One step forward, two steps back: abortion rights and women’s security

In the fight for women's rights legal and accessible abortion is one of the most important issues. Unsafe and botched abortions put women's lives at unnecessarily high risk. (Damian Wolski/Shutterstock.com)

“No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body.”

Margaret Sanger

The words of American birth control activist Margaret Sanger illustrate one of the greatest battles in the feminist movement. Women across the world continue to struggle for their right to abort unwanted children.

Criminalisation of and sceptical attitudes towards abortion increase the risk of botched and illigally performed abortions. Unsafe abortions are potentially life threatening and are the leading cause of maternal death. In other cases they have painful consequences such as infections or heavy bleedings. Of all abortions taking place worldwide, 45 per cent of them are unsafe accorinding to WHO. More specifically, 97 per cent of those unsafe abortions happen in poor countries of the global South.

Restricted access to safe abortions does not only affect women’s health physically but also mentally. The latter is due to financial burdens and reduced autonomy as a result of not being able to make independent choices. Thus, legalising abortion in developing countries is one of the key issues to tackle on the way to gender equality. In 2022, abortion laws are still being changed in both directions: decriminalisation is happening simultaneously to declining abortion rights and stricter laws being implemented.

Contradicting developments in the Americas

Colombia decriminalised abortion within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy on Februray 21 this year. In 2006, it had been legalised only for exceptional cases such as rape and situations in which the pregnancy could be life-threatening to the mother. Colombia has a longstanding history of conservative values regarding abortion due to strong religious beliefs. The change of law at the beginning of the year was celebrated as a significant achievement for women’s security and rights across Latin America.

Women in Bogotá, Colombia, are fighting for their right of abortion. Abortion has been decriminalised this year but is yet to be legalised. (Johan Gonzalez S/Shutterstock.com)

Steps towards less strict abortion laws have also been made in Mexico and Argentina. Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalised abortion in September 2021 while Argentina legalised abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy back in December 2020. At the time, Argentina was the largest country in Latin America to rewrite abortion laws.

Historically, Latin America had some of the world’s strictest abortion laws. The Evangelical Christian church plays a big role in people’s attitude towards abotion. Its presence in politics is high. One of the worst examples in the region is El Salvador, where several women have been sentenced to imprisonment for performing abortions. Therefore, the recent progress in Colombia is celebrated as a histroical event and as a part of the “Green Wave” of Latin America, refering to abortion right activist groups. 

A paste up in Bogotá 2021 that reads in English “It is your decision and I accompany you” by @parasito.callejero84 and @todossomosuna. (Philippa Scholz/frontlinestreetart.com)

Meanwhile, Texas in the United States is witnessing declines in abortion rights. A new law has caused abortion rates to drop by 60% in the state. Texas women are now travelling to neighbouring states in order to perform safe abortions. The law, called “heartbeat act”, allows anyone to sue women who abort once the foetus has cardiac activity. It is the strictest abortion law seen in the US in decades. A heartbeat can normally be detected around six weeks into pregnancy, which is long before most women even know that they are pregnant.

This law goes against Roe v Wade, which in 1973 banned abortion restrictions until the foetus can live ouside the womb, around 23 weeks into pregnancy. Such regressive tendencies can also be observed in other states like Florida and Tennessee, which have spoken out in favour of the new Texas law. 

Eastern Europe is paddling back

In Eastern Europe, a decline in abortion rights has occured since 2021, most notably in Poland. As a consequence of this, the European Court of Human Rights has been contacted by around 1000 women, who are affected by the restrictions in their rights. 

The ban led to several Polish women travelling to neighbouring country of Ukraine where it is possible to have safer abortions. Under the current circumstances of the Russian invasion of Ukraine this has become impossible. This has put many women in more vulnerable positions: female refugees are facing higher risks for sexual assaults and gender based violence.

Women and children are the majority of refugees. This puts women in a tough position of responsibility. Simultaneously, it enforces conservative gender roles of women being the caretakers of the children while men need to stay and fight for their country. The situation can potentially make women and children fleeing victims of human trafficking, as feared by UNICEF and European Authorities.

The bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol is another example of how the war puts especially women in vulnerable positions. Women in well advanced stages of pregnancy had to escape and give birth under highly precarious conditions. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy even went as far as calling the bombing evidence of a genocide attempt from the Russian side.

Women in times of war and crisis are at especially high risk. Women with children are most common among refugees and violence against them increases. (stu.dio/Shutterstock.com)

Another struggle of women’s security is femicide, which is defined as the murder of a women where gender is the leading cause to her death. This is referring to lethal gender based violence and occurs both in peace and wartime. Generally, cases are categorised based on if the perpetrator knew the woman beforehand or not. In war, gender based violence against women are often not due to the relationship she had to the perpatrator but are denoted a tactic of war. In peacetime, the majority of women murdered knew the perpetrator beforehand. Most countries do not distinguished femicide from homicide by law, but 16 countries in Latin America have specified the crime.

While we see much progress in equality and women’s rights today, it is also important to note current struggles. Abortion is one issue where we see steps taken backward undermining the rights that women’s activists have been fighting for decades. These legal battles are long processes, and meanwhile, sudden crises like the war in Ukraine continue to put women’s security at high risk.

Elin Ivertsson

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