This article is available in French here.
This article is available in audio form, read and audiodescribed by the authors.
In 2016, Indiana resident Purvi Patel was sentenced to twenty years for feticide and child neglect for inducing an abortion. Such cases are not specific to the US, they occur all over the world. Restrictive abortion laws are often advocated based on religious, social, and political grounds. In the time pro-lifers stand for the preservation of human life regardless of health concerns, pro-choicers advocate for women’s freedom to choose. Although abortion has become better accepted and is legal in many countries, the laws differ widely from country to country. In most cases, abortion restrictions laws cost women’s health and freedom.
Abortion can be a lonely, traumatic and complicated experience for women, particularly in countries where abortion is restricted or banned for religious and cultural reasons. Restrictive or criminal abortion legislations highly jeopardize the lives of women who seek unsafe clandestine abortions, many of which are performed by unqualified practitioners. Most of these women end up being hospitalized, with serious complications and oftentimes, death. In fact, studies have shown that there is a strong link between illegal and unsafe abortions and high rates of maternal mortality. According to WHO, it is estimated that at least 70,000 women die from perilous complications related to unsafe abortions, and 5.3 million others suffer temporary or permanent disability. It is further estimated that unsafe abortions account for 13% of all maternal deaths worldwide and, in some countries, it accounts for 60% of maternal deaths.
Most abortions under inadequate or unsafe conditions occur in developing or poor countries, where abortion is limited by law. Take Brazil for instance. Abortion in Brazil is only permitted in case of rape or if the woman’s or the fetus’ life is in danger. If women undergo an abortion under any other circumstances, they face imprisonment and can be sentenced up to three years. Such constraints only push women to seek clandestine abortions, which put
their lives at high risk. A 2014 study published by the International Journal of Women’s Health estimated that in Brazil, about 48 thousand clandestine abortions occur annually. Unsafe abortions are ranked third among causes of maternal mortality in Brazil, as reported by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). More than 2 million women in Brazil experience serious complications from clandestine abortions every year.
Such constraints and regulations are not specific to Brazil. Women’s lives in Muslim and Arab countries are ruled by Islamic laws and cultural stigma. Yet, although abortion is extremely restricted, it remains very common in many Muslim countries. In Egypt for example, abortion is a taboo and women are labeled disgraceful if they have one. Ibrahim Bacha, a nurse at Wadi Neel hospital, says in an interview “abortion is still unacceptable by the majority here. It is considered a shame […] most of [people} do not accept this idea because of their religious convictions.” Religion as well as culture play a key role in shaping opinions. Some doctors will refuse to terminate a pregnancy because of their religious and moral beliefs.
Under Islamic law, abortion is classified as a crime and women who induce an abortion face imprisonment ranging from six months to three years, unless it is needed for the sake of the woman’s health. Practitioners also face sentencing. Bacha explains “it is a bit complicated to get an abortion [in Egypt|… [women] go to a private clinic. However, it is illegal. If the doctor gets caught, he/she won’t be able to work again.” Bacha further claims that it is not only up to the doctor to decide whether a woman can have an abortion, the pregnant woman must also have her husband’s permission if she is married. Besides, while many contraception forms such as birth control pills are not hard to find in Egypt, only married women can get them. Most emergency contraceptives pills are available only with a medical prescription in Egypt, and pharmacies often face shortages of the morning-after pill. Left with limited solutions, Egyptian women turn to illegal and thus unsafe abortion, sometimes resulting in their death. One study estimated that between 1995 and 2000, there were more than two million abortions, and 2,542 maternal deaths due to unsafe abortions in Egypt.
Religious laws and cultural barriers do not stop abortions, whether in Egypt or in any other country. Instead, they make them unsafe and dangerous for women who do not ask for much, only to take their choice into consideration. Some practitioners believe that oppressed societies like Egypt should be more open to the idea of abortion. Ibrahim Bacha is one of them: “as an expert, I believe that these laws serve to protect the health of women. However, they restrict their individual freedom.” He also suggests that women should be informed about the potential dangers of abortion and “give them the choice” to decide.
Proponents of abortion also believe that social factors can lead a woman to have an abortion. Unplanned pregnancy is the common reason used to justify their choice. In this case, the baby will drastically change the parents’ life before they are ready. In our interview with a Spanish woman who decided to have an abortion, she justifies her choice saying »I was 21, it was something that happened one night. I didn’t even remember the name of the guy.” Her young age and relationship with the partner were obstacles for her to raise a child. The Guttmacher Institute, an American pro-choice research organization that works to study, educate, and advance sexual and reproductive health and rights, conducted a survey in 2018 about the main motivations behind abortion in the USA. The results show that 48% of women who have had an abortion were struggling with relationship problems or wanted to avoid single motherhood.
Additionally, financial concerns often play a role in a woman’s decision to have an abortion. The same survey finds that nearly three-quarters of women (73 percent) had chosen abortion because they felt they could not afford a baby at that particular time in their lives. According to data from the national, independent, nonprofit organization FAIR Health, the national average charge for vaginal delivery in the USA is $12,290. This expense is considered high for American women whose average monthly payment is $5,683. Numerous women also resort to abortion in cases of rape and incest. This solution is promoted, and often expected, for women and girls who become pregnant from sexual assault. According to Gallup polling conducted in 2018, almost 8 out of 10 Americans say it is acceptable to abort babies conceived in rape and incest in the first trimester. Just over half say it is acceptable in the third trimester. It is true that the percentage of women who abort because they are a victim of sexual violence is not high, with just 1% the victims of rape, and less than 0.5% of incest, but having access to abortion in these cases is fundamental for the mother’s future.
Not all countries, however, allow this. For the Iranian government, whose law is based on the Islamic Sharia, the sanctity of the new life takes precedence over the autonomy of pregnant women. Terminating pregnancy does not erase the rape or undo the violence that the woman has suffered. Instead, it is considered another crime. It is a continuation of the cycle of violence. Thus, women are forced to carry their babies regardless of their psychological and financial conditions. Others question the efficiency of such restrictions as subjugating women to pressure and social restrictions will only recreate another social issue; which is illegal abortion. Studies estimate that almost 10% of pregnancies terminated in illegal abortion. About 1 300 000 births that occur every year in Iran, at least 120 000 are illegal. Instead of finding solutions to fight against this social phenomenon, the Iranian government seeks to
further restrict women’s freedom. Considering social factors not valid reasons to get an abortion adds more weight on women.
Her body her choice
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a multilateral treaty created by the United Nations in 1966, stated that “Every human being has the right to life”. Women’s right to abort was addressed by the Human Rights Committee when the treaty was adopted. Their goal was to protect women’s right to life by getting the procedure in a healthy and safe way. The HRC showed how restrictive abortion laws cancel women’s right to life and it recommended State Parties to take action on creating measures to guarantee this right for women. The ICCPR was reinforced in the early ’80s by the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The CEDAW suggested different ways to support women such as the provision of reproductive health services and the increase of access to family planning programs and services.
In France, women have been getting support from “La maternité heureuse” since 1956. The association’s main goal was to change the 1920 law which prohibited abortion and contraceptive propaganda in France. “La maternité heureuse”, nowadays called “Centre de planification familial” denounces and fights all forms of violence and constraints against women, fights against discrimination and social inequalities, and engages in the prevention of
AIDS and STIs.
As we can see in the case of A. L, a 26-year-old Spanish woman who decided to get an abortion while being in France, she did not have difficulties getting the procedure. She said: “My friend called a hospital. They told her to contact le Centre de planification familial. The same week I got an appointment to see a doctor”. Since the creation of this center, women have had fewer difficulties when making the decision to have an abortion. As A.L claimed, “When I realized it was real, I made the decision, I wanted to get an abortion”. For her, it was easy, just by contacting a hospital she got all the information. However, this was not the case of a 26 years old French woman who shared her bad experience on Instagram. During her consultation for an abortion, the doctor made her feel guilty about her decision. “He made me touch my stomach and said, ‘Do you feel that? This is the baby that you are going to kill « .
Abortion, an ongoing debate
Abortion was very dangerous before it became a safe and controlled procedure. Still often considered a sin, laws serve as a strong deterrent to protect fetal life considered as sacred. Yet, laws are also needed to protect the health of women who would risk their lives by having an abortion.
Today, public opinion is divided. Most people agree that a woman should have the right to abort if her life is at risk, in case of a serious fetal anomaly, or sexual abuse. Also, for social and economic reasons, abortion-rights movement express the need of women to freely control their bodies. The right to have an abortion on request and without restriction is part of their demands. Abortion is very expensive. A lot of women cannot afford a legal procedure. Total
access to abortion also means free access to abortion to avoid illegal abortion and the serious health issues that go with it. For many, disabilities are not a valid reason for women to abort either. Women’s health and safety are considered strong arguments as well. According to Dr David Robert’s article A scientist weighs up the five main anti-abortion arguments’’ abortion leads to psychological and health problems such as depression, cancer and suicide. There are religious believers who have great sympathy like Jes Kast, a minister in the United Church of Christ. During an interview with The Atlantic she said ‘’I believe every person I encounter, including myself, has the right to their body. When that bodily autonomy is taken away, to me, that is against Christian scripture, and is against the Gospel I believe in.’’ She represents an exception, for many believers abortion should be prohibited. Catholicisms claim that life begins at conception. In Islam, the human body belongs to God. For both religions,
abortion would be murder and sin. Whether they are religious or not, pro-lifers, believe that every human being, including an embryo or fetus, has the right to live. They focus on how the unborn child is denied choice. People often mention adoption and contraceptive means like the morning-after pill to avoid abortion.
“The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom, courage”
-Greek historian Thucydides (460 BC – 395 BC).
Courage is what women need to demand better abortion laws and more freedom for women. Women’s associations, human rights organizations, humanists and women themselves from all over the world must take a courageous step and lead the path towards the legalizing of abortion everywhere. Social factors, health and the freedom of choice are valid arguments to save women from arbitrary laws that will only create more Purvi Patels.