Article produced for NUS Women’s Campaign Conference to mark International Women’s Day.
Across the world women struggle to control even the most basic aspects of their lives. Control over when, if and how many children to have is crucial to women’s life chances, their health and their equality. In Britain and much of the West, the introduction of the contraceptive pill and the legalisation of abortion have transformed women’s lives – increasing women’s employment and education prospects, incomes and opportunities more even than equal pay and equal opportunities legislation.
Worldwide though, millions of women are denied access to reproductive health services due to legal restrictions and poverty. As a result, every year, 17 million women become pregnant unintentionally with approximately 46 million pregnancies ending in induced abortion. Of these 19 million women have no other choice than to have an unsafe abortion and, appallingly, 70,000 women unnecessarily loose their lives every year as a result. Millions of others are permanently injured. One of the most dangerous countries for women’s abortion access is Bangladesh were last year alone 718,002 women were hospitalised with serious complications from unsafe procedures.
US President Bush has made it a priority to oppose women’s access to abortion. One of his first acts as President was to re-introduce the ‘Global Gag’ rule, withholding US funding from health centres across the world that provide abortion services or information or which lobby for abortion rights. Access to safe abortion has been driven back in over 60 countries.
In the US too, during Bush’s presidency, hundreds of individual states have passed laws to restrict women’s legal rights to abortion. Abortion is now only available in 13 per cent of US counties and some whole states only have one abortion clinic left, forcing women to travel up to 100 miles for services and hitting poorer and young women hardest. Following the election of Bush’s anti-choice nominee to the US Supreme Court in February, moves have already begun to restrict US wide federal laws for the first time since the groundbreaking 1973 Roe v Wade case which first introduced federal abortion rights.
With countries such as Ireland, Northern Ireland and Poland still banning abortion and many others severely restricting access, the Word Health Organisation estimates that 800,000 women are forced to resort to unsafe abortions in Europe with women still dying due to barriers to safe legal abortion. Bush’s aggressive anti-choice agenda has significantly strengthened the anti-choice lobby across Europe with countries such as Italy now debating major restrictions in current rights.
Although women’s right to choose is overwhelmingly supported in Britain, it is not a settled issue. Women still face unfair barriers to accessing abortion including long NHS delays and obstructive GPs. Here, a strengthened anti-choice lobby is using sections of the press to focus on later abortion in order to confuse opinion on a woman’s right to choose and win support for the chipping away of women’s rights. This campaign is driven by those who actually want to criminalise all abortion. It must be opposed. Only a tiny proportion of women need access to later abortion up to the 24-week time limit but they face exceptional and distressing circumstances and need the protection of the law. When a woman is forced to make a later decision – for example because of violent abuse, failure to diagnose pregnancy or serious welfare issues with an existing child – this is a fundamental question of a woman’s right to choose.
Abortion Rights, the pro-choice campaign for the UK, is working with other pro-choice groups in the US, Europe and internationally to support women’s rights to safe, legal abortion. We are leading the campaigning in Britain to defend women’s hard fought for abortion rights against the current attacks on the time limit and have launched a national postcard lobbying campaign ‘would you turn the clock back on her rights?’. We urge all those who support women’s equality and health to send the postcard to their MP and get involved in our campaigning to defend women’s abortion rights.
For more information, to join as an individual member or to affiliate your group please visit www.abortionrights.org.uk