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Bodies on the line | The World Weekly

Tens of thousands of Polish people, many dressed in black, marched through the streets last Friday to show their opposition to the “Stop Abortion” bill being considered by the Polish Parliament. “We are going back to the Middle Ages,” one female protester told a reporter.

The bill proposes that the identification of severe or fatal abnormalities in prenatal screenings should be withdrawn as a legal justification for abortion.

The governing Law and Justice Party has committed to curtailing reproductive healthcare. It has limited access to female contraceptives like the morning-after pill, dubbed “the death pill” by one senior party official, and even proposed short-lived legislation in 2016 to ban all abortions.

Opponents of “Stop Abortion” argue that it would restrict already limited reproductive rights for women in Poland. It would leave cases when the life of a woman was in danger, or if the pregnancy was a result of a criminal act, as the only scenarios when an abortion could legally take place in Poland.

A protest against the 'Stop Abortion' bill gathers in Krakow, Poland on March 23, 2018.

Over 200 non-governmental organisations from around the world signed a petition warning that the bill risked putting “women’s health and lives” at risk.

80,000 Polish women are estimated to seek abortions abroad or illegal abortions at home every year, according to Polish women’s rights groups.

Supporters of “Stop Abortion” praised it as a way to protect disabled foetuses in the womb. “The role of the state is to provide protection for every citizen, also in its first stage of life,” Catholic Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Pozan said in a statement lauding the “Stop Abortion” bill.

‘Transform whole societies’

The UN is resolute that women’s sexual and reproductive rights are part of core human rights such as the prohibition of discrimination, the right to life, and the right to education. As part of the UN’s effort to banish gender inequality by 2030 – one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – it has committed to ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare.

“The status of women’s rights is frequently a litmus test for the attitude towards broader human rights in a country,” says Nils Muižnieks, commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe.

The Council of Europe is an organisation working "to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe". It has 47 European member states.

Women’s sexual and reproductive healthcare coverage broadly expanded around the world in recent decades. A UN Economic and Social Affairs report highlighted a global rise in contraceptive use from 36% in 1970 to 64% in 2015.

Studies in the US have found links between protecting these rights and women’s status in society. Women with access to oral contraceptives had 35% lower college dropout rates 1969-1980 than those without access to birth control. Some research even suggests that as much as one third of American women’s recent wage rises can be credited to the use of oral contraceptives.  

Activists stress the empowering quality of allowing women to manage when, or if, to have children. “This can transform whole societies as women are freed up to participate more fully in their communities and contribute to the economy,” says Sarah Shaw, head of advocacy at Marie Stopes International, an international NGO that provide safe abortion and contraceptive options for women.

A study published this year in the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that compared to those without children, a Danish father’s earnings fell by less than 5% over time. Danish mothers, however, saw their long-term earnings fall by 20%.

A mixed picture

Yet significant disparities remain. The percentage of women (or their sexual partners) in relationships who had their need for family planning met using modern methods varies significantly by region, ranging from 89.7% in the Western Pacific to 49.6% in Africa, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) data from 2016.

The need for family planning is used to measure the extent to which the supply of modern contraception meets the demand in that area.

Rural areas also have disproportionately poor access to sexual and reproductive healthcare compared to urban areas. The recently completed 62nd session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women agreed that protecting the rights of these rural women was a development “priority”.

Limitations on access to safe abortions have particularly dire consequences. Between 2010 and 2014, the WHO estimates that roughly 45% of the 56 million induced abortions worldwide each year were “unsafe”. This was dominated by Asia, Africa and Latin America. Asia accounted for half of unsafe abortions over this period. In Africa such procedures carried the highest risk of death.

Activists stress that blocking access to abortion is not the answer. “Our teams know that a woman who doesn’t want a baby will go to any lengths to end her pregnancy. Putting greater obstacles in her path only makes her decision more dangerous,” Ms. Shaw told TWW.

Roughly 8% of maternal mortality worldwide every year is attributable to unsafe abortions.

Lesotho in southern Africa is one of many countries rife with obstacles. Abortion is banned except in life-threatening circumstances. This has driven women to seek black market options such as buying unregulated “abortion pills” through Facebook.

One woman told CNN that taking one such pill left her fearing for her life, but too afraid to seek medical attention in case she or her partner were arrested; “I have never bled so much, or felt so much pain, in my life.” 

Religion and populism

Religion is frequently cited as an obstacle to women’s reproductive rights. Many religions around the world have sought to liberalise their teachings on women’s role in society. There are still, however, conservative denominations which present a more limited picture for women’s rights.

Demand for family planning is rarely met across strict Islamic countries in the Middle East, standing at around 50% in Saudi Arabia and just 43% in Yemen – according to UN estimates.

Equally, the Catholic Church’s pro-life message to its 1.2 billion faithful has proven influential on law concerning women’s reproductive rights around the world. In Catholic majority Ireland, the 8th constitutional amendment gives the “right to life of the unborn” equal status to the mother.

Pope Francis greets the faithful during his weekly general audience at the Paul VI Hall, Vatican City on November 23, 2016.

“There is a long-term anti-gender equality agenda in the Catholic Church that women’s destiny is governed by their ability to reproduce,” says Françoise Girard, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition.

Catholic teaching generally promotes the sanctity of life at the point of conception, warning against the use of contraception and abortion. Pope Francis showed some limited leniency in 2016, stating that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil”.

Both Ms. Girard and Mr. Muižnieks also highlight populist politicians recently falling back on patriarchal ideas of authority and withdrawing protections for women. 

US President Donald Trump’s tenure has arguably drawn on these themes in his ‘strongman’ leadership. In 2017 his administration withdrew $69 million in annual funding for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) – a decision renewed last week.

For the Trump administration it was a severing of ties with an organisation it claimed supported coercive reproductive healthcare in China. Many observers, however, saw this as an unsubstantiated claim against the UNFPA, putting at risk the “human-rights approach to women’s reproductive health and services” the organisation brings to millions of women around the world.

‘A battle’

International NGOs continue to provide resources for states to expand their protection of women’s sexual and reproductive rights. One of many examples is Medical Students for Choice, a US-based non-profit working in medical schools worldwide to expand education on delivering safe abortions. Executive Director Lois V. Backus told TWW this allows them to “change medical systems from within”.

But a recurring message from commentators on this issue is that international intervention cannot achieve lasting change. “The heavy lifting has to be done at a national level,” Mr. Muižnieks told TWW.

Thousands of women march to demand legal, safe abortions in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on September 29, 2017.

The abortion rights movement in Argentina, epitomised by the green handkerchiefs carried at protests, has led public demands for change in this majority Catholic country – abortion is only legal in exceptional circumstances such as rape. Earlier this month, Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña said an abortion referendum was “on the table”.

Abortion is currently totally banned in three countries in Latin America. In 2017, Chile ended its ban and legalised abortions in limited cases.

“Women’s rights is always a battle, a contested space to preserve progress,” underlines Ms. Girard. “But a young, energised generation of feminists are taking the fight to intractable governments around the world.”

The next such “battle” may be in Ireland. Currently abortion is legal only when the women’s life is in danger. On May 25, the Irish people will go to the ballot box in a referendum on its abortion law, and decide if this attitude to women is permissible for their nation’s future.

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