On International Safe Abortion Day, women demand access to abortion through strong public health systems

On September 28, health and women’s rights activists are mobilizing to demand universal access to safe abortion and an end to the persecution of reproductive justice advocates

September 28, 2023 by Peoples Health Dispatch
Protesters holding placard reading “What’s the cost of reproductive rights?” during March 8 rally, Zagreb, Croatia. Photo: Aktiv

On September 28, health and women’s rights activists worldwide commemorate International Safe Abortion Day, warning against the persisting disparities in access to sexual and reproductive health services in different countries. Numerous international treaties and declarations, such as the 1993 Vienna Declaration, advocate for the universal guarantee of access to safe abortion, and international bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO) actively promote this cause, yet countless women continue to face barriers when seeking this essential health care service.

As part of a global call to action, this year, activists are rallying for the universal decriminalization of abortion, improved access to high-quality post-abortion care, the inclusion of medical abortion pills on national essential medicines lists, and an end to the persecution of reproductive justice advocates, among other objectives. Although there have been notable advancements in safe abortion provision over the past five years, as recently seen in Mexico, many countries still do not provide universal access to abortion services.

On the occasion of International Safe Abortion Day, the feminist collective fAktiv brought a situation report from hospitals in Croatia. The data they collected shows that the majority of gynecologists in some of the country’s biggest hospital centers, including the University Hospital Center Zagreb and the University Hospital Split, refuse to provide abortions citing so-called conscientious objections. In addition to that, the price of abortion remains highly prohibitive. In some cases, the cost of an abortion amounts to half of the national minimum wage (560 euros), putting it out of the reach of working-class women.

Read | Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalizes abortion nationally in landmark ruling

Other countries have moved in an even more dangerous direction. A recent report by Human Rights Watch has exposed the extreme persecution carried out by the Polish state against women, their families, and health workers allegedly involved in illegal abortion procedures. Access to abortion in Poland suffered a severe blow in 2020 when the Constitutional Tribunal criminalized abortion in cases of incurable, life-threatening fetal illnesses. With this, it eliminated a provision that offered the basis for nearly 90% of abortions at the time.

Following this ruling, the atmosphere took a sinister turn, described by Human Rights Watch as a true witch hunt, with women and doctors facing harassment and intimidation by law enforcement regardless of the legality of the healthcare they received or provided. Because of the restrictions, at least six women lost their lives as their doctors hesitated to terminate pregnancies despite complications, driven by fear of becoming targets of authorities.

Read | Polish women intensify protests demanding repeal of ban on abortions

Widespread evidence shows that criminalizing abortion does not diminish demand for the procedure. Instead, it forces people to resort to procedures in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, placing their lives in danger. Rather than criminalizing this crucial form of care, it is crucial to expand healthcare services and allocate increased resources, particularly towards sexual and reproductive health and maternal health policies, said activists on the occasion of this year’s International Safe Abortion Day.

The Sexual Rights Initiative and allies stated: “We call on all states to fully decriminalize abortion, ensuring the right to safe and legal abortion through a robust and strengthened public health system.”

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