The Global War on Women’s Reproductive Rights

Written by Liza Kinnear, a Russian/Scottish third year law student. 

Donald Trump’s rise to power in the United States, amongst other atrocious consequences, signifies a very real threat to women’s rights. I speak specifically of a woman’s right to control her own body and reproductive health. Only a few weeks into his presidency, it has become clear that a rise of sexism and regression in the sphere of women’s rights is imminent. Donald Trump is now only one of the many men (note the lack of women involved in decisions regarding their own bodies) who have come to power in the US and are obstinately anti-abortion. The new government is already actively seeking to defund Planned Parenthood, an organisation which is the world’s biggest provider of reproductive healthcare services. Whilst Planned Parenthood is primarily known for providing contraception and performing abortions, it also provides things like cervical smear tests and STD screening. Reducing funding to such organisations represents a direct attack on a woman’s right to reproductive health and her right as a woman to make personal decisions regarding her body.

One of Trump’s first moves as president was to reinstate a law that bans government funding of NGO’s that perform abortions in other countries. However, this ban does not solely target funding for abortions, it also includes organisations that even so much as offer contraception or advice about reproductive health and choices.

Trump’s stance against abortions is more than just a threat to women’s rights. It is reflective of a war on women. Realistically, steps taken to reduce or prevent abortion will not reduce the number of people having abortions. It may in fact greatly increase the numbers. All that such laws will ultimately accomplish is removing the ability for women to have safe abortions. According to the World Health Organization, unsafe abortions are one of the leading causes of maternal mortality worldwide. The closure of abortion clinics and the criminalisation of abortion will further increase so-called “back-street” abortions and drastically increase the risk of harm, or even death, to pregnant women. The “pro-life” policies are ultimately a “pro-death” approach.

Roe v Wade has been the subject of much recent controversy, so it is important to understand the ruling and decision of the court. Roe v Wade struck a balance between a woman’s right to privacy, and the duty of the state to protect potential life. Article 11 of the Texas Penal Code restricted legal abortions to those “procured or attempted by medical advice for the purpose of saving the life of the mother.” The court criticized the lack of distinction between the stages of the pregnancy (abortion was illegal regardless of whether the woman was 2 weeks or 25 weeks pregnant), and the limitation of abortion to a single reason – saving the mother’s life. Terminating a pregnancy at any stage was accordingly a criminal act under the legislation.

The court established a trimester framework to govern abortion regulations. Under this construct, almost no regulation at all was to be permitted during the first trimester of pregnancy; regulations designed to protect the woman’s health, but not to further the State’s interest in potential life, were to be permitted during the second trimester; and, during the third trimester, when the fetus is viable, prohibitions were to be permitted provided the life or health of the mother was not at stake. Although this decision has been adapted and amended over the years, the underlying principle remains the same – women have the right to make independent decisions about whether or not to continue a pregnancy until they reach the third trimester of their pregnancy, at which point the state is permitted to interfere.

To put Trump’s anti-abortion stance into perspective, it is useful to draw a comparison with Ireland, where abortion is illegal save for extreme circumstances, i.e. where the mother’s life is in serious danger. I will examine a few cases from Ireland in order to demonstrate the emotional turmoil and health risks that pregnant women in Ireland are faced with in light of the rigid anti-abortion laws that are still currently in place. This comparison not only sheds light on the real life consequences of government policies, but also draws attention to the fact that women’s reproductive rights are a global issue and many countries to this day are repressing women’s abilities to make private decisions.

A, B and C v. Ireland, heard in 2010 by the European Court of Human Rights is a landmark case on the right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Three different women brought three separate cases, all of which underline the frightening effect of Ireland’s strict anti-abortion policies. All three women were forced to travel to England under various circumstances in order to have an abortion which they could not obtain in their own country. The first woman, A, had fallen pregnant unintentionally while an unemployed, single parent of four, living in poverty and suffering an alcohol addiction. She was at serious risk of post-natal depression and felt that having a fifth child would risk her progress in becoming sober. She was forced to borrow money at a high interest rate in order to make the cumbersome trip to England in order to maintain what little stability she had in her life. On her return, she suffered some medical complications but was too frightened to seek professional medical advice. The second woman, B, was told that she was at risk of an ectopic pregnancy. Out of fear, she made the same trip to England and was faced with the same fate on her return. C, had been undergoing chemotherapy for 3 years. Although she wanted children, she was told that a foetus could be harmed as a result of this treatment. She unintentionally fell pregnant, and as she was unsure about the risks after receiving insufficient information from doctors. She was forced to travel to England. C also suffered from serious complications resulting from the incomplete abortion that she received.

The plight of women in Ireland who want to terminate their pregnancies, many times for extremely reasonable reasons is heartbreaking. They are forced to hide their actions from friends and loved ones all the while fearing the consequences of their difficult decisions. Not only is this emotionally and psychologically exhausting, many women also face the dangerous physical and mental side-effects of travelling miles outside their country to have these procedures.

The most recent case is Mellet v. Ireland, heard in 2016 before the UN Human Rights Committee. The woman in this case was told by doctors that the fetus had congenital defects and would die in utero or shortly after birth. As a result of the Irish anti-abortion law, she was confronted with two options: carrying to term, knowing that the fetus would most likely die inside her, or having a voluntary termination of pregnancy in a foreign country. If a woman in the victim’s position carried out the term of the pregnancy, knowing that there was no chance that the fetus would survive, she would have received the full protection of the public healthcare system. By contrast, women who refuse to carry out the term and bear the physical pain and suffering of a miscarriage or a stillbirth are denied health insurance coverage, must travel abroad at their own expense and pay for an abortion, bear the psychological and physical burdens of such a frightening journey, and are denied post-termination medical care and counseling. This saddening example of the real life challenges faced by women in Ireland sheds light on the stress and turmoil of being denied legal abortions in their own country, regardless of the reasons behind such decisions.

These cases from Ireland, where illegal abortions are a reality, illustrate the horrifying effects on women who are shamed and victimised for wanting control over their bodies. Women in such conditions are often terrified and alone, with no one to turn to. They must face their problems with little support, and must also face the dangerous consequences.

It is important to keep in mind the very real difference between being pro-life and pro-choice. They are not opposite stances. Being pro-choice is not equivalent to being pro-abortion. It merely supports a woman’s right to make an autonomous decision that is right for her, regardless of what that decision may be.

We must never stop fighting for the right of women all around the world to take back control of their bodies and take back their independence. Women’s rights are not just issues contained within the United States or Ireland. This is an on-going global issue, and an on-going global fight.

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