Attacks on abortion providers continue worldwide

Health workers providing abortion care continue to be attacked and persecuted, with alarming trends registered across the globe

October 03, 2023 by Peoples Health Dispatch
A woman holds a sign in Brazil which reads, “Rich women pay, poor women die, all suffer” (Photo: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil)

On September 29, health and gender justice activists worldwide reaffirmed their belief in abortion as essential health care, demanding its free provision through public health systems to everyone seeking such care. Yet, access to reproductive and sexual health rights on the ground remains extremely limited, subjecting women seeking abortions as well as the health workers supporting them to growing persecution.

Crackdowns on health workers providing abortion services have been reported recently everywhere from Latin America to Europe. This is a concerning trend considering the existing gender health gap, alongside the global shortage of healthcare workers. Targeted attacks and intimidation campaigns, like those faced by sexual and reproductive health workers, force young nurses, physicians, and other professionals to shift to other fields of work, making existing inequities even worse.

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

One such case is Helena Paro, a physician in Minas Gerais, Brazil, who faces a defamation campaign for developing telemedicine guidelines to improve access to abortion services in case of sexual violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the guidelines align with Brazil’s legal provisions, local conservative groups and institutional efforts still aim to restrict her medical work, including through an attempt to revoke her medical license.

Despite attempts to limit both her work and abortion access in Brazil, Paro remains determined to continue her work. The clinic where she currently works enables women and girls from all backgrounds to access safe and legal abortions, as she pointed out in a recent conversation with Outra Saúde and the People’s Health Movement (PHM). This is particularly significant since in Brazil, middle-class or rich women are the ones who can afford safe abortions, while those from working-class and poor communities have limited options. Unsafe abortions continue to be a leading cause of maternal deaths in Brazil, and a serious threat to women’s health: every year, around 200,000 women seek additional care due to clandestine procedures.

Strict abortion access limitations have also led to deaths in Poland. Since the introduction of extremely conservative abortion regulations in 2020, at least six women have died as health workers chose not to terminate their pregnancies despite clear health risks, fearing repercussions from authorities. Today, health workers in Poland face various forms of intimidation, from raids on their practices resulting in the confiscation of confidential medical records to job termination, as reported by Human Rights Watch.

Dominik Przeszlakowski, a gynecologist with over 20 years of experience, was dismissed from his post at Jagiellonian University Hospital in Krakow shortly after speaking against the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision to expand the abortion ban. The conservative Law and Justice government aims to create an atmosphere of fear among patients, activists, and health workers. In a comment to Human Rights Watch, Przeszlakowski said: “This means that it is intended to make doctors understand that any assistance to women in terminating their pregnancies will be punishable in Poland. This is a direct threat to women’s health if they are prevented from seeking medical assistance.”

Read more: 50 years since Roe secured abortion rights, women across the US are left in the dust

A similar message is being circulated to health workers working in sexual and reproductive health services in the United States. There, the situation has significantly worsened following the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2023, affecting women in states where abortion is highly criminalized, as well as those in so-called sanctuary states. A report by the National Abortion Federation (NAF) earlier this year highlighted an alarming increase in attacks on health workers and clinics providing abortion services. This includes a 100% increase in arson cases in 2022 compared to the previous year and a more than 200% increase in stalking cases of healthcare workers providing abortion.

The NAF reported, “Since 1977, there have been 11 murders, 42 bombings, 200 arsons, 531 assaults, 492 clinic invasions, 375 burglaries, and thousands of other incidents of criminal activities directed at patients, providers, and volunteers.”

The intimidation extends beyond physical attacks to defamation and legal action against health workers, similar to Helena Paro’s experience in Brazil. Caitlin Bernard, a gynecologist in Indiana, is currently under investigation for providing abortion care to a 10-year-old survivor of rape, despite following all the legal and administrative framework valid in Indiana at the time. Her case has been recognized by many activists and networks as an attempt to discourage health workers from providing abortions.

“In regards to Dr. Bernard’s situation, many medical students in Indiana are rethinking pursuing reproductive health as the field continues to become increasingly dangerous and scary despite the importance of reproductive rights,” warned the People’s Health Movement (PHM) in a recent case study on Bernard’s experience. Without a significant shift in health and gender justice policies at the national and global level, this phenomenon is likely to repeat in other parts of the world, leaving millions of women and girls without access to basic health care.

People’s Health Dispatch is a fortnightly bulletin published by the People’s Health Movement and Peoples Dispatch. For more articles and to subscribe to People’s Health Dispatch, click here.