Want to lower the abortion rate and prevent maternal deaths worldwide? Support pro-choice policies. That’s the takeaway from a new report from the Guttmacher Institute, which looks at abortion around the world.
The chief lesson of the report is one pro-choice advocates have known for years: that making abortion illegal or hard to get doesn’t end abortion, it just makes it less safe. And opposition to abortion tends to come along with opposition to contraception and women’s rights more broadly – and the limited contraception access that results means a higher abortion rate.
By contrast, nations with robust women’s rights protections, liberal abortion laws and easily accessible birth control (especially long-acting birth control) have some of the lowest abortion rates in the world.
Just look at the data. The region with the highest abortion rate is Latin America and the Caribbean, despite the fact that this same region has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. Outlawing abortion doesn’t make it any less common, but it does make it less safe. And the stigma that comes along with outlawing it – in addition to the legal consequences – means women who terminate pregnancies clandestinely may hesitate to seek help when they desperately need it, and may be seriously injured or even die as a result.
And there are legal consequences. American anti-abortion activists swear up and down they don’t want to punish women who have abortions, but this claim is belied by the reality for women in many countries where abortion is illegal. Women do go to jail if they’re suspected of ending their pregnancies – even when they say they simply had a miscarriage.
And American pro-lifers do say they would be happy to jail doctors who perform abortions. Some even say they would treat those doctors as murderers, leaving them open to the death penalty. The fate of women who self-induce their own abortions remains unclear.
Around 22,800 women die every year from unsafe abortions. These deaths are almost entirely preventable
Women suspected of doing so have indeed been prosecuted here in the US, with nary a peep from the pro-lifers who say women who end pregnancies are victims, but by basic logic must believe they’re also murderers. So that’s their plan for ending abortion: lock ‘em up. They’ll also say something about fostering a “culture of life”. That’s code for no sex before early heterosexual marriage, and then no birth control.
That women now marry at an average age of 26, with educated women marrying and delaying childbirth even later, makes this proposition laughable. Women like our freedom – including the freedom to be sexual beings while we also pursue an education, a career, and a life of our choosing.
We like figuring out who we are before we choose someone to spend our lives with (if we ever choose someone to spend our lives with). Going back to the days of virginity until marriage and marriage at 22? It isn’t going to happen. And this shift is happening worldwide, with women across borders and cultures choosing to plan their families and space out their births when they can.
But those bad old days when women were at the mercy of fate is what American pro-lifers want to legislate. Their politics are not just about abortion – they’re about a broader view of women’s place in society (which apparently should be at home, raising children). Why else oppose the most effective way to reduce the abortion rate – free and easily accessible contraception? Why else oppose the policies that would make it easier for women to have babies and work outside the home?
Yet the American pro-life movement and their Republican representatives do oppose all of this. Relegating women to subservient roles, blocking access to contraception and threatening women and doctors with jail hasn’t worked to prevent abortion anywhere in the history of the world, but that won’t stop them from trying again.
Thanks to improved abortion and contraception technologies, abortion rates are dropping, and where they are unsafe, they’re often safer than they used to be. Medication abortion, wherein women take a pill or combination of pills to induce a miscarriage, has proliferated, with the pills available even in many places where abortion is highly restricted.
Because this method doesn’t require any instruments entering a woman’s body, the chances of a botched job are lower – instead of using twigs or coat hangers, more women use things like ulcer medications, and a lot more of them live.
Still, these abortions are not as safe as legal procedures overseen or performed by a trained medical professional. More than half of abortions worldwide are either unsafe or not as safe as they could be. Around 22,800 women die every year from unsafe abortions. These deaths are almost entirely preventable – we could get that number close to zero, but we choose not to.
Abortion occupies strange territory: both a common and normal part of women’s lives all around the world, and also deeply stigmatized and rarely discussed in terms of health instead of politics or religious morality.
Western pro-life groups have helped export this view overseas, manipulating US international aid dollars to prevent it from helping women in the most vulnerable of circumstances, if those women want so much as information about abortion – any organization overseas that receives American aid dollars can’t tell a woman about her rights or her options. And in much of the world, abortion stigma means women have few people to turn to, and may not even be able to speak in confidence with their doctors for fear of judgment or legal repercussions. No wonder so many women still take matters into their own hands.
This is all a choice. We know safe, legal abortion decreases abortion related deaths. We know widespread access to contraception, and especially reliable long-acting methods like the IUD, decreases unintended pregnancies and in turn abortions.
Instead, the Trump administration has totally cut off even information about abortion for women overseas. And domestically, they’ve caved to ideological, science-hostile pro-life groups who tell women to plan their families “naturally” – that is, with the rhythm method instead of contraception.
Natural family planning is a great option and women should know how to utilize it if they choose, but they should also know that according to the Department of Health and Human Services, for every 100 couples using natural family planning in a year, about 25 will wind up pregnant. Those aren’t the odds most women look for in contraception (by contrast, fewer than one women in 100 will become pregnant using a hormonal IUD).
The global numbers on abortion tell a clear story of progress and feminist gains. But we’re not nearly as far as we could be – only because those who claim to value “life” are compromising women’s lives for their own ideological aims.