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The right to safe abortion is a fundamental human right which needs to be fought for
September 28th marks World Safe Abortion Day. Initiated by movements championing reproductive rights and reproductive justice, the right to safe abortion remains one of the lesser recognised, greater contested rights by governments, especially right-wing ones.
In these last weeks, we have seen the wheels set in motion to overturn the landmark 1973 judgement Roe vs Wade with the US President, Donald Trump, nominating Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. While this nomination has been hampered by pending sexual assault charges, the fear is very real that it is just a matter of time.
Abortion access in the U.S. has become increasingly limited: fewer clinics sometimes just one clinic in states like Mississippi; services available only a few days a week; unnecessary tests including making the girl or the woman see the ultrasound – an attempt to personify the fetus and hence dissuade abortion; parental consent if it involves a minor and a 24-hour waiting period after signing the consent form; and in some cases, even the need to obtain a court order.
While attempts to overturn Roe vs Wade will have devastating effects on American women, women all across the world will feel the aftermath. Not only will this affect America’s global policy across the world, even when a progressive President is in place, but it also plays the role of a standard bearer of human rights and women’s rights. When the U.S. enacted recognition of gay marriage, other countries were encouraged to do away with anti-sodomy laws, and enable recognition of LGBT rights. Hence policy decisions in the U.S always have a cascading effect on human rights standards across the world. Developing countries will resist the pressure to change restrictive abortion laws, or will review existing progressive laws. This will be especially felt in countries which already receive U.S. development aid, and already have a strong evangelical anti-abortion movement imported from the U.S in place.
Global abortion data released earlier this year by the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organisation committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), was very concerning. The report, Abortion Worldwide: Uneven Progress and Unequal Access, found that unsafe abortions occurred overwhelmingly in developing regions, where countries that highly restrict abortion are concentrated. But even where abortion is broadly legal, inadequate provision of affordable services can limit access to safe services, and persistent stigma makes providers reluctant to offer abortions, forcing young girls and women to “prioritise secrecy over safety.”
This year has been a critical juncture in the fight for abortion rights. On May 26th, the Irish people overwhelmingly voted to overturn the abortion ban. Irish women working and living abroad returned home to take part in the referendum to ensure they are able to exercise the full range of choices and decision-making around motherhood. In August, Argentina saw narrow votes for and against legalising abortion at the lower and upper houses. South Korea is also looking to review its abortion ban from the 1950s. In July, a 15-year-old Indonesian girl, who was raped and impregnated by her brother, was sentenced to six months jail for having an abortion beyond the legal time limits. Indonesia’s law is highly restrictive, and only available for cases of rape and incest, and to save the life of the mother. But abortions must be performed within six weeks of pregnancy – an incredibly short window as many may not even realise they are pregnant. Her jail term was overturned after protests by women’s rights, human rights and SRHR activists.
The right to safe abortion is a fundamental human right which needs to be fought for. It is because in this particular right that unqualified recognition of women’s agency, decision-making power, and bodily integrity lies. That she is owner of her body and sexual and reproductive capacity, and not others: the State, her husband or her partner, or her unborn child. The right to safe abortion is inalienable from the right to sexual consent, the right to sexuality, which is separate from marriage and reproduction, the right to choose and marry a partner, the right to decide the number and spacing of children and the right to choose motherhood – all of which help define women’s bodily autonomy, bodily integrity and equality. The fight for abortion rights and safe abortion will never end.
Sivananthi Thanenthiran is the executive director of the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), a regional NGO based in Malaysia championing sexual and reproductive health and rights.