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World Population Day

Should a woman have a right to an abortion?

I bet a pound to a penny you have a view on abortion. Everyone does. The recent ruling in the USA has made it an issue for women everywhere to discuss. If we believe that governments have a responsibility to ensure everyone has access to safe and consistent medical attention, regardless of cultural or religious opposition, we must take a position. Family planning is central for women’s empowerment and sustainable development, but should this include abortion?

According to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, ”Sustainable Development 2030 agenda is the world’s blueprint for a better future for all on a healthy planet. On World Population Day we recognise that this mission is closely interrelated with demographic trends including population growth, aging, migration, and urbanisation”.

In 1968 world leaders proclaimed that individuals had a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and timing of their children. In 1989 World Population Day (WPD) was instituted to mark the day of 5 billion people on earth. As of June 2022, this has now reached 8 billion. As recently as 1970 there were half as many people on the planet as there are now. The environment cannot sustain this rate of growth, and although the rate is declining, the population will grow and is predicted to double again in another 200years.

World Population Day on July 11th focuses on the importance of reproductive health and increases awareness of family planning, gender equality, poverty, child marriage, maternal health and how it affects overall growth and development plans and programmes.

The UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) – UN Population Fund – is the UN sexual and reproductive health agency with a mission to deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled. It is well documented that given choice and access to good quality healthcare smaller families are preferred by women and lead to healthier and happier families.

Across the world there is an unmet need for family planning. Young people bear the highest risk of sexually transmitted disease (STD), HIV and unintended pregnancies. Many millions of girls face the prospect of child marriage and other harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation. It is estimated that more than 215 million women who want to plan their pregnancies do not have access to modern family planning.

Since 1990 maternal mortality has reduced by 44%, but still 830 women die daily from preventable causes related to pregnancy, mostly in developing countries. How can young people’s potential be fulfilled when gender-based violence remains a global pandemic and 1 in 4 girls are married before the age of 18yrs?

Unplanned and unwanted pregnancy is a serious public health responsibility. Good, local family planning services should be available everywhere and young people especially need to be empowered to exercise autonomy, choice and participation with regard to their sexual and reproductive health and rights

Abortion remains a contentious issue around the world and only becomes legal under certain conditions in most countries. There is a range of opinion from the one child policy that was strictly upheld in China for years, using abortion as a means of enforcement, to the position of no abortion under any circumstances now being enshrined in law in some states in the USA. We do know that illegal abortion is sought by women in circumstances where there is no legal framework, and that this is usually unsafe, accounting for 13% of all pregnancy related mortality.

The development of medical abortion by taking tablets at home allows a pregnancy to be terminated safely before 12 weeks. Does this affect how we think of abortion compared to a surgical intervention later in the pregnancy? Will the UK position, and that of other countries, change with the recently renewed focus on abortion? Should parliament decide or should the right be enshrined in the forthcoming British Bill of Rights? If the latter, could this then be challenged in the courts and lead to a situation less secure than that enjoyed presently?

Rape is a weapon of war and we know of this being used in Ukraine. How will the inevitable pregnancies that follow be managed? In Poland, where the refugees are fleeing, abortion is legal in cases of “certified” rape only. How are refugees going to obtain this documentation?

The situation in our Federation varies widely.

In the UK there is legal access to abortion under certain circumstances. In Northern Ireland the law was changed in 2020 but good local services are still not widely available and so the travel costs to visit another part of the UK will be paid by the government. Malta has the strictest law in the world, with abortion being entirely prohibited.

Across the Caribbean some countries prohibit reproductive care and others are decriminalising it. On some islands, the abortion policy is a throwback to colonial times when the British Empire exported the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act abroad. The act meant that performing an abortion or trying to self-abort could result in life imprisonment.

Dona Da Costa Martinez, deputy regional director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said sexual and reproductive health organisations in the Caribbean need to be prepared for the potential influx of US women who may travel to their territories, where abortion is legal, to access safe and cost-effective care.

She said: “The lesson learned is that the Caribbean together with its Latin American partners must continue to be proactive to ensure that the gains won in decriminalising abortion are not eroded but sustained.”

In India the law is similar to that of the UK and in Nepal abortion was legalised in 2002 up to 12 weeks on request and later under certain conditions. Abortion is legal in Bangladesh under certain circumstances.

We cannot change attitudes and liberalise laws across the Federation but on World Population Day we should advocate for better education around reproductive health, better services and better access both locally and globally. We must raise awareness of the issues, whatever our view on abortion, and help young women to make informed decisions about their health and future whatever their culture or faith, in order to have planned, safe pregnancies and fulfil their potential.

Liz Dominey
UK PAC Chairman