by Luisa Cabal, Director of International Legal Program, Center for Reproductive Rights
Beatrice Wajiku was not a typical 14-year-old. Like most young girls, she enjoyed playing in the neighborhood and sharing secrets with friends. But unlike most teenagers she was the primary breadwinner for a family that had been wholly devastated by unbelievable poverty, crime, and tragic illness. Her father had died of AIDS and tuberculosis. Her brother and his wife were also dead: Thugs killed him. AIDS killed her. Her mother—while still alive—was incapacitated by two years of battling complications from tuberculosis, including spinal damage and limited mobility. Beatrice was left to pick up the pieces for the remaining family – four younger siblings and two nieces. At age 13, she left school in Nairobi, Kenya, to wash clothes for other women, and when work was scarce, her desperation led her to have sex with men for as little as two dollars per encounter.
Unsurprisingly, Beatrice eventually became pregnant. Adding another mouth to feed in a one-room shack was inconceivable and telling her mother about her pregnancy was not an option. So Beatrice confided in a neighborhood friend who advised her to get an abortion. In a country where abortion is criminal in all instances except to save a woman’s life, Beatrice ended up seeing a friend of the friend to terminate her pregnancy. No one knows exactly how far along she was in her pregnancy or what method the “friend of a friend” used to induce an abortion, but a month later Beatrice died from a dangerous, life-threatening infection.
While Beatrice’s life and story seem unfathomable to many of us, they are all too common among the millions of women and young girls who are driven to unsafe abortion every year. And stories like Beatrice’s remind us of the fact that banning abortion does not prevent women and girls from obtaining abortions—but rather forces them to resort to unsafe and clandestine means of terminating their pregnancies, ultimately endangering their health and their lives.
Today the United Nations’ independent expert on the human right to health, the Special Rapporteur on Health Anand Grover, is presenting a groundbreaking report before the General Assembly recommending that governments around the world decriminalize abortion in order to protect the health of women in their countries. In drafting this report, Grover has examined the impact of legal restrictions on sexual and reproductive health, including restrictions on abortion and access to contraception and information, in countries worldwide. And he found that laws restricting, and in particular criminalizing, reproductive freedom have had a devastating impact on women across the world. The report notes that these restrictions ultimately interfere with a woman’s human dignity, rob her of her autonomy, and consistently generate poor health outcomes, including death, permanent injuries, ill health, and mental health problems—all of which are preventable.
While isolated voices and anti-choice lobby groups will likely protest loudly and characterize this new report as radical and subversive, the facts speak for themselves. In countries with restrictive abortion laws, abortion rates are high, most abortions are unsafe and women’s health and lives are frequently jeopardized. Take the Philippines for example, where abortion is criminalized without any explicit exceptions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, every year, an estimated 90,000 women are hospitalized for complications from unsafe abortion.
In the US, the death rate from abortion is 0.6 per 100,000 procedures, making abortion as safe as a penicillin injection. Similarly, Western Europe—home to the most permissive abortion laws–has the lowest abortion rates and maternal mortality rates in the world. The recommendations in Grover’s report are not outlandish or unfounded as some of his critics may claim. His research only builds on what human rights advocates and experts have been saying for years. The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, has found that restrictive abortion laws violate the rights to life and health. Similarly, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, another human rights body, has recognized that restrictive abortion laws contribute to unsafe abortion and high rates of maternal mortality, and has repeatedly asked governments to decriminalize and legalize abortion.
Grover’s report also asserts that governments have an obligation to ensure that legal and safe abortion services are available, accessible, and of good quality. His suggestions that countries must appropriately regulate abortion services, establish available and accessible facilities, and provide training to healthcare workers would significantly improve women’s health and save thousands of lives.
What is radical—given the overwhelming understanding within the human rights community that criminal and other restrictions on abortion are unacceptable and the realities faced by women and young girls like Beatrice—is that there are still governments that would resist taking these steps to protect women’s health.
Decriminalizing abortion is not a political matter, but a matter of life and death.