Sunday, August 7, 2022

Roe v Wade overturned: what abortion access and reproductive rights around the world look like

The global landscape of reproductive rights is constantly changing. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v Wade – the landmark decision of 1973 that protected a woman’s right to have an abortion – points to a significant regression in accessing abortion. But this is not the only case. While countries like the US, Poland and Russia are taking steps backwards, profits are being made in places like Ireland, Colombia and Argentina.

Abortion restrictions range from laws where abortion is only allowed to protect the pregnant person’s life or health, to the complete decriminalization of abortion. Restrictions are often structured around periods of pregnancy, such as allowing abortion only in the first trimester.

Some laws allow abortion on socio-economic grounds, for example in Finland. And Britain’s 1967 abortion law is an example of a broad interpretation of health that includes wellness. Doctors can consider the pregnant woman’s actual or fairly foreseeable living conditions when making a decision about the impact of continuing a pregnancy.

Where health is interpreted more restrictively, such as in Zimbabwe, Morocco or Peru, abortion may only be available if a pregnant person’s physical health is at risk. In other regions, such as Ghana or Bolivia, language referring to mental health is explicitly included in legislation, which could broaden access to abortions.

In some regimens, abortion can be performed later in pregnancy based on the health of the fetus, especially in cases of severe anomaly. This is the case in Croatia. Despite this, anti-choice sentiment in the country recently led to a woman being refused an abortion after a serious brain tumor was diagnosed in her fetus. After four denials by Croatian hospitals, the woman was advised by doctors to travel to neighboring Slovenia. But following media and public unrest, she was finally allowed to have an abortion in Croatia.

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The most liberal abortion laws are those where abortion has been completely removed from criminal law. Decriminalization allows abortion without penalty and gives priority to the safety of pregnant people in making health decisions.

Northern Ireland decriminalized abortion in 2019 following an international human rights inquiry into its abortion laws and subsequent Westminster intervention. The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 came into force in March 2020. These regulations allow abortion for up to 12 weeks on request, and thereafter on specific grounds of severe fetal shortening and fatal fetal abnormalities.

While Northern Ireland’s abortion laws have been liberalized, this does not necessarily mean that abortion is readily available.

The government has failed to put services into full use, which means abortion is provided on an ad hoc basis by health trusts in Northern Ireland. Some women seeking abortions have continued to travel to England, illustrating how political stalemate can limit access to abortion.

Liberal abortion restrictions do not mean that abortion is always accessible, as in Croatia.
Antonio Bat / EPA-EFE

More restrictive

In some countries, abortion is banned altogether, or only to save the pregnant person’s life. Malta is the only EU country where abortion is banned under all circumstances. Malta has recently seen a pro-choice movement emerge.

Draconic restrictions on abortion also affect general reproductive and maternal care, such as miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies. They can delay decision-making with urgent medical attention when the rights of the fetus are considered equal to the rights of the pregnant woman. In El Salvador, women were prosecuted and sent to prison for having miscarriages or trying to have an abortion. Charged with murder with aggravating circumstances, can be a sentence of up to 50 years.

In the Republic of Ireland, before liberalization in 2018, abortion laws affected all aspects of maternal health care. The fetus considered equal rights as the pregnant woman, allowing health care professionals to ignore her requests. In 2014, a pregnant woman who was brain dead was held on life support for four weeks against the wishes of her family, on the grounds that the right to life of the fetus could be violated.

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Activist movements to liberalize abortion laws have made significant gains in recent years as seen on the island of Ireland but also in Colombia where the constitutional court has decriminalized abortion up to 24 weeks in 2022. In Argentina, abortion was legal upon request in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy since 2020.

Outside the law

Progress on abortion rights was cyclical, not linear. As we see in the US, anti-abortion movements are still going back against any gains made. Regression on reproductive rights often correlates with wider setbacks on gender rights and the rise of far-right and populist political regimes.

Laws are just one part of access to abortion. Conscientious objections by health professionals, regulations targeting abortion providers, stigma and protests at clinics all make it harder and more risky to obtain an abortion.

Even in countries with less restrictive laws, there are movements outside legal frameworks to help people access abortions and health care, by helping with travel or financial support.

While these activist networks and organizations are often viewed as stickers that will not be necessary when restrictions are relaxed, the reality is that barriers to abortion continue after laws have changed. The England-based organization Abortion Support Network continues to help about 60 women a year from Ireland, four years after abortion laws were liberalized. These efforts are as much a part of reproductive rights as the legal framework – and their work is not finished when laws change.

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
Nation World News is the fastest emerging news website covering all the latest news, world’s top stories, science news entertainment sports cricket’s latest discoveries, new technology gadgets, politics news, and more.
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