In 2021, many women still do not have the right to make choices about their own bodies. Around the world, whilst abortions are legal under certain circumstances in almost all countries, the conditions in which a woman can legally have one significantly vary. Abortion is legal in 98% of countries to save a woman's life, 72% of countries for preserving physical health, 69% of countries for protecting mental health, but in cases of rape or incest the countries in which abortion is legal is only 61% and in cases of fetal impairment only 61%.
These percentages do not reflect a woman's choice to have control over what happens to her body. Performing an abortion due to social and economical reasons is only legal in 37% of countries and performing an abortion on the basis of a woman’s request is only legal in 34% of countries.
This topic is extremely sensitive and contentious. When diving deeper, not only does the right to have an abortion bring up cultural, social, economic and religious questions, but also many emotions for women who have either had an abortion, have not been permitted to have one or live in countries and or societies where they do not have access to one.
A study by Guttmacher Institute researchers in 2019 revealed that in the US, nearly 1 in 4 women before the age of 45 will have had an abortion. Their study also found that unintended pregnancy rates are highest in countries that restrict abortion access and lowest in countries where abortion is broadly legal.
In Abkhazia, Andorra, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Malta, Nicaragua, and the Vatican City abortion is illegal under all circumstances, even if there is a threat to life. In countries where you would expect freedom of choice for all women under all circumstances, this is not necessarily the case.
European countries are often viewed as progressive and pioneers in the fight for gender equality by the rest of the world. But in the UK, doctors have the right to refuse to sign off on abortion if they have a moral objection to it. This can mean that a woman may need to see more than two doctors to get the two signatures in order to have her termination. In Finland, officially abortion is not legal upon request, but it is stated that in reality, any pregnant individual can have an abortion if it is requested before the 12th week of pregnancy.
In Andorra, abortion is illegal in all cases. It is one of the few European countries where abortions are illegal even for the preservation of maternal life. In Andorra, a woman who performs an abortion on herself or gives consent to another person to perform an abortion is subject to up two and a half years imprisonment.
The right to an abortion is not only a gender equality issue but a human rights issue. Part of the male-driven society that still wants to have control over the female body suppressing a woman’s right to make choices over it. In 2018, Nancy Northrup the President and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights was quoted saying that “comprehensive reproductive health services, including abortion, are necessary to guarantee the right to life, health, privacy, and non-discrimination for women and girls.”How is it still the case that men in powerful positions are making decisions and passing laws that affect female bodies?
The fight for legalising abortions is a long one. At the end of the 16th century, Sir Edward Coke - a barrister from England - formulated the "born alive rule", in common law, which holds that various criminal laws, such as homicide and assault, apply only to a child that is "born alive". Since this time, countries have gone back and forth in setting laws surrounding terminations.
In 1920, The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to legalise abortions under all circumstances. After this, other countries around the world started to reassess and impose new laws surrounding a woman’s right to an abortion. To this day, reproductive rights legislation is still highly disputed worldwide.
In December 2020, Argentina legalised abortion joining Cuba, Uruguay and Guyana - the only Latin American countries to permit abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy. This year, the reaction from the parliament in Honduras was to propose a bill that would make it virtually impossible to legalise abortion in the country, a "constitutional lock" to prevent any future moderations of the abortion law.
In the US, in February 2021, South Carolina passed a law that shocked women’s rights organisations that would outlaw almost all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, however, this law was later blocked by a judge in March 2021. In March 2021, Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas signed into law a ban on abortions except in order to preserve the life of the mother. It is likely that the law will be challenged in court prior to it taking effect, and most parties expect a judicial injunction will maintain the current 20-week limit, but it is unbelievable that these laws are even being drafted.
We seem to make strides in the fight for reproductive rights for all women and then legislation like this is drawn up. UN human rights experts condemned the move in Honduras saying in a statement: "This bill is alarming. Instead of taking a step towards fulfilling the fundamental rights of women and girls, the country is moving backwards."
It’s not surprising that in countries where women fight to be seen as valued members of society abortion is illegal in almost all circumstances. n many of the countries where abortion due to rape is illegal, it is notable that marital rape is not. For example, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Brunei, Congo, Iran, Jordan and Jamaica all have such a legislation in place.
We must also draw attention to the fact that although legalised abortion exists in many countries under various circumstances, there are women across the world who still do not have control over their reproductive health. This may be due to socio-economic factors, religion, age, and their relationship with partners or parents. Women who live in societies where abortion is not illegal but is highly condemned may not have control over their reproductive health.
Furthermore, women with low socioeconomic status may not have the education surrounding their reproductive rights or the means to access them. Guttmacher’s research highlighted the disparities in unintended pregnancy and abortion among low-, middle- and high-income countries indicates a need for greater action to achieve global equity in sexual and reproductive health.
Historically, religious institutions have been fairly vocal about their views on abortion. In many countries around the world, religion still has a stronghold on society. The Roman Catholic Church for example opposes abortion in all circumstances. In countries where Catholicism is still very much practiced, it is no wonder that abortions are illegal for women in the majority of circumstances. Hindu teachings are generally opposed to abortion, traditional Buddhism also rejects abortion because it involves the deliberate destroying of a life.
In other religions such as Jehovah's Witnesses, they believe that human life begins at conception and do not, therefore, approve of abortion. If the termination of a pregnancy is the only means of saving a mother's life, the choice is up to each individual. Mormons believe in the sanctity of human life therefore, the Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience.
However, whatever the personal reason for disagreeing with abortion, its criminalisation has led to women seeking unsafe practices of terminations. Unsafe abortion is defined as ‘when it is carried out either by a person lacking the necessary skills or in an environment that does not conform to minimal medical standards or both.’ The WHO states that “Any woman with an unwanted pregnancy who cannot access safe abortion is at risk of unsafe abortion. Women living in low-income countries and poor women are more likely to have an unsafe abortion. Deaths and injuries are higher when unsafe abortion is performed later in pregnancy. The rate of unsafe abortions is higher where access to effective contraception and safe abortion is limited or unavailable.” In Latin American and Africa, the majority (approximately 3 out of 4) of all abortions are unsafe. Globally, unsafe abortions result in complications for about 7 million women a year and between 4.7% – 13.2% of yearly maternal deaths can be attributed to unsafe abortion procedures.
Women on Waves is an NGO formed in 1999 by Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts. They aimed to bring reproductive health services, particularly non-surgical abortion services and education to women in countries with restrictive abortion laws. When the WoW vessel visited a country, women were able to make appointments and were taken on board the ship. The ship then sailed out approximately 20 km to international waters, where Dutch laws are in effect on board ships registered in the Netherlands. Once in international waters, the ship's medical personnel provided a range of reproductive health services that included medical abortion.
The fact that women are forced to go to such extreme measures to gain control over their lives and bodies is a huge injustice. The fear that women must feel trying to obtain an abortion illegally or undergoes an unsafe procedure is unimaginable. We must keep fighting for women everywhere who do not have the right to make decisions over what happens to their bodies. For women who live in fear of becoming pregnant, for women who have been forced to continue with their pregnancy despite grave or negative circumstances, for women who have gone through an unsafe termination, and for all women everywhere who have had or considered an abortion.
Whatever a woman’s situation, no decision to have an abortion is an easy one to make, but all women should have the right to do so, regardless of the circumstances. A subject so taboo, it is rare women talk about their abortion experiences for fear of being judged, attacked, or because it is too emotionally painful. It should be a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy and the basis on which she wishes to do so should not be determined or reduced to whether there is a threat to life, a risk to health, rape, fetal impairment, or economic or social problems. Access to safe abortion is a matter of a woman’s human rights.
It is her body. It is her choice.