Abortion Worldwide: A 2014 Look from the Global Pro-choice Movement

Rebecca Ellis, Reporter

Nearly two decades ago at the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, 179 nations committed to the basic sexual and reproductive health rights. These, they agreed, include the ability to make free and informed decisions about one’s body, health, relationships, marriage and childbearing. Globally, deprivation and inequality play key roles in sexual and reproductive health rights. Twenty years after the landmark conference in Cairo, women’s lives have only seen minimal improvement.  Indeed, there has been a backlash against women’s reproductive rights around the world.

Once progressive states like Serbia are also backtracking on their previous commitment to reproductive rights. Serbia just passed a new law guaranteeing free healthcare to children, pregnant women and new mothers. Although this has a nice ring to it, there is another side to it. Namely, Article 5 of this newly adopted law requires that terminations of pregnancies, along with the identification details of the patient, be reported to the government health insurance fund. Article 5 has been fueling heated debates over a potential register of terminated pregnancies and abortions being compiled by the government.

Al Jazeera reported that similar mechanisms are contributing to an opposite outcome, high fertility, among teenage Roma girls, not only in Serbia but in surrounding countries as well. Lack of adequate housing and a lack of access to education and healthcare services are pushing many Roma girls to marry early and are compromising their family planning.  The adolescent birth rate among the Roma population in Serbia is more than 6 times the national average, with one in three Roma girls giving birth before the age of 18. According to UN data, the average age of marriage among Roma girls in Albania is 15.5 and the average age of first-child bearing is 16.9. These pregnancies, among the most vulnerable youth are underpinned by parallel problems that drive high abortion rates in the general population. However, the two issues are never discussed jointly.

A study recently published in the Lancet Global Health journal showed that the South African financial support grants to poor households with children reduce transactional sex (sex for food, school fees, money or other material benefits) and sex with much older men among teenage girls. These findings highlight the extent of the problem.

The UN framework for discussion in 2014, known as the Post-2015 Development Agenda offers will focus on reducing gaps among countries and within society. One major tenet is improving reproductive rights. “To realize this vision, sexual and reproductive health and rights, the empowerment of women and gender equality, and the rights and empowerment of adolescents and youth must be placed at the heart of sustainable development.” “Sexual and reproductive health and rights are essential elements of human dignity and human development, and a core basis for social and economic progress..” This UN initiative realizes that reproductive rights are intrinsically tied to other global social problems in the world. In their recent policy brief, they reported that these problems persist in marginalized communities around the world:

Maternal mortality and morbidity: Every day, 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth complications – 99% occurring in developing countries.

Family Planning: More than 200 million women in developing countries want to prevent pregnancy, but lack access to effective contraception – resulting in 80 million unintended pregnancies, 30 million unplanned births and 40 million abortions—half of them unsafe and life threatening abortions.

In Latin America, reproductive rights, although gaining political supporters, is still a contentious issue. Women’s rights – especially reproductive rights – have been and continue contentious in Latin America and one that even the female presidents don’t typically want to touch. In most Latin American countries, including Chile, there is a total ban on abortion. Michelle Bachelet, who ran the United Nations women’s agency after leaving the presidency, is a major supporter of abortion in cases of rape or risk to a woman’s health, but hardly mentioned it during her first presidential race. While she spoke out in favor of abortion during her 2013 campaign, she could have a difficult time making any progress on the matter given that her political coalition was made up of a strong contingent of Christian Democrats and the Roman Catholic Church still holds great deal of sway in the country. “In this regard, Latin America – and especially Chile – is not very progressive at all,” Sabatini said.

The relevance of US internal affairs to small countries should not be overseen. The US is, by far, the largest international donor in funding volume (net flows estimated to be at $30.5bn in 2012), however funding distribution depends on the perspectives of the administration in power. For example, the Bush administration ban on US funding to international family planning groups supporting or even providing information on abortions was reversed by the Obama administration.

The US continues to harbor some of the most draconian ideas and policies on abortion, despite being a promoter of human rights worldwide. Michigan’s legislature passed on December 12, 2013 a measure banning coverage for abortion in private health plans, providing no exceptions for rape and incest. Earlier this year, several states adopted laws mandating women to view a real-time ultrasound image of their fetus and listen to the fetal heart prior to proceeding with abortion. Last year, Republican Senate nominee from Missouri questioned the medical legitimacy of unwanted pregnancies resulting from rape.  “It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancies resulting from rape are] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Reproductive health and rights were once again the subject of extensive debate in state capitols in 2013. Over the course of the year, 39 states enacted 141 provisions related to reproductive health and rights. Half of these new provisions, 70 in 22 states, sought to restrict access to abortion services. In sharp contrast to this barrage of abortion restrictions, a handful of states adopted measures designed to expand access to reproductive health services. Most notably, California enacted the first new state law in more than seven years designed to expand access to abortion, and five states adopted measures to expand access to comprehensive sex education, facilitate access to emergency contraception for women who have been sexually assaulted and enable patients’ partners to obtain STI treatment.  Twenty-two states enacted 70 abortion restrictions during 2013. This makes 2013 second only to 2011 in the number of new abortion restrictions enacted in a single year. To put recent trends in even sharper relief, 205 abortion restrictions were enacted over the past three years (2011–2013), but just 189 were enacted during the entire previous decade (2001–2010). More abortion restrictions have been enacted in 2011-2013 than in the entire previous decade.

A NARAL Report released last year reported that 14 states have unconstitutional and unenforceable near-total criminal bans on abortion: AL, AZ, AR, DE, LA, MA, MI, MS, ND, NM, OK, VT, WV, WI. 2 of these bans were enacted after Roe v. Wade. 5 states have laws that would impose near-total criminal bans on abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade (sometimes known as “trigger” bans): KS, LA, MS, ND, SD. And ND banned abortion before many women know they are pregnant. The NARAL report graded all US states on Reproductive Rights. Alabama, Arizona, Arkansaa and Virginia are some states which received in F.


• 10 states enacted 16 pro-choice measures in 2013.

• California enacted more pro-choice legislation than any other state in 2013, with 4 laws.

• Hawaii enacted a law to guarantee emergency contraception in the emergency room for sexual- assault survivors, making it the third way in which the state ensures broad access to this important medication.



• 24 states enacted 52 anti-choice measures in 2013.

• Arkansas enacted the most anti-choice legislation in 2013, with 8 laws. Oklahoma enacted 5 anti-choice laws, and Missouri and North Dakota enacted 4 anti-choice laws.

• Since 1995, states have enacted 807 anti-choice measures.


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