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Criminalization does not dissuade women from having abortions
Criminalization of abortion violates the fundamental human rights of women and girls
Criminalization causes women to resort to unsafe abortion methods
Criminalization increases mortality and health complications caused by unsafe abortions
Criminalization negatively impacts access to legal abortions
Lack of access to a safe abortion in complicated pregnancies leads to death by indirect causes
Criminalization of abortion disproportionately impacts poor and young women
Criminalization exposes women to potential torture and institutional violence
Criminalization validates a clandestine market that profits at the cost of women’s autonomy
Criminalization of abortion goes against the principle of egalitarian society
The extremely high number of abortions indicates that criminalization has little or no effect on a woman’s decision to have one. Likewise, if what we’re seeking is to protect the fetus, criminalization has never been effective in this regard. Protection can be achieved through public policy that is also consistent with women’s rights, such as comprehensive health services that include pre-abortion counseling.
Highly restrictive abortion laws do not result in lower rates of abortion. For instance, in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted, the abortion rate is 12 per every 1000 women of fertile age. In Africa and Latin America where abortion is illegal in most circumstances in the majority of countries, the rate is 29 per 1000 women and 32 per 1000, respectively.
Criminalization only results in:
• Clandestine abortions
• Unsafe abortions
• Higher mortality rates for poor and young women
Lack of equal access to safe and dignified health services for women experiencing undesired pregnancy is discriminatory because it only violates the rights of women. It goes against Articles 1 and 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
The State’s failure to guarantee the equal exercise of reproductive rights violates women’s rights to life, health, physical, mental and moral integrity, autonomy, intimacy, dignity and the right to freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Anand Grover, “the enactment or enforcement of laws that penalize abortion may constitute a violation of the State’s obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the right to health”.
As the World Health Organization (WHO) has pointed out, in countries whose laws broadly allow abortion, there are fewer complications associated with unsafe abortions than in places where legal abortion is more restricted.
Nearly half of abortions worldwide are unsafe, performed by persons lacking the necessary information or skills or carried out in an environment not in conformity with minimal medical standards, or both (WHO). Statistics indicate a correlation between the number of unsafe abortions and restrictive laws: deaths associated with abortion are much more frequent in countries with highly restrictive laws (34 deaths per 100,000 childbirths) than in countries with less restrictive laws (1 death or less per 100,000 childbirths).
Therefore, the criminalization of abortion does not result in fewer abortions, but rather in more unsafe abortions.
Abortion does not endanger women’s health. For example, in Uruguay the number of complications and deaths associated with abortion were reduced to zero after the Law on Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy passed in 2012. Unsafe abortion, on the other hand, is a severe public health problem involving serious risks to the health and life of thousands of women. Worldwide, the latest evidence from 2014 indicates that between 8% and 18% of maternal deaths are caused by unsafe abortions, meaning that the number of deaths associated with abortion ranges between 22,500 and 44,000.
In Latin America, 95% of abortions were carried out in unsafe conditions, a figure that did not vary between 1995 and 2008. Nearly all safe abortions were performed in the Caribbean where they are allowed by law and are readily accessible, especially in Cuba.
Many women who have the right to a legal, safe abortion, but cannot access one due to the stigma associated with the practice. Stereotypes regarding maternity and the social construct around abortion lead to discrimination against women who make decisions about their own reproductive capacity. The illegal interventions of judicial officials, lawyers and health professionals impede access to legal abortion and push women to resort to clandestine abortions.
Some of the obstacles they face include: bad faith from some professionals and public officials; ignorance of existing legislation; lack of legal information by health professionals who fear legal penalties; abuse of conscientious objection tolerated by the State; disparaging comments from healthcare personnel; and institutional violence against women in these situations.
The estimated percentage of l deaths due to unsafe abortions is between 8% and 18%. Deaths associated with abortion in 2014 ranged from 22,500 to 44,000.
Complications arising from abortion have decreased in recent years for different reasons: access to abortion with medication; training programs for health service providers and the development of health care systems in general. However, the data on the impact of these changes is incomplete.
Unsafe abortion is one of the principal factors affecting women’s health in developing regions. Estimates from 2012 indicate that 6.9 million women (or 6.9 per 1000) between ages 15 and 44 underwent care for complications related to unsafe abortions. The consequences of unsafe abortion can be noted beyond the immediate effects on a woman’s health. For instance, unsafe abortions can cause maternal death, leaving existing children without a mother, or generate long-term health problems, such as infertility.
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth every day. Many of these deaths are caused by indirect complications that exist before pregnancy but are worsened as a consequence of the pregnancy or childbirth. Many of these deaths could have been prevented with holistic birth control policies – that help prevent risky pregnancies – and with counselling about the dangers of bringing complicated pregnancies to term and the right to interrupt the pregnancies under safe and legal conditions.
Women from middle and higher socioeconomic strata have access to adequate, safe health care and, in general, do not experience post-abortion complications. The less advantaged—in many cases teenagers—are forced to resort to clandestine interventions in precarious sanitary conditions. The high mortality rates for abortion are a lamentable reflection of discrimination against women from poor backgrounds.
Women who request a non-criminalized abortion are often victims of reproachful judgments and institutional ill-treatment: they are denied the request and left to their own devices, urged not to abort and subjected to illegal intervention by justice officials and lawyers aiming to prevent the practice.
These situations are forms of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, as established by the Human Rights Committee in L.M.R. v. Argentina. L.M.R. is a young woman with developmental delay who had been raped and denied the non-criminalized abortion to which she was entitled. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the matter, Juan E. Méndez, acknowledging that restrictions in access to abortion violate the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, implored all States whose national laws authorize abortions in different circumstances to “safeguard the real availability of these services without adverse consequences for the woman or healthcare personnel”.
In countries with restrictive laws that limit access to abortion, the market moves multi- million dollar figures for clandestine abortions, both through surgical abortions and the sale of misoprostol and mifepristone pills. In other words, the criminalization of abortion validates a clandestine market without regulation that profits at the cost of women’s lives, health and autonomy.
Criminalization is not founded on protecting the life of the fetus—because there are other effective ways to achieve that—but is instead a form of stigmatization written into criminal codes.
In addition to reinforcing stereotypes around child raising, denying a woman’s right to decide whether or not to become a mother and when to do so, aggravates gender inequalities in education, cultural, economic and political life. Maintaining the criminalization of abortion goes against the construction of equal societies.
A first step towards gender equality is to ensure that women are in control of their reproductive capacity, including having access to contraception and safe abortion, because the sovereignty of women over their own bodies is key to achieving gender equality.