The International Planned Parenthood Federation estimates 19 million women worldwide will have an unsafe abortion in 2006; a similar number took this risky step last year – 70,000 died. This accounts for 13 per cent of the 500,000 maternal deaths each year, the federation’s report, Death and Denial: Unsafe Abortion and Poverty, released today, says.
Just meditate on that number of a minute – 70,000 women a year, every year. That’s twenty-six 9/11s, every year. Man-made and man-dictated laws are killing that many women every year. You might call it a gender war. Of course the victims are poor, almost all in poor countries, hence this is an almost invisible war.
And of course the toll goes further, in illnesses, disability and infertility. Take just one example from the federation report:
Sarawati, a 37 year old health care worker from India said: “I wish this method [medical abortion] was available when I was young and had an unwanted pregnancy. I went to a Dai [traditional healer] because I did not want to have surgery done by the male doctor; I had pain and fever for many days. I never could get pregnant after that, and my husband left me.”
But, the so-called pro-lifers will say, the laws are saving “babies”. Well actually what they are acting on are bundles of cells or fetuses, but anyway, they are not “saving” them. For as the federation report says:
Punitive legal measures and restricting access to safe abortion do not reduce the incidence of abortion; they just make it more dangerous. The result is that more women suffer. Not surprisingly, it is the poorest women – women least able to pay for any minimal level of care – who end up paying the highest price.
… Colombia, which prohibits abortion even to save a woman’s life, averages one abortion per woman throughout her reproductive years. In Peru, this rises to an average of two abortions per woman.”
The US government is complicit in many of the deaths worldwide, having forced the closure of clinics and forced others to avoid all mention of safe abortion options. This “global gag” rule, imposed by Bush in 2001, requires any organisation wanting US funds to sign an undertaking not to counsel women on abortion – other than advising against it – or provide abortion services.
Of course the other institution most responsible is the Catholic Church, both through the successive Popes’ attitude to birth control – which makes a good number of these abortions necessary in the first place – and its refusal to coutenance abortion.
There is, however, some good news. Tony Blair has for once managed to detach himself from Bush’s lead and the Guardian reports that the British government is to provide the IPPF with funds to at least partially replace the lost US money and increase the availability of safe abortions.
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The Department for International Development will contribute £3m over two years. DFID and the IPPF – whose clinics across the world have suffered badly – hope that others, particularly the Scandinavians, Dutch and Canadians, will be emboldened to put money in too.
“I think the UK is being very brave and very progressive in making this commitment,” said Steven Sinding, director general of the IPPF. “We’re deeply grateful for this gesture not only financially but also politically.”