In 2019, anti-abortion groups and their political allies have launched of a full-scale war on abortion access and rights. This year alone, nine U.S. states have passed early abortion bans. Among them, Alabama has gone the farthest with a near total ban that threatens abortion providers with 99-year prison sentences. Emboldened by the conservative tilt of the Supreme Court, pro-life legislators across the U.S. are rushing to pass laws that are not only blatantly unconstitutional, but that privilege the lives of the “unborn” above all pregnant people.
While this war wages in the United States, U.S. policy and politics are never contained to its own borders. Behold the Global Gag Rule. Originally devised during the Reagan administration in 1984 and implemented by every Republican president since then, this policy blocks U.S. foreign assistance from organizations or clinics that offer abortion or information about abortions. We wrote about the Global Gag Rule back in 2017, when the Trump administration was newly laser-focused on reversing the rights of women, gender non-conforming, and trans people. Since then, the U.S. government has expanded the policy, directly harming not only people seeking abortion, but also those needing access to contraceptives and family planning information; HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis treatment; nutrition guidance; and more. Over the last two years, the expansion has left a $600 million funding gap for these vital services – a shortfall that governments like Canada and the Netherlands have stepped up to fill, doubling down on their support for sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Feminists often say that the body is the first site of struggle, and the first territory to defend. JASS’ staff and allies, spreading across 26 countries, know what it means when political parties turn our bodies into bargaining chips in a legislative agenda. We know what it means when policy-makers seek to impose their religious views on others. Our contexts differ but some truths are universal: abortion bans and gag rules spread fear and disinformation and make things much worse for women and LGBTQ people. According to the International Women’s Health Coalition, complications from unsafe abortions kill seven women every day in Kenya and cause 11% of maternal deaths in Nigeria. The World Health Organization estimates that 23,000 people die each year after bans force abortion underground.
None of this is brand new information – and none of it is isolated. Policies, norms, and public narratives don’t exist in a vacuum; they have ripple effects throughout the world. We spoke with some of our colleagues and allies to hear their perspectives on the latest in their contexts.
”When we don’t consider women’s wants and needs, they become second class citizens.”
Carme Clavel Arcas, JASS Mesoamerica’s Regional Co-Director, speaks from her decades of experience as a physician and abortion provider in Spain and Nicaragua when she talks about the current reality. “The case of abortion access in Nicaragua is barbaric,” she said. “In 2006, the Sandinista party – supposedly a leftist party – negotiated with the Catholic Church in order to gain votes by removing the therapeutic condition, which previously allowed abortions…In essence, the Sandinista party sold women for votes.” Carme pointed to Catholics for Choice, an organization committed to policy and cultural change to eliminate abortion stigma. This work is extremely important, she said, given the influence and power of Catholic fundamentalism in the region.
Carme reminded that us that in Nicaragua and elsewhere, abortion restrictions don’t stop people from getting abortions. “When a woman is desperate, she does what she can…making abortion illegal creates dangerous conditions in which women risk their lives,” she said. She was talking almost exclusively about poor women who are punished by imprisonment, health risks, and stigma to access abortion.
”(They say) good women don’t get abortions.”
In Zimbabwe, the law provides for restricted abortion (in cases of rape, fetal impairments, or to save the mother’s life). One case, Mapingure vs the State, made it to the Supreme Court, which ordered the State to compensate a rape survivor after she had no choice but to carry her pregnancy to term against her will. Rather than go through the trauma of reporting assault to the police or undergoing a trial, many women end up giving birth. The Ministry of Health and other interested parties set up an abortion task force that will push for liberalization of the abortion laws or extension of conditions under which abortion is permissible, centered on an economic argument that illegal abortions cost the country more money than legalization. “Abortion should be legalized not because of cost or budgets, but because women have the rights to make decisions for their bodies,” said Winnet Shamuyarira from JASS Southern Africa.
Though Zimbabwe is a secular state, it is grounded on Christian principles, and these religious and patriarchal factors come into play to determine the popular narrative about what kind of woman seeks an abortion. “Most people’s perception is that having an abortion means loose morals,” Winnet told us. “(They say) sex is supposed to be within wedlock, and anything outside of it is dirty sex, and all women who get abortions are sex workers.”
In Southern Africa, only South Africa has access to abortion on demand, but stigma – even self-stigmatization – often prevail. “These narratives are things we’ve been fed for our whole lives and we come to accept them as true,” said Winnet.
“I am convinced that in the court of public opinion, we have won the debate against criminalization.”
In Mexico City, abortion was decriminalized in 2007. “I participated actively in diverse movements before and during the decriminalization process,” said Orfe Castillo, coordinator of JASS Mesoamerica’s Mexico program. “We worked on legislative advocacy, mapping of actors, and a collective strategy that would make it possible to gain the majority of votes that was needed. It was a historic moment, defiant and passionate.” In Latin America, where 97% of women of reproductive age have little or no access to abortion, Mexico City is an exception, along with Cuba and Uruguay. Today, 18 out of 32 Mexican states still determine conception as the moment life legally begins.
Morena, Mexico’s majority party has not adopted an official stance on abortion, but there are many feminists inside the new president’s administration pushing for decriminalization up to 12 weeks across the entire country (former Supreme Court justice and vocal abortion rights proponent Olga Sánchez Cordero is now the Interior Minister). The new government generates some hope that the rest of the states will move towards decriminalization. On the other hand, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Morena have allied with an evangelical party, which has worried progressives. “The tension between progressive and conservative forces in the new government is very strong,” said Orfe. “However, there’s a strong feminist mobilization inside the government and in the streets, and public opinion favors decriminalization. I think it’s possible that we’ll see advances in abortion access during this six-year term. I do not believe that we are going to backtrack on what we have gained.”
“Abortion is isolated from the general issue of the government’s economic policies. It’s never connected to the general context.”
The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country that has criminalized abortion since Spanish colonial rule in 1870. Nearly 150 years later, doctors, midwives, and pregnant people could be sentenced up to 6 years in prison for abetting or undergoing an abortion. The Philippines’ constitution officially protects “the life of the unborn from conception,” while 1,000 women die each year from complications due to unsafe abortion, often because they fear arrest, stigma, or mistreatment by physicians. “The highly restrictive setting violates women’s fundamental human right to life, health, nondiscrimination, privacy, and freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” said Teta Sibugon, coordinator of the Philippine Safe Abortion Advocacy Network (PINSAN), a coalition of human rights advocates, women’s organizations, lawyers, and youth networks.
In the Philippines, it’s no surprise that abortion is a clandestine activity, when the backlash against women and doctors is so severe. JASS Southeast Asia’s Osang Langara tells us there safe abortion activists are demonized and it’s hard to openly declare that you are pro-choice, which to some people is synonymous with “baby killer.” PINSAN challenges this stigma and misinformation that surrounds abortion via platforms like the Telling Truer Stories campaign. “The campaign aims to fill the lack of artwork that depicts abortion in a truer way, which does not adhere to the clichés and stereotypes that have been the default of mainstream media, perpetuating the stigma, myths, and misconceptions about abortion,” said Teta Sibugon.
“There’s a long way to go to educating people about the pro-choice vs pro-life debate,” said Osang. “Women still have abortions, of course, but they keep quiet.” The Philippines is also, perhaps not coincidentally, only country in the world that outlaws divorce. “Women – especially from low-income households – are left with no option but to stay in abusive relationships, and to have unsafe abortions where the risk of death is high, or have many children they can’t care for,” said Osang.
It’s not all bad news!
Despite the scale and scope of this critical gender justice battle, we can’t forget to progress against these strong headwinds and celebrate the good news too:
The anti-abortion laws sweeping the U.S. are not yet in effect – it is still legal to get an abortion in all 50 states. Since Governor Ivey signed Alabama’s draconian total abortion ban on May 19, four states have even expanded abortion access! #StopTheBans is still trending across social media – reproductive rights and justice activists, progressive politicians, and pro-choice physicians are fighting harder than ever.
On June 12, after a minor died in 2018 from complications from an unsafe abortion, Kenya’s High Court ruled abortion is legal for victims of sexual violence and that women and girls have the right to the highest standard of health, including the right to non-discrimination.
In Argentina, activists, famed for their green handkerchiefs, led a campaign to re-introduce a bill for legalized abortion up to 14 weeks. Meanwhile, the #NiUnaMenos (not one less) movement has centered abortion access among their feminist demands that also include salaries and retirement funds for domestic workers.
Last year, Ireland made history by repealing the eighth amendment to the constitution, which gave a fetus the same right to life as a pregnant person. The victory was in large part thanks to the Irish diaspora, whose viral #HomeToVote campaign inspired a wave of solidarity across social media.
Of course, not all victories will be won in courts, during legislative sessions, or by votes. After all, guaranteeing the right to abortion on paper is not the same thing as ensuring reasonable access to a clinic. Policy and courts matter but equally important is the task of changing hearts and minds to recognize everyone’s right to decide what happens to their bodies.
A critical element of our struggle is about language and narratives. As Carme Clavel Arcas pointed out: “The anti-choice movement has gained traction due to the use of ‘life’ as their main platform. The reality is that those who defend the right to choose are those who truly defend lives – the lives of people who exist now.”
The battles over abortion access and rights are fundamentally about controlling reproductive freedom. Physicians like Carme, activists like Orfe, and the grassroots power behind PINSAN and others around the world, with support from progressive legislators and organizations, continue to lead the way towards making abortion more accessible for anyone who needs it. It takes all of us – to amplify their work, tell our own stories, and dismantle the shame that we’ve been taught to internalize. It’s time once again to boldly reclaim our bodies. Let’s celebrate our victories and say out loud what we want next.
I’ll start: Abortions on demand, without apology or explanation, for all people who want or need them.
Photo Credit: Getty Images