Why We Cannot Shy Away From Safe Abortions

On World Population Day this 11th July, world leaders will come together in London to discuss the unmet need for family planning (funding, delivery and monitoring) at a global summit hosted by the UK government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But after the dismal omission of the clause on reproductive rights, and the vague clauses on family planning at Rio+20, it’s disconcerting to think that these world leaders, and powerful organizations may think of family planning as a welfare plan, not as a right.

In fact, this is particularly unsettling for discussions on safe abortions, which still remains the most controversial family planning option across the globe. Since the 20th century, women’s rights groups have argued that safe abortions are an urgent need, and a reproductive right.

It remains a very important method of family planning and family spacing, because it allows the woman to choose if and when she wants to bring a child into the world, and how many children she wants to have. It is particularly helpful for women who have very little access to other family planning methods like contraception, and also to women who become pregnant because of failed contraception, or sexual violence.

In 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development – Program of Action, placed maternal health and family planning within the framework of sexual and reproductive rights. Over the years, the discussions on family planning have more openly addressed the need for the inclusion of access to safe abortions – yet it remains an unmet need for millions of women over the world.

According to the latest update on safe abortions by the WHO, there are at least 47000 women dying of unsafe abortions every year, and 5 million suffering from its morbid complications. Considering the fact that unsafe abortions are not always reported in countries across Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa, these numbers could very well represent only a percentage of the population with unmet needs.

In fact, the WHO has confirmed that unsafe abortions are one of three leading causes of maternal deaths, and the Center for Reproductive Rights has declared that denying the rights to safe abortions equals torture.

But unfortunately, religious and traditional views have led to restrictive laws in most countries around the world. In Asia, countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Philippines have restrictive laws, and access to a formal provider is difficult. More liberal laws are seen in countries like Malaysia, India, China, and Nepal, but the prevalent cultural, religious and traditional views on motherhood restrict delivery of the service and access to the service providers. In other countries, like Turkey, conservative governments have stepped back in their views and curtailed access which was previously available.

In recent years, international conventions have begun to understand that world economies cannot improve if women (who contribute to half the world’s population) are left behind. So, women’s empowerment through inheritance, education, and family planning has been recognized and discussed in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG 5), and even in the UN Women Call for Action after Rio+20.

But these conventions did not specifically discuss the need for safe abortions. By failing to openly address abortions, and by omitting the need to specifically declare it as a reproductive right, these conventions deny women the right to make their own decisions, and leave them at the mercy of their governments. Other organizations have discussed decreasing the need for abortions by using contraception, but have shied away from delivering service to millions of women who need them now and will continue to do so since contraceptives can fail.

Around the world, this restriction most often affects women, who are victims of poverty. These women often have little access to contraception with which to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Curtailing their rights to abortion is social injustice because it forces them to have a child they cannot afford to support. It is unfair to the child as well, because such children are often neglected or abandoned.

So, it is the need of the hour for women’s groups and governments to work together to specifically include discussions on safe abortions in all discourses on family planning, and to specifically declare it a reproductive right.

Will the upcoming global summit on family planning defy convention and take this bold step? It is hard to predict given the conservative views of some of the hosts. But, we would like to urge all organizations and world regimes to set aside their religious and traditional convictions and make an ethical decision. It would save the lives of millions of women around the globe.

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