Every year 47,000 women lose their lives to unsafe abortions around the world. Their deaths are unjust and preventable. September 28 has been named the International Safe Abortion Day to amplify the voices of women around the world who will no longer watch their sisters die from back alley abortions. Abortion must be legal and accessible for women everywhere.
More than 95 percent of women who die due to unsafe abortions reside in developing countries. Only in Latin America about 760,000 women are treated for complications resulting from unsafe abortion every year. Unsafe abortions account for 10 percent of maternal deaths in Latin America.
The problem goes beyond Latin America. In Asia more than 5,000 and in Africa 16,000 women die due to unsafe abortions every year. Many victims of unsafe abortions are also victims of rape as a weapon of war, sexual violence and incest. From women escaping the sexual slavery of ISIS to those seeking refuge after being raped during the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, some of the most marginalized and vulnerable populations of women are further victimized without access to safe abortion services.
Even today, in more than 130 countries abortion is either completely illegal or restricted. From Ireland to Nigeria, women are forced to either carry out their unwanted pregnancies, seek life-threatening sham procedures, or leave their countries to access abortion. In these countries, as well as in other parts of the world, women living in poverty are further disadvantaged for not being able to afford traveling outside or seeking services in hygienic and equipped facilities.
An Urgent Call for Action
Providing access to safe and legal abortions everywhere is especially urgent and important right now as terrorist groups are using rape as a weapon of war from Iraq and Syria to Nigeria and Zika has wreaked havoc in much of Latin America.
Since 2014, Boko Haram has abducted hundreds and subjected thousands of women and girls to sexual violence and rape. Impregnated survivors of Boko Haram are often stigmatized in and rejected by their previous communities and left with few real options. Without access to voluntary abortion services, they are forced to carry their pregnancies to term and live in isolation and trauma.
Half a world away from Nigeria, women in Syria and Iraq have faced similar atrocities at the hands of ISIS. In its deadly quest for power, ISIS has abducted thousands of Yazidi women and men and members of other communities in the region and continues to sell women and girls as sex slaves in open markets. Women and girls who are rescued or escape ISIS also lack access to safe and legal abortion and are forced to either give birth to the children of their slavers or undergo life-threatening illegal abortions.
In Brazil and several other countries in the Americas a different threat is putting women in danger. In Brazil alone, Zika has been diagnosed in tens of thousands of people and left more than 1,500 babies with microcephaly—a birth defect that causes major developmental delays, seizures, hearing and vision loss, and other issues. Without sufficient funding and access for family planning and contraception and access to safe and legal abortion, women in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and many others continue to make impossible choices.
Playing Politics with Women’s Lives
While women around the world are dying because of restrictive laws and lack of funding for safe abortion services, right wing politicians continue to dismiss this tragedy. Just this month, Republican Senator from Florida, where Zika is a real threat, Marco Rubio proudly exclaimed that he is against abortion for women infected with the virus. In addition, Rubio’s colleagues in the House have continued to obstruct funding for Zika for months because of their opposition to allocated funding for Planned Parenthood. They are also trying to sneak in a provision to allow the Confederate flag to fly at veterans’ cemeteries.
The war on women’s right to reproductive freedom is nothing new to the Republican Party.
Since 1973, the Helms Amendment, written by the Republican Senator Jesse Helms, has been used to prevent U.S. funding for abortion abroad. Although Helms prohibits funding for abortion as a method of family planning, it has been misinterpreted to prevent all funding, even in the case of incest, rape or threat to the life of the woman. From Kenya to Iraq and Syria, the Helms Amendment has made it impossible for the U.S. to support survivors of rape as a weapon of war.
Despite the grim realities surrounding access to safe abortion, things are changing. As more countries and communities see the important role access to safe abortion plays in decreasing maternal mortality and empowering women to reach their full potential, laws are becoming more liberal. In fact since, 1994, more than 30 countries have taken steps to decrease restrictions on abortion access.
The U.S. has also made some important strides towards repealing the harmful Helms Amendment. The Democratic Platform this election includes the repeal of Helms and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has committed to clarifying the law and working with Congress to repeal it.
Time and time again reports have shown that restrictions on abortion do not prevent abortion. They only make them unsafe. In 2016, it is a matter of global shame that women are still losing their lives to something completely preventable like unsafe abortions. On this day and every other day, we must work to increase access to reproductive rights and services, including abortion, and to dismantle the stigma and shame associated with abortion.
It is past time to launch a global movement to put an end to the legal and cultural barriers that prevent women’s autonomy over their own bodies. This movement can begin with individuals taking action to demand fixing the harmful Helms amendment now.