The first two days of this past week saw the Supreme Court of the United States take a number of significant decisions upholding the citizens’ constitutional right to safely terminate unwanted pregnancies. On Monday, the US Supreme Court struck down restrictions on abortions in the state of Texas, saying abortion is a fundamental right and the limitations put an “undue burden” on its access. The very next day after this landmark judgement, it rejected appeals from the states of Mississippi and Wisconsin against lower court decisions blocking anti-abortion laws passed by the two states. In a separate case, the top court then upheld regulations in the state of Washington that said that pharmacists cannot refuse emergency contraceptive pills to women due to religious objections.
While the US top court’s decisions were keenly observed in different parts of the world and were popularly trending on social media, what went unnoticed was that in the same week, Mexico’s Supreme Court rejected appeals seeking revocation of state laws that ban abortion and limit the procedure for medical reasons. The plea had sought directions to all states of the third world country, with a majority Catholic population, to allow abortions at least in the early stages of pregnancy.
These legal cases bring to the fore the conflict between religious orthodoxy and basic rights of women. Abortion is an issue that ties to a common thread, the lives of millions of women across countries, irrespective of the levels of development, economic progress or cultural differences. Isn’t it ironic that women’s reproductive rights are held to ransom even in developed countries of the west in the twenty-first century? From first world countries to third world nations, control over women’s reproductive rights is in the hands of insensitive and prejudiced lawmakers and rulers who perceive the issue through the prism of religious conservatism, morality and misogyny. A majority of the world’s female population remains vulnerable to such controls that directly impacts their own choice, health and privacy.
In the US, the right to abortion was established by a Supreme Court verdict in 1973. However, individual states have over the years passed laws to restrict the practice. Many states have made termination of pregnancy more expensive and challenging for women, as well as medical service providers over unsubstantiated health concerns. According to statistics, at least 35 of its 50 states have seen a drastic descent in the number of clinics with abortion facilities in the past five years, with many large states now having just one such a medical institute.
Another stark example is that of Northern Ireland. A woman’s right to abortion in this part of the UK is on par with laws in Saudi Arabia, a country with an abhorring stand on women’s rights. Unlike in the rest of UK, an abortion can be permitted in Northern Ireland only if there is serious risk to a woman’s life or to her physical or mental health; not even foetal abnormalities, rape or incest are conditions under which a pregnancy can be allowed to be safely terminated. The basic right of a woman to choose whether or not she wants to keep the baby, at a stage where it is just a fertilised egg, is non-existent. While the high court ruled in November last year that the particular law is contradictory to the human rights of women, legislators have appealed against the verdict.
In many countries across Europe, abortion is an unnecessarily strenuous process. For example, in countries such as Germany and Russia, women opting for abortion have to undergo mandatory counselling and waiting periods during which they are persuaded to not undergo the procedure. In Poland, a staunchly Catholic country, there is a grass-root level campaign for a total ban on abortion, which is strictly regulated and allowed only in life-threatening cases. According to official government figures in Italy, though abortion is legal, seven in ten doctors refuse to perform the process citing conscientious objections. In Israel, abortion is illegal for married women in the age group of 17 to 40 years except in cases of foetal malformation, incest, rape or risk to the mother’s physical or mental health. Among the developing Latin American countries, Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua have a total ban on abortion.
Apart from legal hurdles, there is a ‘moral barrier’ too that women seeking a control over their own reproductive rights face. Across the world, so many stigmas are attached to choosing to have an abortion that it causes unnecessary agony and guilt in women who have been sexually assaulted, do not wish to bring up an underdeveloped child or are simply not ready for the responsibility of a baby. In the US and the UK, there have been cases of pro-choice activists being harassed and abused. Doctors performing abortions have reported being threatened by anti-abortion activists.
Such legal and moral restrictions not only limit women’s right to choose, but also end up putting their lives in jeopardy. In many countries where abortion is either banned or difficult, women have to travel to neighbouring places where access to abortion is easier. For many who cannot afford high costs that include travel and lodging expenses, apart from the cost of a legal and safe medical procedure
as well as loss of pay due to missing many days of work, the only choice that remains is that of illegal life-threatening options.
Another highly disappointing aspect in the issue of abortion is that contemporary lawmakers remain reluctant to support women’s right to abortion. Hillary Clinton, one of the most famous women US Presidential candidates, has often used the word “rare” while demonstrating her support for women’s right to choose. The mantra “safe, legal and rare” endorsed by President Barac k Obama doesn’t help much in ridding the stigma surrounding abortion. US Presidential hopeful Donald Trump said in April that women should be “punished” for having abortions, a statement that he later retracted.
It should be understood that the onus of bringing up a child ultimately falls on the mother who may have to give up her own education and ambition to face the challenge of the child’s upbringing when she’s not at all ready. The US is grappling with a large number of teenage mothers in the age group of 14-19 years who go ahead with unintended pregnancies that lead to compromises on their own health, education and well-being for the rest of their lives.
While in developing countries such as India and China, abortion is easily accessible, they are facing their own peculiar abortion-related problem — that of female foeticide. The ‘moral’ issue in India is not that of choosing an abortion but of ‘choosing’ to give birth to daughters. Many women across cross-sections of society, irrespective of their education and financial status, face trauma if they fail to bear a son. This causes many to resort to illegal sex-selective abortions even though pre-natal determination of gender is prohibited by law.
In the twenty-first century, the world is grappling with multiple intense problems such as conflict and terrorism, pollution and over-population, unequal distribution of wealth, extreme poverty and hunger, inaccessibility to health and education for millions, outbreaks of epidemics and much more. What takes place inside a woman’s womb, especially when she makes her own choices, should be the least of concerns for the world.