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21. September 2022 - News

Safe Abortion Day: Pregnant in the midst of war

Air raid warnings, shots fired, houses destroyed: War is raging in Ukraine, Sierra Leone and many other regions around the world. Enemy forces comb through the streets, primed for violence. Fear runs deep in the civilian population. State institutions such as healthcare systems have collapsed. To be pregnant in a situation of war or crisis is frequently experienced as an enormous additional burden – especially if it is the result of a wartime rape.

People protest in front of the Brandenburg Gate for the right to bodily self-determination and legal abortions.

However, even if the women and girls do decide they want to terminate the pregnancy, the opportunity is not there. Even in times of peace these regions often do not offer them access to secure medical provision. Patriarchal laws might even threaten them with prosecution:

“Women and girls are given the message that they are committing a crime and guilty of a moral offence if they have an abortion. They are stigmatised and ostracised because they want to exercise their right to self-determination and take their own decisions about their own bodies.”

Jessica Mosbahi, Advocacy and Human Rights Officer at medica mondiale

Fear and insecurity prevail in situations of war and crisis

Insecurity, loss and fear prevail in situations of war and crisis, where the primary goal is survival. However, pregnancy, birth and the time after birth all require confidence, security and extensive social support. Scary, extreme situations are very stressful for both mother and child. Everyday structures and routines fall apart.

Medical support at great risk during crises

Regular medical care quickly becomes very precarious during a crisis, due to the lack of both financial and staffing resources. This was visible worldwide during the Covid-19 pandemic. And as Isabel Yordi Aguirre, Officer for the Gender and Health programme at WHO, explained in an interview in May with WIRED magazine, the war in Ukraine is, like any other war, also a crisis of reproductive health – for millions of people. So it is essential to enable contraception, safe pregnancy termination and other related services to the women who stayed in Ukraine and those who fled.

Example Poland: Discriminatory, fear-laden prosecutions

In Poland, one of Ukraine’s neighbours, pregnancy terminations have become almost completely forbidden since the further tightening up of abortion law in 2020. Even pregnant women who fled to Poland after suffering trauma and rape in their home country have to satisfy strict bureaucratic requirements before being allowed a legal abortion. In practice, these requirements frequently cannot be fulfilled or it is simply impossible to find medical personnel willing to carry out the abortion for fear of breaking the law.

“Abortions are generally not even possible for women who are raped during the war and become pregnant as a consequence. This is not only because of the lack of medical possibilities in war or post-war regions, but mainly because abortions are forbidden by the provisions of international funders or restrictive laws and interpretations of faith. As an international women’s rights organisation we demand that women be allowed to freely decide whether and when they become pregnant and how many children they want to give birth to.”

Jessica Mosbahi, Advocacy and Human Rights Officer at medica mondiale

Background: Reproductive self-determination – A fiercely contested human right

Sexual, physical and reproductive rights of self-determination are being ignored in many countries of the world. In many places, people who want to assert these universal human rights, which include the right to abortion, are being met with persecution and punishment. In 2021, some 1.2 billion women and girls aged between 15 and 49, according to a current UN report, are living in regions and countries where their access to safe abortion is being restricted.

Even women in Germany who consider a pregnancy termination are still being criminalised. Recently, new restrictions were put in place on the rights of women to physical self-determination in the USA, Poland and Hungary. In those countries, significant practical obstacles are now in place, making abortions available only at great risk or illegally. This violates multiple human rights:

“Inaccessibility of quality abortion care risks violating a range of human rights of women and girls, including the right to life; the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; (...) and the right to be free from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment.”

World Health Organisation (WHO) 2021

Criminalisation of pregnancy termination poses a risk to the health and life of women

In many countries, the criminalisation of pregnancy terminations has been justified as supposedly being a protection for the so-called unborn life. From a feminist perspective, however, it is actually much more an attempt to exert more control over female bodies. In fact, the purported argumentation has no scientific basis and is contradicted by, for example, the fact demonstrated in a WHO study from 2017 that the number of abortions does not decrease, or decreases only slightly, when they are criminalised. The consequence is actually just an increase in the proportion of unsafely performed abortions, with a significant risk to the pregnant women:

“Restricting access to abortions does not reduce the number of abortions.”

WHO und Guttmacher Institute (2017)

According to WHO, the criminal prosecution of pregnancy terminations leads to abortions being carried out by unsafe or outdated methods such as “sharp curettage”. The complications from unsafe abortions include incomplete abortion, haemorrhage, injuries and infections. Estimates suggest an estimated 25 million unsafe abortions occur each year that endanger the health and life of the pregnant women. WHO reports that unsafe pregnancy terminations are among the most frequent cause of death for pregnant women and girls.