The Abortion Debate: How It Infringes Upon Women's Health and Rights

A few weeks ago, The Lancet, a well respected medical journal, published a study reporting the trends of worldwide abortion from 1995 to 2008. The outcome was disheartening: Rates of unsafe abortion had increased from 1995 to 2008. Amidst sustained campaigning against abortion from religious organizations, the pro-choice study focused on the religious right and how deeply they are infringing upon a woman’s choice and negatively affecting women's health.

According to the study, banning abortion does nothing to reduce the number of women who attempt it. In fact, banning abortion actually increases the abortion rate, while it simultaneously makes the procedure much less safe for the woman. This results in an increase of women dying from unsafe abortions.

The fact is, there are many nonreligious reasons why women choose to have an abortion. There are multiple realities surrounding every woman's choice, all of which religious institutions rarely take into account. Any women facing an unplanned pregnancy takes into strong consideration her own health and having enough financial means to give birth to then raise a healthy child. (The United States, for example, has one of the most expensive healthcare systems in the world.) She thinks about the timing and spacing as well as number of pregnancies she wants to have. Length of pregnancy leave versus cost of childcare. Government support. Social programs. How much familial support is possible. Cost of education. The factors of how to assess quality of life and care are beyond extensive. Yet, strong themes also emerge when looking at abortion access and safety in the realm of religious argument.

Abortion Access and Safety Around the World

In the United States, minority women are far more likely to undergo abortion, have their children taken into care, or be unable to financial support their children due to racial inequalities. None of this has any direct correlation to religious affiliation, but it does speak directly to health policy and who the policymakers are making decisions about women's health in America. Increasingly, religion and politics are becoming more and more entwined in the United States.

In South American countries, where women have no choice because abortion remains illegal, many children are born into impoverished backgrounds with little hope of ever leaving them. Latin America and the Caribbean are also both developing countries where women face health statistics that are beyond alarming. In Latin America, 95 percent of abortions are unsafe. The New York Times reports, "In Peru, the average is nearly two abortions per woman over the course of her reproductive years."

According to the BBC, 97 percent of abortions in Africa are unsafe. There, women face restrictive abortion laws so the woman is forced into a situation where she has little choice in her own family planning methods.

Most illegal. Almost every single abortion unsafe. How is this supporting women's health?

Frida Kahlo - Henry Ford Hospital

America's Past Role in Women's Global Health

The United States contributes major forms of aid to developing countries, most of which is under the jurisdiction of medical care and research. However, in 2001, George W. Bush reinstated the global gag rule, which barred organizations from receiving funding if they performed abortive services. In addition to this, a caveat was introduced closing off access to other contraceptives, such as condoms and birth control. (In 2009, President Obama officially repealed the gag rule.)

In developing countries, where clinics often have multiple services serving large underserved populations, this pull on funding was devastating. The outcome had a three-prong effect: it took away access to family planning; it forced women who may have needed a safe medical procedure underground; and, it increased the risk of high risk infections such as HIV. Overall, there was not a reduction in abortion, but an increase to endangering women’s lives. Under this light, it comes as no surprise that rates of unsafe abortions rose from 1995 to 2008 while the global gag rule was in effect under the Bush regime.

Separating George W. Bush from the religious right is almost impossible, but even with the global gag rule currently lifted, keep in mind a vast percentage of foreign aid in developing countries predominantly comes from Western countries and charities. For example, Catholic and Christian organizations have created many medical facilities in developing countries where there is extensive need. However, the push of religious ideas from major aid providers forces women away from their cultural beliefs and subjects their choice and health to the religious view of the provider. In many cases, this is the the strict anti-abortion and contraceptive rules of the Church.

Greater participation of women is needed in all levels of society, particularly those women fighting for the removal of global health disparities at the policy level. There is also great hope in foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that are dedicated to improving health for women in line with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Her Blueprint's Senior Editor Kate Stence also contributed to this blog post.