By Esther Major, Central America researcher at Amnesty International.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has just published the results of an extensive study of induced abortion. Its findings confirm that thousands of women and girls around the world are dying or being harmed as a consequence of being denied access to safe and legal abortion services.
The report begs the question: how can any state ignore the desperation of these women and girls and the severity of the consequences for their health and life?
Terrifyingly, their findings show an increase in women and girls suffering unsafe abortion. It seems, unbelievably, that governments are continuing to choose to withhold essential medical services, including those required to prevent permanent physical or psychological harm to – or even the death of – women or girls.
The WHO report also points out that a dearth of information and contraceptive services contributes to the number of unwanted pregnancies.
The decision to withhold this care cannot be justified; it constitutes punishment or coercion of women and girls by the state.
Some governments even go so far as to use the criminal law to enforce this denial of medical services to pregnant women and girls.
Criminalization of abortion services is discriminatory and punitive in intent and effect. The gravity of the human rights violations suffered by women and girls as a consequence of denial of access to essential care places states in clear breach of their human rights obligations.
The WHO report confirms, importantly, that there is no correlation between restrictive abortion laws and lower rates of abortion – in fact, quite the opposite.
The WHO data confirms that where safe and legal abortions are completely unavailable, some women and girls inevitably resort to self-induced or back street abortions.
Women and girls who are terrified, ashamed and desperate make the painful decision to take poison, probe their bodies with a wire or other sharp object, or seek the assistance of unqualified persons in unhygienic conditions, in order to terminate the pregnancy.
Many will be left infertile or disabled. Some will die as a consequence of their injuries.
Why should any woman or girl be deprived of her dignity and compelled to take such desperate action?
In 2009 I interviewed 13-year-old Rosmery in Managua, Nicaragua. Rosmery was just 12 years old when she became pregnant after repeated rape at the hands of a relative.
There is a total ban of abortion in Nicaragua, even if a girl is pregnant as a consequence of sexual violence, or her life is at risk if she continues with the pregnancy.
Rosmery just wanted to stay in school, be like the other girls her age and try her best to not allow the rape to become the event which defined the rest of her life. Her mum found a qualified professional to carry out the procedure in a clandestine, but clean and safe environment.
Rosmery and her mother told me of how they constantly worried at the possibility that someone might find out or press criminal charges against Rosmery and those who assisted her. The fact that it was criminalised added to the stigma Rosmery already felt.
Why should a victim of rape like Rosmery be made to feel like a criminal for lessening the consequences of the crime she suffered?
By putting laws in place which restrict access to safe and legal abortion services, the state tells girls and women that they are not entitled to life and health-saving treatment on an equal basis with those requiring such treatment in other circumstances.
The WHO report concludes that “Death due to unsafe abortion remains an important and avoidable occurrence as do the health and social and economic consequences of unsafe abortion.”
The fact that these deaths and injuries suffered by thousands of women and girls worldwide are completely avoidable is heartbreaking.
I come back to my original question: how can any state ignore the desperation of these women and girls and the severity of the consequences for their health and life?