Recently, while at a busy intersection in Cape Town, I passed a group of placard-bearers with signs saying: “Abortion is wrong”, “Abortion is evil”, and “Abortion is murder”.
I was offered a leaflet by one such individual, who tried to poke it though my semi-opened window. The anger building, I sternly said: “Absolutely not”. Then, just so enraged, I rolled down my window and shouted to the group: “A woman’s right is more important!”
Perhaps these were the wrong words. I’m sure I looked somewhat crazed, but the words bubbled out of me and I couldn’t hold them in. The placard bearers responded by waving their signs at me more fervently. The level of judgement these individuals, many of whom were men, felt they had over women – and a woman’s access to her sexual and reproductive rights – was outrageous to me.
All over the world, women have to fight for their right to safe abortions. Earlier this month in Poland, women were striking against a proposed ban on abortions, and it looks like they won. Hillary Clinton, responding to Donald Trump’s incorrect and inflammatory remarks about late-term abortions in the last presidential debate, took a firm stance in favour of a woman’s right to choose. Trump’s remarks that Clinton is a “nasty woman” has sparked a social media frenzy, hashtags and all, as American women come out in defence of their right to safe abortions.
Now, writing this article, I am a woman who got mad that her rights and the rights of all girls and women are being impinged upon, and on multiple fronts. I am also a woman who knows how to research. And research arms me and clarifies my ideas. So I looked up the facts:
- There are an estimated 85 million unintended pregnancies a year. That’s 40% of global pregnancies. Forty percent. Of those, 40% end in abortion, 13% in miscarriage, and 38% in birth. In effect, that means that 34 million unintended pregnancies end in abortion. Why should a woman decide to bring an unintended child into the world?
- There is evidence to suggest that levels of unintended pregnancies are highest among girls and young women. Globally, every year around 16 million girls and women aged 15-19 give birth; most of these pregnancies are unintended. What is the 15-year-old who gets pregnant supposed to do? Does she not have a right to childhood? What about her education?
- Some 47,000 women die from the 21 million unsafe abortions that take place each year. The millions of women who do survive unsafe abortions can have serious and often permanent health problems. These deaths and injuries could be avoided by having legal, open, accessible and non-judgemental abortion facilities. What is the viable alternative for a woman or girl who cannot access a safe abortion clinic?
- Some 303,000 women die each year due to pregnancy-related causes. The incidence rate is highest among girls under 15 years, especially from the developing world. Many of these deaths could be avoided by better global maternal health but also, in some cases, abortion, where the health effects of pregnancies are considered too risky by medical professionals. What should the girl or woman do who is told she will face severe health effects, and potentially death, if she continues a pregnancy?
- One in 5 women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. We know that rape and sexual violence is one of the most under-reported crimes globally, with some estimating that only one in 10 rapes are reported. In 2012, there were 243,853 reported rapes worldwide, with 57 countries or regions not having any record of this crime category. By conservative estimates, that makes around 1.2 million to 2.5 million global incidences of rape every year, but the figure is likely to be much higher. What is the woman who falls pregnant after she has been sexually assaulted supposed to do? Does she not have the right to decide whether or not to continue the pregnancy?
- One in seven known pregnancies end in miscarriage. The incidence rate of miscarriage in unknown pregnancies (those before four weeks) is not fully known, but is likely to be much higher. Miscarriage, especially during a wanted pregnancy, can be a highly traumatic event (and one that is common and women many a time do not talk about). Often, however, a miscarriage is the body rejecting a pregnancy because it detects a problem (most commonly because of faulty chromosomes). In some cases, natural miscarriage may not happen even though a serious defect exists in the foetus. In such cases, a medical professional is likely to recommend an induced miscarriage (i.e. an abortion). What is a woman in this situation supposed to do?
- Globally, evidence overwhelmingly shows that women and girls are primary caregivers to children (yes, I know, we really didn’t need research to confirm this one). Given that women will take the overwhelming burden of care, isn’t it up to a woman or girl to decide whether she is in state to care for a child?
- Perhaps tangentially, scientists contend that Earth cannot sustain the current rise in the global population, with the population of the planet growing by 74 million every year. While the exact ‘carrying capacity’ of the planet is a matter of dispute, there is no doubt that we are collectively putting a strain on the globe. A key strand of thinking on how to prevent an environmental catastrophe is to have ‘fewer forks’ – fewer mouths to feed – and this can only come about when women have access to sexual and reproductive health facilities, including safe abortions.
But besides all the above, a woman and girl, plain and simple, has the right to choose the acts of her body and her life. No matter what the reason – it’s not the right time; I can’t afford a child; I’m not ready to be a mother; I don’t want to be a mother – that is her choice. And she can use whatever personal, moral or other reasoning she wants to inform that decision. It is her right. And her decision.
I am certain that no abortion is ever an easy decision. The shame, scorn, societal judgement, difficulty and obstacles women report and face across the globe when seeking an abortion is proof enough of that. As well as the physical scars, women who go through safe and unsafe abortions can experience psychological effects, including severe depression.
So, perhaps rather than taking a woman’s right to choose away, these placard bearers should be thinking: how can we protect women and girls? How do we improve maternal health? How do we improve the availability and use of contraception? How do we support women who have gone through an abortion or miscarriage? And: how do we break the culture of sexual violence against women and girls?
For one simple reason: a woman’s (and girl’s) access to her sexual and reproductive rights is more important. DM
Laura Freeman is a researcher and programme officer at the Safety & Violence Initiative at the University of Cape Town. She writes in her personal capacity.