Labelled by the World Health Organisation as the world’s greatest ‘preventable pandemic’, unsafe abortion kills one woman every eight minutes, 99 per cent of these deaths occurring in developing countries. Globally, pregnancy is the greatest killer of girls aged 15-19, and, for girls aged 12-25, unsafe abortion is among the greatest – and most easily preventable – causes of maternal death.
Amid a heated gay marriage debate and undying speculation over the Labor Party’s future, one serious political development has managed to largely fly beneath the media radar. That development is the formal announcement of ‘Labor for Life’: a group of Labor MPs, members and supporters who have mobilised to campaign against abortion, among other issues. This announcement should deeply concern Australians who care about human rights and saving lives.
Members of ‘Labor for Life’, along with ‘pro-life’ Coalition MPs, have been key opponents of efforts to achieve reproductive choice for women in both Australia and developing countries. As one example, MPs in both major parties have supported a ban on using Australian aid funding for a range of sexual and reproductive health services, including safe and legal abortion. In place from 1996-2009, the recent lifting of these restrictions has been a continued rallying call for anti-abortion campaigners from both major parties.
Anti-abortion campaigning prevents access to safe, legal abortion, which only increases the prevalence of unsafe, and deadly, abortion. Abortion is among the safest medical procedures in the world when conducted by trained professionals. But when skilled care is unavailable, as in many developing countries, abortion endangers women’s lives.
These girls and young women die when, because of a mixture of legal restrictions, resource shortages and gender discrimination, they are forced to seek out untrained practitioners. Common methods include swallowing bleach or toxic levels of anti-malarial drugs or inserting sharp objects, such as sticks or wire, into the uterus to induce bleeding, often resulting in fatal infections. Women sometimes also risk serious physical injury. In a case currently before the UN’s Committee On The Elimination Of Discrimination Against Women, ‘L.C’, a 13 year old Peruvian girl, was raped by an older man. Pregnant and denied access to abortion, L.C jumped from a rooftop. She is now a quadriplegic.
Despite the enormous risk involved in seeking an unsafe abortion, for some young girls it is the safest in a limited range of choices. In some developing countries, a girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than she does of attending school. Often forcibly impregnated as the result of sexual violence, young girls without access to safe medical care have up to a one in five chance of dying if they are forced to continue the pregnancy. A pregnancy often also guarantees an end to their schooling and consequently to even the most basic aspirations they may have for their lives. Their chances of ending up permanently disabled, for example by suffering from obstetric fistula, and the extreme stigma and rejection that follows, are high – as are the chances that they will deliver stillborn or extremely premature infants.
Who are we, privileged Australians whose own reproductive choice is protected, to judge the complex and unavoidable decisions that young girls and women across the world have to make? Have the ironically named ‘Labor for Life’ members really considered the human cost of opposing funding for safe and legal abortion in impoverished countries? Unsafe abortion kills almost 70,000 women and girls every year. Millions more are permanently injured. Their lives would be saved, and the number of abortions would dramatically plummet, if contraception was made widely available and restrictive laws were removed.
Women access abortion for diverse, complex reasons. To do so is their human right, affirmed by multiple UN Committees including those who interpret Human Rights, the Rights of the Child, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention Against Torture.
People are entitled to their private views about when life begins, but forcing those views onto others, and denying recognised human rights in the process, demonstrates a serious lack of empathy for the difficult choices that women face. It is also naïve: regardless of legal restrictions, when women find themselves confronted with the extreme stress of an unwanted pregnancy they may seek whatever means possible to end it. For Alice, a 17 year old who I knew while working at a refugee camp in Kenya, death was a less frightening prospect than bearing the child of the man who killed her father and raped her. Let those who would seek to end Australia’s support for safe abortion cast their first stone at her.
Removing choice from teenage girls like Alice does not reduce abortions. The number of abortions performed in countries where abortion is illegal is actually higher than the number in countries where it is legal.
The reality is that anti-abortion campaigning does not save lives. What it does do is promote unsafe abortion. What it means is that desperate girls and women will continue to die, needlessly, every year. And after they die many of their orphaned children do too.
Australia has finally joined global efforts to make abortions rare, legal and safe.
Now that is a pro-life cause.
Melanie Poole is the Parliamentary Advocacy Coordinator at CARE Australia. The views expressed are her own.
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