As leaders from governments, NGOs, and community organizations from around the world assembled in Nairobi in November for the ICPD+25 Summit to discuss progress and commitments in sexual and reproductive health and rights, one topic stood out as a remaining taboo: abortion.
The agenda was filled with sessions on unmet need for contraceptives and commitments from foreign governments to achieving the ICPD goals, but only two sessions had abortion in their titles: Ending Unsafe Abortion by 2030: How Do We Get There? and Safe Abortion in Health Systems: Regional Challenges, Progress and Accelerators. In both sessions, the speakers — from India, Afghanistan, Ireland, Kenya, and Peru — made it evident that they had to work hard to advocate for abortion sessions at the conference.
Both sessions on abortion had a clear message: Making abortion inaccessible does not eliminate the practice — it only makes it unsafe.
Maeve Taylor from the Irish Family Planning Association, which led the charge on abortion legalization in Ireland, told the story of Savita Halappanavar. Savita lost her life due to Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, now struck down, which granted fetuses rights equal to the pregnant people carrying them. Savita was experiencing a miscarriage and went to the hospital, but was refused the abortion she so clearly needed. Savita died due to sepsis. Maeve credited human rights advocacy and providers sharing their patients’ experiences for the landslide referendum to end the Eighth Amendment. She encouraged evidence-based discourse on human rights for others hoping to liberalize abortion laws within their own countries.
Just around the corner from ICPD+25, conservative religious advocates had gathered to hold a counter-conference to renounce family planning, comprehensive sex education, safe abortion, and LGBTQ+ rights — even going so far as to say that condoms are not an acceptable form of contraception. Not surprisingly, American representatives from USAID and HHS were present to encourage religious groups to apply for funding and continue to refuse comprehensive services to patients. Pushing their anti-choice agenda on Kenyans negated their hypocritical cries that “ICPD was a neocolonial event” that did not center the voices of Kenyan women. And while U.S. ambassador to Kenya Kyle McCarter may have had access to media to promote his antiquated and patronizing agenda, his voice was far overshadowed by the Kenyan women who vocalized their support for the full range of reproductive health services.
As we move forward from ICPD+25, we must include abortion in conversations about sexual and reproductive health and rights. United States Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL-21) has already taken steps to do so by introducing a resolution to recognize ICPD+25, highlighting that deaths from unsafe abortion have gone down since 1990 “due to liberalization of abortion laws and increased access to safe and effective methods of abortion across the globe,” and recognizing “sexual and reproductive health and rights, including family planning, abortion care, maternal health, STI and HIV prevention, testing and treatment, and freedom from gender-based violence and discrimination, as key to achieving gender equity, universal health coverage, sustainable development, and economic empowerment.”
We cannot eliminate maternal mortality without eliminating unsafe abortion. If we truly wish to protect women and their families, the global reproductive health and development community must improve access to modern contraception and safe abortion.