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Safe access to abortion

Marge Berer from the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion speaks about access to safe abortion as a human right.
MARGE BERER: My name is Marge Berer. I was the editor of the journal, Reproductive Health Matters, for its first 23 years. And since May this year, I’ve become the Coordinator of the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion, which is a network of more than 900 groups and individuals working in 101 countries. The campaign is important, and I’ve been working around abortion rights for decades, now. Because abortion is still restricted by criminal law in almost every country. And yet, approximately one in five to one in three women around the world will have an abortion in her lifetime.
The campaign is also important, because the practise of abortion is under constant attack by a small but very vocal and powerful minority of right wing and conservative groups, who believe that women should be forced to carry every pregnancy they may have to term, whether they can cope with looking after the children or not. We believe, on the other hand, that universal access to safe abortion is essential to women’s health and a necessary aspect of women’s right of autonomy over their own bodies and lives. Abortion is a human rights issue. And the reason why that’s the case is that it’s inextricably linked to the first principle of human rights, which is the right to life.
An estimated over one million women have died from unsafe abortions in the past 20 years alone. And almost all their deaths would have been prevented and avoided if abortion had been safe and legal in their countries. The anti-abortion movement claims that the right to life begins at conception. And if this were accepted as a human rights principle, it would mean that no woman would ever be able to have an abortion and that would make her into a vessel carrying pregnancies for other people’s sake. In fact, every human rights body, from Sadar, to the committee that is responsible for interpreting the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all argue and have principles that the right to life begins at birth.
There are, unfortunately, many examples of how the rights of women in relation to abortion are violated. I’m going to give some examples from official Catholic health policy. One example is the case of a woman who miscarried at 17 weeks of pregnancy. The miscarriage was inevitable, and the baby could not have survived, no matter what was done, because it was too early in the pregnancy. However, because her cervix was open, she was highly susceptible to infection, even though she was in the hospital. And in fact, she did develop a life threatening uterine infection. Yet, the hospital refused to provide treatment that would have saved her life easily before the infection became uncontrollable. But it would have been an abortion.
And they waited. They said they had to wait until there was no longer a fetal heartbeat, even though the foetus was not viable. This was a young healthy woman, and she died completely unnecessarily.
An example also is the case of another young woman who was an asylum seeker. She fled a conflict situation in her country of origin, where rape was being used as a weapon of war. She herself had been raped. After she arrived in the country that gave her asylum, she discovered that she was pregnant, and it was the result of the rape. She was unable to obtain a visa to travel to a nearby country for abortion. She became suicidal and refused to accept the pregnancy. And although the threat of suicide should have meant that she could get a legal abortion, it was refused, because a committee of three doctors had to agree, and only two of them said yes.
Intead, she was pretty much locked up in a hospital, supposedly for her own protection so that she wouldn’t commit suicide until her pregnancy was far enough advanced that the baby could survive independently. And then she was pretty much forced to have a caesarean section.
Both these cases come from Ireland. Something similar happened to a 10-year-old in Paraguay, a child who had been sexually abused by her stepfather for two years. She, too, was locked up in a hospital and subjected, we believe, to a caesarean section in order to save the baby, instead of being given an abortion at 20 weeks, when she first was seen by a doctor. These cases are horrific. They represent the worst sort of misogynistic treatment of girls and women. But there are actually thousands of cases every day in many countries, especially in the global south, where safe abortions are not available to almost any woman. Some 42 million women have an abortion around the world every year.
Half of these abortions are unsafe, and they’re unsafe in the following ways. They’re illegal. A dangerous method is used. An untrained and unskilled provider does the abortion. The conditions are unsafe. The woman perhaps tries to self-induce the abortion, but she has no information and no help. Therefore, she may do something incorrect. For example, if she gets a hold of abortion pills through a pharmacy, she may not know how to use them. She may have limited or no access to treatment if she develops complications, having had an abortion unsafely. She experiences the consequences of stigma, isolation, and a lot of fear.
Another serious problem– and this happens in many countries around the world, including the country we’re sitting in, England– is that women who have abortions illegally and often unsafely, in many countries, are also threatened with arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment. Here is what a young girl who was put in prison at the age of 17 for having an abortion said, when she was interviewed by a group of young activists, who were looking to try and change the abortion law in Rwanda, the country where they are. “I am 20 years old, and I’ve been in Carabanda Prison since 2007, for committing abortion. I am the third born in the family and the only girl.
I was raised by my dad after my mum died when I was still young. I was in the fifth year of my secondary education, when a teacher at my school started dating me. I needed school materials, and since I could not afford them, I allowed to have sexual intercourse with this teacher at that tender age. With limited knowledge on contraceptive use, I got pregnant and had to drop out of school, since it is against the school regulations. I decided to have an abortion, but my elder brother, out of fear, reported me to the police. I am supposed to serve a period of nine years, of which I have so far completed three.
Crying, she said, ‘I have lost hope, and this is the end of my life. ‘” This is the case that really has motivated me, for a number of years now, to work for women’s right to safe abortion. This young girl’s story, along with thousands of others all over the world, is happening every day. The situation and, in fact, in at least 26 countries, up to now, for the research that we’ve done in the campaign, women are in prison for having had an abortion. However, all is not grey and terrible. The situation is, in fact, improving in many ways, in many places. Countries who we never expected are starting to reform their abortion laws and changing them for the better.
And Mozambique is an example of a country which, at the beginning of this year, changed the law and took abortion out of the criminal code. And other countries include Chile, Morocco, and Malawi, where positive law reform is being proposed. Although, for example, in Chile, we’ve just learned that it’s being opposed by conservative members of the parliament. In many countries, women who don’t have access to safe abortion through public health services have discovered that they can have abortion safely on their own, using medical abortion pills. And in fact, in a number of countries, other women have set up safe abortion information hotlines, where women can ring and find out where to get the pills and how to use them safely.
They’re accessing the pills from pharmacies, and from trustworthy providers, and also through the internet, and taking control of their lives, in spite of the laws against abortion. This is far from an ideal situation, but deaths from unsafe abortions have been decreasing rapidly, because of this and also because of the countries who are changing their laws for the better and starting to provide services. And these are all good things. Let me close by saying that one in three women is a lot of women to be having an abortion in their lifetime. It was me once, and it may be many of you who are listening today, or your partners.
Safe sex is sex in which you and your partner protect yourselves and each other from unintended and unwanted pregnancy, and from sexually transmitted infections. Protection can fail, however, and sometimes people fail to use it. We need our health systems to be there, before and after, to help us with contraception, condoms, emergency contraception, safe abortion, and treatment for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Each of these is part of a larger package of essential sexual and reproductive health care. I invite you to study how well your countries are doing in offering these services, and get involved today to make the situation better for everyone, especially for young women, and also for yourself, in case you may need it. Thank you.

In almost all countries access to safe induced abortion is restricted by law. Underlying this is the complex link between access to safe abortion and the first principle of human rights: the right to life. The anti-abortion movement argues that the right to life begins at conception, not birth, but this position undermines the rights of the woman and is contrary to the position of every human rights body in the world.

In this video Marge Berer, the Coordinator of the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion, speaks about access to safe abortion as a human rights issue, and gives examples of women who have been adversely affected in settings where the law prohibits their right to a safe abortion.

However, the situation is improving: more countries are adjusting restrictions on abortion, and the rise of the medical abortion pill means more women can make their own choices and take control of their reproductive health safely.

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