In the last few weeks, I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries about powerful female figures, and it’s given me a lot to think about, what with the latest developments in US policy i.e. the so-called ‘heartbeat’ bill. Despite this being the inspiration (and I see nothing wrong with that) I like to try and avoid my posts being too Western-centric to challenge my own instincts, so I made an effort to read up on abortion policies in the rest of the world, to educate myself on where we stand as a global population.
One thing I will say is that first, I want to remove the emotion from this deeply intimate and personal issue of abortion (that in itself may sound like an opinion, but it’s not). Two main themes I’m finding are that 1. A country’s abortion laws are often interrelated with its population density, i.e. if a country has a high population density, it has a more liberal abortion rate, and if it’s suffering from quite a low population density (this can lead to issues like lack of economic growth), then it tends to be more stringent on allowing abortions. The second is that 2. Where there are strict abortion laws, these countries also tend to have highly religious practices and/or more of a non-urbanised population. Note these are high-level observations, and indeed generalisations, but nevertheless, this is a trend I can see holds true in numerous cases.
I have chosen to remove emotion from the issue of abortion for the first half of this post because I think we need to do so in order to understand the perspective from which these policies have been enacted. I.e., abortion laws are categorically created by men, for men, and we cannot hope to understand the basis on which they have chosen these rules if we do not put ourselves in their shoes, no matter how narrow-minded and outdated those shoes may be.
What these two themes show us, is that abortion in the playground of policy is a contentious issue; it can be dressed up to serve numerous agendas, depending on the favourable view. In populous countries such as India, China and even Singapore (populous relative to its size), abortion is legal without restriction as to reason; whilst these countries have quite significantly religious populations, they are also suffering from serious population density issues.
In other countries, namely Iraq, Laos and the Philippines, abortion is prohibited altogether with no explicit legal exceptions, not even in the instance of rape, not even with parental or spousal consent (keep this in mind, as we will revisit it later). This means the whole family and their mother (quite literally) can agree abortion is the right thing to do, but the Government holds authority over them and refuses this Agency.
Abortion in the playground of policy is a contentious issue; it can be dressed up to serve numerous agendas, depending on the favourable view.
The Guttmacher Institute has done some crucial work into this area and has found that, even when laws (rarely) permit abortions, there is a serious deficit of information available for women to understand how to safely do so. Particularly in Asia, they note “obstacles include difficulty finding providers willing to perform [an] abortion, substandard conditions in health facilities, lack of awareness of the legal status of abortion and fear of stigmatization for terminating a pregnancy”. In Latin America and the Caribbean, it was found that more than 97% of women of reproductive age live in countries with restrictive abortion laws, and 93% live under the same conditions in Africa.
What these laws often lead to is the practice of unsafe abortions – note: not an eradication of abortions entirely. The consequences of an unsafe abortion are painful to read alone, not withstanding the mental and emotion trauma women must endure. I cannot imagine the emotional suffering a woman must go through, when she knows she is not ready for a child and the best thing to do is to abort the pregnancy, even with the distress and trauma that comes with it.
And this is not a rare occurrence; The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that between 2010–2014, on average, 56 million induced (safe and unsafe) abortions occurred worldwide each year. In addition, each year between 4.7% – 13.2% of maternal deaths can be attributed to unsafe abortion, and almost every abortion death and disability could be prevented through sexuality education, use of effective contraception, provision of safe, legal induced abortion, and timely care for complications. If you want to talk about development, about inefficiency, about a lack of education, women’s sexual health is one of the most under-attended, under-supported and under-funded areas I can think of. In case you couldn’t tell, we’ve now moved onto the emotional part of this post.
Emotion is absolutely a strength, and by labeling this the ’emotional’ part, I don’t mean to undermine it’s worth, in fact I mean to bolster it and strengthen its impact. For this reason, I have intentionally included the sculpture by Slovakian sculptor Martin Hudáček titled “Memorial for Unborn Children” with this post, in an effort not to shy away from the emotional pull of the thought of terminating a baby’s life, but also to understand and appreciate all aspects of the experience women go through with an abortion and its aftermath, regardless of which side of the debate you are on.
What these laws tell women is that our role still remains to birth offspring, and that we are unable to make decisions on our own body. Even in the earlier example where women may need their families and/or spouses to sign off on the abortion, the women’s voice is so neglected, so under-served, it renders the woman without strength, without her presence and agency. We live in times where women were just about beginning to realise we can achieve great things, break barriers, solve today’s most complex problems and unapologetically take up space, but laws like these knock us down, back into a prescribed role, back into limitations.
However, regardless of which side of the debate you are on, there is a basis for the notion that the mother’s health is paramount, and unsafe abortions are a life-threatening practice that could easily be eliminated by paying closer attention to this topic and understanding the stakeholders’ needs. If we start here, and prioritise access to factually correct, medical information and support, we can at least prevent maternal deaths that stem from stigma, and hopefully prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place too, with greater access to information, birth control and other healthcare.
Ultimately, as someone with career aspirations and goals in addition to being a mother one day, which in itself is a brave thing to do, I cannot continue to sit here and accept this reality without using my voice; time has taught me too much.