In 1969, Norma McCorvey —known by the legal pseudonym ‘Jane Roe’— became pregnant with her third child. She did not want to continue with her pregnancy, but she lived in Texas, where abortion was illegal except for preserving the mother’s life. She then decided to bring a legal case that set a landmark decision; her attorneys filed a lawsuit on her behalf in the U.S. federal court against her local district attorney, Henry Wade, alleging the state’s abortion laws were unconstitutional.
This case, better known as Roe v. Wade, set a milestone for women’s reproductive rights in America, culminating in 1973 with the Supreme Court establishing that the Constitution should protect women’s liberty to choose to have an abortion.
A shift in the frame of reproductive rights
After 50 years of constitutional protection, on the last 24th of June, Roe v. Wade was overturned: the Supreme Court stepped back and restored the power of states to ban abortion. With the procedure being down to the states, it is expected that at least 26 will introduce restrictions and bans.
Still, 16 states will continue to protect the right for women to access abortion and have committed to aid abortion-seekers coming from neighbour states with more restrictive laws. Moreover, some states, such as Maine, will not only protect this right but are also making efforts to render easy access to the procedure by allowing highly trained nurses and physician assistants to perform it. Likewise, once the bill goes effective on the 1st of July, many of these states will require health insurance plans covering pregnancy care to cover abortion as well.
This change in Americans’ reproductive rights has shocked the world. Leaders from different countries and the World Health Organisation have branded the change in paradigm as a ‘backwards step’. People from across the globe are as stunned as the American citizens to see how ‘the land of the free’ is losing its liberty. Thus, it is now a widespread concern other rights could be countermanded. In this line, Elizabeth Nash from the Guttmacher Institute manifested in the New York Times ‘What we’re seeing right now is the build-up of decades where state legislatures have been adopting restriction after restriction, and now they’re moving to adopt ban after ban’.
A broader spectrum: the state of abortion globally
While some countries are moving toward decriminalising abortion under their legal frame (Colombia, Argentina, Australia, and South Korea are some of the most recent examples), many countries are narrowing the grounds on which women can access this procedure. As a result, the state of abortion is diverse and intricated, with different rules changing from country to country.
To this day, there are 16 states in the world entirely prohibiting abortion; some of the countries where abortion is banned altogether include Egypt, El Salvador, Haiti, Iraq, Laos, Senegal or The Philippines. Hence, in these countries, abortion is considered a criminal offence. In the strictest ones, women are prosecuted with aggravated homicide, a more severe charge than murder as it involves a combination of offences.
Around a hundred countries consider abortion status legal only in some circumstances, which usually include the presence of anomalies in the foetus, physical or mental health risks for the pregnant woman, socioeconomic reasons, or cases of rape or incest. However, the vague nature of these exceptions makes it difficult for medical professionals to have certainty about the legality of performing some abortions.
The situation in Europe
Most industrialised countries allow access to abortion without any restrictions, only limiting the period of time during which the procedure can be carried out. Europe has been one of the regions leading the tendency to adopt legal and safe access to abortion over the last 60 years under the joint agreement that abortion shows rights of liberty, health, and life.
Over the years, most European Union member states and, in general, countries in the continent have fully legalised abortion or extended the socioeconomic grounds under which abortion can be performed. Likewise, the countries continue to introduce reforms to diminish the possible barriers hampering access to abortion.
Nevertheless, Europe presents some exceptions. One of them is Poland, where in 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortion due to an irreversible foetal defect or an incurable illness was unconstitutional. A change in legislation that, unfortunately, leaves thousands of women in this situation with no other option than to travel to a neighbouring country or pursue a clandestine procedure that might entail risks to their health.
Yet, Poland is not the only European example of how restricting access to abortion undermines the right to health. Malta’s complete ban on it became a hot topic just a couple of weeks ago when Andrea Prudente, an American tourist, was refused her request for abortion after suffering symptoms of an incomplete miscarriage. She was admitted to the hospital with severe bleeding and a serious risk of infection. However, despite being informed that the pregnancy was no longer viable, she couldn’t receive any further attention, letting her stuck in the country, fearing for her health as the doctors did not certify her as fit to fly. Eventually, her insurance set an emergency flight to Spain, where she was able to get care.
A matter of rights
Religion and morals play a significant role in the controversy surrounding abortion by encompassing deep philosophical questions such as life and death or right or wrong. Yet, many consider abortion should be perceived as a matter of health and equity instead of as a political-religious question.
That is the opinion of Rim Ben Aissa, a Tunisian doctor who asserts family planning has played a great role in improving the quality of life of women in the country —an exception in Northern Africa, being the only place the procedure is legal—. Once women win control over their bodies, they win control over their life, having better chances of pursuing education and accessing the workforce. Only then do Women and men become equal.
In this line, a study from the University of California that followed 1000 pregnant women seeking abortion found that denying abortions jeopardised their overall health. Women who were able to have an abortion reported fewer mental health issues than those who couldn’t, which generally experienced more anxiety. Likewise, those women who were denied an abortion were more prone to end up in a difficult financial situation, unemployed, or receiving government assistance, even though before seeking for abortion, they had a similar financial situation to those women who got one.
The UN Human Rights Office is very clear about this ‘Abortion is essential healthcare, and women’s health must be prioritised over politics’. Its denial puts the freedom to live with dignity at stake, pushing women to violent situations and a power struggle by perpetuating gender inequity. Hence, ‘The right to access safe abortion services must be codified in law following human rights standards which require ensuring the availability, accessibility, affordability, acceptability and quality of abortion services.’