By Lauren Fontenot
Throughout the course of history, perceived deficiencies in governmental protections have sparked demand for greater respect of human rights and autonomy. Even in democracies, where the abstract concept of ‘equality’ underpins their theoretical framework, groups like minorities and women have faced unequal protection of their rights and autonomy. Women specifically have spoken up across the world to demand comprehensive reproductive rights for years. They have been ignored, silenced, and outright denied in the course of the fight—until now; enduring years of strife, women’s wishes are now being honored.
Since the inception of advanced medicine, women have felt the repercussions of inadequate reproductive healthcare across the world, with abortion remaining explicitly illegal in nearly every country by the end of the nineteenth century. Early attempts to advocate for reproductive rights faced structural impediments in male dominated political systems, which were built on the remnants of oppressive colonial systems that gave women limited value outside of childbearing.
On this premise that a woman’s worth was defined by her ability to produce children, colonialism provided for the global outlawing of abortion. This ban was the collective will of a mere handful of nations, namely Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, and Italy, yet it effectively posed the longest-standing hindrance to the realization of reproductive rights. As colonists codified these restrictions under common law and civil law in their respective territories, they crafted a legal framework that serves as the antagonist to the modern global struggle for bodily autonomy.
Today, the remaining lack of access to quality abortion care is measured by the alarming 13 percent of maternal deaths, or 68,000 women, per year that can be attributed to unsafe abortions globally. Moreover, deaths caused by unsafe abortions disproportionally affect women in the developing world, which accounts for 97 percent of unsafe abortions. The consequences are indisputable: people die when they do not have access to safe healthcare services. Where policy is concerned, however, mortality rates are not the only consideration at play.
Though the data is clear on mortality, the primary argument against abortion today is one of morality. Across the world, this argument is presented most often by religious individuals and institutions. While non-religious people may certainly still put forward moral arguments against abortion, the data positions the religion gap as a very strong predictor of abortion attitudes. The Pew Research Center uses Norway as an example in underlining this point, finding that “61 percent of Norwegian women who attend religious services monthly say abortion should be illegal, compared with just 11 percent of those who do not participate as frequently.”
In Europe, significant disparities exist in the data on anti-abortion attitudes due to varying levels of religious activity by region, further highlighting this religion gap. In Central and Eastern Europe, 57 percent of people identify as Orthodox, with relatively few classifying themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Though religiously unaffiliated groups are similarly small in Western Europe, non-practicing Christians constitute the largest group in nearly every nation, or 46 percent on average. This lower level of routine religious activity explains Western Europe’s overall preference for the legalization of abortion as compared to Eastern Europe’s overall preference for the criminalization of abortion.
In America, this religion gap has long been accompanied by a party gap, as well. This phenomenon can be underlined by the 68 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of white evangelical Protestants that view abortion as morally wrong in most or all cases. These percentages are well above the national average, which stands at 38 percent. Moreover, highly polarized electorate views fuel highly polarized political messaging. Throughout the years, these consistently high numbers have sent a message to conservative politicians: an abortion stance that centers on religious appeals to its immorality is a winning one. As such, this stance has become the norm in conservative circles; politicians who are unwilling to make these appeals now risk losing support from their base. Moreover, due to this argument’s rising domination of conservative messaging, morality and religion have become increasingly intertwined with the politics of abortion. Past Republican success in targeting highly religious individuals has given the party no reason to back down from their moral attacks on abortion, despite it being the view of the minority.
Global Progress in Ensuring Bodily Autonomy
In 1920, Alexandra Kollontai pushed the Soviet Union to establish the first ever abortion protections for women. Prior to her successful advocacy, women went largely unprotected in the realm of abortion across the world. Since Kollontai left a mark on reproductive rights in her own country over a century ago, many more have followed suit.
Today, there is great diversity in abortion laws across the world. The Center for Reproductive Rights classifies modern day abortion policy under five explanatory categories, moving from most conservative to most progressive and noting the volume of women who live under each of these laws as following:
abortion prohibited altogether: 91 million (6 percent) women
abortion permitted to save the woman’s life: 358 million (22 percent) women
abortion permitted to preserve health: 186 million (12 percent) women
abortion permitted on broad social or economic grounds: 386 million (24 percent) women
abortion permitted on request (gestational limits vary): 576 million (36 percent) women
While these numbers are less than ideal in the eyes of reproductive rights advocates, liberalization of abortion law is on the rise globally. In the past two decades, Nepal and Sao Tome and Principe have stood out for their progression from prohibiting abortion altogether to permitting abortion on request. As outlined above, this is a complete shift from the most conservative abortion policy possible to the most liberal abortion policy possible. Across the world, many countries have seen incremental progress; since 2000, 37 countries have passed policies that increase women's access to abortions.
The End Goal for Reproductive Rights Advocates
Comprehensive reproductive rights have one overarching goal according to the United Nations: “[allowing] women to be in control of their own bodies and decide if, when, with whom and how often to bear children.” This goal entails several key provisions, including goods and facilities that are “available in adequate numbers, accessible physically and economically, accessible without discrimination, and of good quality.” In practice, this takes the form of women’s healthcare services being held to the same standards as men’s. Moreover, the attainment of reproductive rights hinges on women being able to access services like abortion upon request. In other words, a realization of these rights can only occur when women are not limited in the realm of their own healthcare; women’s choices must be their own and must not be decided by outside actors.
From this definition of reproductive rights, their attainment can be understood as twofold: the decriminalization of abortion under law must be followed by the implementation of quality services. Legal provisions for abortion access do not always entail high quality services, which are defined as safe, effective, patient-centered, timely, efficient, and equitable. Thus, advocating for healthcare that meets these standards is often the second step in the fight. While both the legality and quality of services are important factors for the realization of comprehensive reproductive rights, many nations today have yet to take the first step in this process by completely decriminalizing abortion.
As highlighted above, only 36 percent of women live under laws permitting abortion on request. While these women are protected from legal repercussions for seeking an abortion, the remaining 64 percent of women across the world are not as fortunate. These women lack comprehensive protection under the law, meaning they face criminal status for pursuing an abortion that does not adhere to their respective limitations. Given this disparity, the complete decriminalization of abortion has become the prinicpal aim of reproductive rights advocates across the world, as quality of service cannot be ensured if the service itself is illegal. This goal requires that all aspects of the medical process are legally guaranteed to those wishing to access the service.
According to the National Library of Medicine, decriminalization of abortion entails the achievement of the following conditions:
zero punishment for providing a safe abortion
zero punishment for having an abortion
zero police involvement in the process, neither in the form of investigation nor prosecution of safe abortion service
zero court involvement in the process, namely in the form of rulings on abortion validity on a case-by-case basis
abortion is treated like every other form of health care; specifically, it should be guaranteed that individuals involved are exercising best practice in service delivery, ensuring the training of providers, overseeing the development and application of evidence-based guidelines, and applying standing law to negligent practices
Recent Setbacks in Ensuring Bodily Autonomy
Despite the sound evidence that restrictive policies hurt women, four nations have recently taken significant steps backward in ensuring reproductive rights for their citizens. Since 1994, the United States, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras stand alone in decreasing nationwide access to abortions. While Honduras’s complete abortion ban has been in place since 1985 and Nicaragua’s was instated in 2006, drastic change in U.S. policy broke news earlier this year.
The June 2022 decision that the Supreme Court of the United States made in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to overturn Roe v. Wade marked a historic loss for reproductive rights protections, effectively allowing nearly half of the country’s states to reinstate immediate abortion bans. Even in the era of Roe v. Wade protections, Republican-led states never gave up on passing restrictive legislation. However, these policies often died in court where they were deemed a violation of the standing federal law. Hence, since Roe v. Wade was established as the law of the land in 1973, the nation has never experienced such a shock to precedent in this realm.
Some think that such sweeping bans in the U.S. have sparked a new conservative wave for abortion policy globally, emphasizing the significance of a highly industrialized nation taking steps backward in this fight. While this is a concerning time for many in America, such a perspective is highly speculative and neglects to acknowledge two outstanding facts. First, prior to June, the U.S. was not the only industrialized nation with progressive abortion policy. In fact, the nation was only one of 55 countries, including Canada, Sweden, and Spain, allowing for abortion at a woman’s request with no requirement for justification. Second, recent surges in progressive policy developments are plentiful abroad. One emerging leader in the fight for reproductive rights around the world is Colombia, a nation that legalized abortion during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy this February. Indeed, this shock to long-standing U.S. precedent calls back to an even longer-standing global precedent that many, including Colombians, have worked to overcome: legal abortion being inaccessible. However, this domestic setback does not erase the global progress that has been made toward guaranteeing the right to choose.
Unfaltering Resolve at Home
Though domestic policy may not be where U.S. reproductive rights supporters want it, what comes after the overturning of Roe v. Wade remains a matter of fighting against restrictive policy implementation. While the constitutional right to abortion may have been revoked, abortion policy in a number of states is a matter that will continue to appear both explicitly and implicitly on the ballots in future elections. Going forward, voters and their elected officials will have the largest say in this battle for rights. This is a fact that was clearly recognized by the tens of thousands of women registering to vote in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, sending a message that the fight is not over in their eyes.
Reproductive rights advocates now have their sights set on voting for pro-abortion candidates and legislation. Thus far, this electoral battle has centered on proposals to amend state constitutions. In some states like Kentucky, this means voting against proposals to explicitly outlaw the procedure; in others like California, this means voting for proposals to guarantee the right to the procedure. However, states are not the only actor here. Congressional action on this front would shift the country’s policy altogether, rather than handing each state the choice, but this is easier said than done. Progressive policy proposals to codify Roe v. Wade require a level of bipartisan support that may not be readily available on such an issue.
While officials are trying to push abortion policies through state and national legislatures, the federal government is not incapable of action. Prior to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, U.S. President Joe Biden rescinded a Trump-era policy preventing foreign groups aiding reproductive healthcare on their own soil from receiving U.S. funding. In the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, numerous politicians pushed for clarification on whether or not the decision restricts U.S. funding of said groups. While there does not seem to be a clear answer to this question yet, it also does not appear that said funding has been halted. This marks one area in which the U.S. may be able to continue promoting reproductive rights abroad.
As evidenced by a largely successful refusal to submit to the status quo across the world throughout the past century, women in pursuit of reproductive rights have history on their side. This is not a new fight but rather a matter of unfaltering resolve and creative strategies in search of long-desired comprehensive rights.