Legal abortions – a case of women’s human rights

This is a guest post by Sophie Turton on behalf of Doctors of the World, a charitable organisation which works to ensure excluded people overcome barriers to healthcare.

In the majority of developed countries, the issue of abortion is purely moral – people protest for pro-life or pro-choice and they do so because they have the option. In many developing countries, however, this is not the case. Women are denied the right to choose and as such, are forced to seek out dangerous “back street” procedures, making unsafe abortion one of the world’s major preventable causes of maternal mortality.

Almost 25 per cent of the world’s women live in countries where abortion is illegal, except when the pregnancy is a result of rape, incest or health complications, yet an estimated 222 million women in the developing world have an unmet need for modern contraception. As a result, around 22 million women worldwide have unsafe abortions every year and 300,000 die from pregnancy-related complications or unsafe procedures. Research has found that almost all abortions in Africa (97%) and Latin America (95%) are unsafe.

A recent report by IPAS, a global NGO dedicated to ending preventable pregnancy-related mortality, found that deaths and injuries due to unsafe abortion – and prosecution for seeking an illegal abortion – disproportionately affect women who are young, poor, rural and lack education, as well as those who belong to a racial or ethnic minority or indigenous group.

A report by Doctors of the World has found that almost half of abortions globally take place in ‘deplorable conditions’. This is a major human rights issue and it is ever more important for those with a voice to speak out for those who cannot.

A ten year old girl who is pregnant with twins as a result of rape is being forced to continue with her pregnancy after human rights campaigners lost their fight to secure a legal abortion earlier this month. The Senegalese Napoleonic law bans all abortion apart from to save a woman’s life. Official figures show that forty women were held in custody in Senegal on charges linked to illegal abortion or infanticide in the first six months of 2013.

In El Savador last year, a seriously ill woman was refused an abortion, even though her foetus had almost no chance of survival. Despite a medical committee, the Ministry of Health and human rights groups all supporting her request, the Supreme Court voted four-to-one to reject the woman’s appeal.

It’s clear that world governments have not kept their promises with respect to women’s rights and health. In 1994, during the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, 179 countries committed to guaranteeing all women access to family planning services and to post-abortion care, no matter what legislation is in place. However, more than one in four women in developing countries have no access to modern contraception and the number of illegal abortions has reached alarming levels.

World leaders are currently working on a global development framework for 2015 and it’s crucial that women’s rights play a part in these plans. This week leaders are gathering at the UN Commission on Population and Development (CPD), in New York, where many key decisions will be made on how to move forward in this area. Governments will also be gathering at the UN in September as part of the Cairo+20 to debate sexual and reproductive rights and global NGOs such as Doctors of the World and IPAS are calling on the international community to ‘renew its commitment to women’s rights and health’ by joining a worldwide campaign for women’s right to decide and for universal access to contraception and abortion.

We have a long way to go. A recent poll conducted for CNN by ORC International found that 38% of Americans surveyed believe that abortion should only be legal in a few circumstances – the result of rape or incest – and a further 20% say abortion should always be illegal. Essentially, 58% of those surveyed believe abortion should be made predominantly illegal in the United States. America positions itself at the forefront of global progression and human rights. It is therefore essential that we differentiate between morality and basic rights for women or we risk further large-scale mortality and suffering.

The ‘Names not Numbers’ campaign is one way to help. By signing the petition, you will speak out against this betrayal of women’s rights and go some way towards empowering women to have control over their own sexual and reproductive health.


Follow Sophie Turton on Twitter: @turtonsophie.

Follow Doctors of the World on Twitter: @DOTW_UK


The image at the head of this post is the logo of Doctors of the World. It comprises a blue circle with a stylised white dove encircled by the organisations name in white.