“The low status of women and girls is one of the most damaging, wasteful and immoral defects of society today…Those who take pride in being anti-choice are not only fakes, they are anti-family activists whose acts are, in my view, the height of immorality… leading as they do to the deaths and misery of millions of mothers and children.”
—Dr. H. Mahler, former Director-General of the World Health Organization for 15 years
Anti-abortion laws, no matter how restrictive, have never stopped most abortions. Instead, it’s the number of maternal deaths and injuries that have been most affected by legal codes. In the last 30 years alone, over 600 million distraught girls and women around the world, twice the population of the entire United States, attempted self-induced abortions (knitting needles, drinking rat poison, douching with turpentine or bleach, being punched in the abdomen). Or they sought out extremely dangerous illegal abortions often at the hands of unskilled and unscrupulous practitioners in filthy conditions and often with no pain killers, antibiotics or blood transfusions. Over 200 million of these girls and women developed medical complications serious enough to require hospitalization, including abdominal, uterine and intestinal perforations, massive hemorrhaging, deadly infections, and kidney failure. Untold millions died horrible deaths.
“Morality becomes hypocrisy if it means accepting mothers suffering or dying in connection with illegal abortions.”
—Gro Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway
Today, over 30% of all beds in OB-GYN wards of urban hospitals in Latin America are filled with women suffering from illegal abortion complications. In many parts of Africa, the figure rises to an appalling 60%. Already inadequate health care systems are severely taxed to the breaking point. Most of those who survived this horror faced life-long disabling pain. In poor countries, the risk of death from an illegal abortion is 25-100 times greater than having a legal one.
In the United States, anti-abortion laws before Roe v. Wade (1973) were also a medical and social disaster. Hundreds of thousands of women with botched abortions filled our hospitals each year. (I had a student die from one such an abortion in Tijuana.) Medical costs skyrocketed, families were torn apart and disrespect for the law was intensified.
As more and more countries have liberalized their abortion laws and promoted birth control, the number of illegal abortions has continued to drop. Since 1995, 15 more countries have changed their abortion laws to allow greater access to abortion. By 2008 the number of dangerous illegal abortions had dropped to about one-fifth of its 1983 level. Some of the world’s lowest unwanted pregnancy and abortion rates are found in Western Europe where medically accurate sex education classes and excellent, affordable contraception is widely available. This is in stark contrast to the United States where one-half of all pregnancies are still unplanned.[i]
Some final thoughts
Globally, what continues to consign so many girls and women to death and physical disability is the low value placed on their lives. The suffering to women and girls because of archaic religious beliefs and entrenched patriarchies, coupled with abysmal ignorance and poverty is simply staggering. We must seriously ask why we allow this carnage to continue. Raising women’s economic and social status, including providing them with the means to control their own reproductive futures, would provide one of the greatest benefits to humanity in the history of civilization. All who oppose such basic health measures are accomplices to the criminalization of millions of women, to the filling of hospitals and graveyards and to the destruction of millions of families the world over.
Throughout our country’s history women’s reproductive rights have been legislated and religiously controlled almost entirely by those voices that will never have to experience an unwanted pregnancy — male voices — the same voices that once opposed suffrage for women — the same voices that 100 years ago outlawed all contraceptives and birth control information. Today, it’s increasingly rare to find anti-abortion laws outside of totalitarian, militaristic and conservative religious societies. Yet, today powerful religious/political forces in the United States continue to try to pass laws which would force girls and women with unwanted pregnancies to stay pregnant against their will— to be unwilling embryo incubators. Do we really want the United States to have the same anti-abortion laws as countries like Afghanistan and El Salvador?
Charles L. Rulon – Emeritus, Life and Health Sciences
Long Beach City College, [email protected]
[i] The abortion rate among Black women in the U.S. is 5 times higher than among White women; for Latinos it’s 3 times higher. Poverty is a major factor.