s human rights, as well as those of trans men and non-binary people. Not only this, but such bans perpetuate cycles of poverty; they disproportionately impact those who are unable to travel out of state for safe abortions, i.e. poor women and minorities. Considering that both Alabama and Georgia have a minority population of around 30%, it is impossible not to see this as a race and class issue as well as an attack on women’s human rights.

Despite this, more than a dozen US states have sought to impose blanket abortion bans after six weeks gestation, including six states that have successfully done so, despite a clear lack popular support. In Alabama, the state with the most restrictive law, a 2018 poll revealed that the then proposed abortion law (now passed) was only supported by 31% of Alabamians. The Alabama law criminalises abortion from the point of conception with no exception for cases of rape or incest, thus outlawing abortion completely except when a woman’s life is seriously at risk.

As heart-warming as it is that Alabama law makers – in theory – won’t actually force women to die by carrying their pregnancy to full-term, the consequences of such a ban ensure that women die nonetheless. Indeed, each year more than 30,000 women worldwide die from unsafe abortions and the annual cost of treating major complications from unsafe abortion is estimated at US$553 million. If the abortion debate is truly about protecting lives, then we must be pro-choice.

To ban abortion is undeniably to violate women’s human rights

Moreover, according to research by the Guttmacher Institute, abortion bans do not actually reduce rates of abortion. In countries where abortion is broadly legal, 34 abortions take place for every 1,000 women; in countries where abortion bans are in place, the number is actually higher, with 37 women per 1,000 having an abortion.

By placing the rights of a foetus before the rights of a woman, lawmakers, are placing women’s lives and livelihoods on the line. Yet this is not just an American issue, it is a global one. Earlier this year, an 11-year old girl in Argentina who had been raped by her grandmother’s partner was denied an abortion following two suicide attempts, despite the risk it posed to her life and her pleas to “remove what the old man put inside me”. Abortion is legal in Argentina when the pregnancy poses risk to the mother’s life, yet the girl was denied one until she was ultimately forced to undergo a caesarean section at 24 weeks.

Last year in El Salvador, which alongside five other countries in Latin America outlaws abortion even in cases of risk to a mother’s life, Teodora del Carmen Vásquez walked free. She suffered a still-birth and was imprisoned for over a decade after being sentenced to 30 years for aggravated homicide, she was released only after a Supreme Court appeal.

Within Europe, as in America, attempts have been made to strip back access to abortion. In Poland in 2016, lawmakers tried to impose a full ban on abortion, under which procuring an abortion would result in the imprisonment of the women and doctors involved for up to five years. The extent of the protests which followed forced the government to abandon plans. However, it is now trying again. The current Polish Parliament is working on the “stop abortion” bill that would outlaw abortion for foetal malformation (the most common reason for abortion in Poland). With the victory of the conservative PiS party in this year’s elections, it is likely that this law will be passed.

By placing the rights of a foetus before the rights of a woman, lawmakers, are placing women’s lives and livelihoods on the line

This is also an issue that hits closer to home –  in the UK itself, Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are actually stricter than Alabama’s. Northern Ireland’s abortion laws remain unchanged, despite it being permitted in both the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, where the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 inspired a campaign to legalise abortion. Halappanavar died of septicaemia after miscarrying and being repeatedly denied an abortion. In spite of such tragedy, Northern Ireland’s Persons Act 1861 remains in place, under which anyone procuring an abortion, whether they be medical staff or pregnant women, can face life imprisonment. This is absurd. In no other scenario is healthcare withheld until the situation is critical. Yet, if a woman’s life is found not to be truly ‘at risk’ and an abortion is performed, imprisonment faces all involved. Doctors are left with two options in such cases, either they perform an abortion and save a woman's life, knowing that in doing so they risk their freedom and hers too, or they refuse to provide an abortion thereby gambling with her life and the future of their career. It is an impossible decision, and as the death of Mrs Halappanavar reveals, it is possible to make the wrong one.


Mountain View

Dalia Leinarte talks about abortion rights as human rights

Moreover, in places such as Northern Ireland where strict abortion bans are in place, a dead woman has more rights with regard to bodily autonomy than a living woman. Doctors could not take organs from a corpse if they were not a registered organ donor, even if it would save another’s life, but because of abortion bans, doctors are legally obliged to force a woman to carry a foetus, even if it could kill her.

Abortion bans are not about saving life: they do not stop abortions, only safe ones. Even if a foetus is considered equal to a human life, abortion bans actually increase rather than reduce total loss of life. These bans are designed to control women, particularly harming poor and/or minority women, and this is happening on a global scale. Abortion bans abort women’s rights. There are no two ways about it.