Abortion is a medical treatment used to terminate a pregnancy. It is a basic healthcare requirement for millions of pregnant mothers, girls, and others. Every year, an estimated one in every four pregnancies in the world ends in abortion.

However, while the necessity for abortion is prevalent, access to safe and legal abortion services is far from assured for those in need.

In truth, access to abortion is one of the most contentious issues in the world, and the argument is muddled by disinformation about the true consequences of restricting access to this vital healthcare option.

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The leaked US Supreme court opinion draft that talks about overturning the historic Roe vs. Wade judgement have taken up the country by storm. In a partisan discourse, we often forget a few key things about abortions.

Regardless of what the law says, people have abortions all the time

Abortion is a frequent decision made by millions of people each year; one-quarter of pregnancies end in abortion.

And, whether abortion is legal or not, individuals still need and use abortion services on a regular basis. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health non-profit based in the United States, the abortion rate is 37 per 1,000 people in countries that prohibit abortion entirely or allow it only in cases where it is necessary to save a woman’s life, and 34 per 1,000 people in countries that broadly allow abortion, a statistically insignificant difference.

Abortions are one of the safest medical operations accessible when performed by a competent healthcare provider under insanitary conditions, even safer than childbirth.

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However, when governments restrict abortion availability, people are forced to resort to illegal, dangerous abortions, particularly those who cannot afford to fly or seek private care. This brings us to the following point.

Criminalizing abortion does not prevent abortion; rather, it makes abortion less safe

Preventing women and girls from getting abortions does not mean they no longer need them. That is why attempts to ban or restrict abortions have no effect on reducing the number of abortions; instead, they drive people to seek out hazardous abortions.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines unsafe abortion as “a procedure for terminating an unintended pregnancy carried out either by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment that does not confirm to minimal medical standards, or both.”

They estimate that 25 million unsafe abortions occur each year, with the vast majority taking place in developing nations.

In contrast to a legal abortion performed by a skilled medical physician, unsafe abortions can be lethal. According to the WHO, unsafe abortions are the third greatest cause of maternal deaths worldwide, causing an extra five million mainly preventable impairments.

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Almost every fatality and injury caused by improper abortion is avoidable

The deaths and injuries caused by improper abortions are avoidable. However, such deaths are common in countries where access to safe abortion is restricted or forbidden outright, as the majority of women and girls who require an abortion due to an undesired pregnancy are unable to obtain one legally.

In nations where abortion is illegal, the law often permits what is known as narrow exceptions to the rule. These exclusions may apply when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, when there is a serious and fatal foetal disability, or when the pregnant person’s life or health is jeopardised. Only a small fraction of abortions are performed for these reasons, which means that the majority of women and girls living under these restrictions may be forced to seek unsafe abortions, endangering their health and lives.

Those who are already marginalised are disproportionately impacted by such regulations because they lack the ability to seek safe and legal services in another country or access private care. They include low-income women and girls, immigrants and migrants, teenagers, lesbian, bisexual, cisgender women and girls, transgender or gender-nonconforming people, and women of colour or Indigenous women.

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According to the WHO, one of the first measures in preventing maternal deaths and injuries is for states to ensure that people have access to sex education, effective contraception, safe and legal abortion, and timely care for complications.

Those who are already marginalised suffer disproportionately as a result of such rules because they lack the means to seek safe and legal services in another country or to get private care. Low-income women and girls, immigrants and migrants, teens, lesbian, bisexual, cisgender women and girls, transgender or gender-nonconforming people are among them.

Abortions aren’t exclusively for cisgender women and girls

Not only cisgender women and girls (women and girls assigned female at birth) may require abortion services, but so may intersex people, transgender men and boys, and people with alternative gender identities with the reproductive capacity to become pregnant.

Lack of access to healthcare is one of the most significant barriers to abortion access for these persons and groups. Furthermore, those who do have access to healthcare may encounter stigma and prejudiced perspectives in healthcare delivery, as well as assumptions that they do not require access to contraception and abortion-related information and services. In some cases, 28 percent of transgender and gender nonconforming people report being harassed in medical settings, and 19 percent report being denied medical care entirely because of their transgender identity, with significantly higher rates among people of colour. This is due to a number of interconnected issues such as poverty, racism, and related intersectional discrimination.

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Sexual and reproductive rights advocates, as well as LGBTQI+ rights activists, are working to raise awareness about this issue and make abortion services available, accessible, and inclusive to anybody who needs them, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.

Criminalizing abortion is a type of discrimination that contributes to stigma

To begin with, denial of medical care, particularly reproductive health services, to specific individuals is a kind of discrimination.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, or the Treaty on the Rights of the Woman) has consistently stated that restrictive abortion laws are discrimination against women. This applies to all women and people who have the potential to become pregnant, as the CEDAW Committee has confirmed that CEDAW’s protections, and states’ related obligations, apply to all women and thus include discrimination against lesbians, bisexuals, and/or transgender women, especially given the specific forms of gendered discrimination they face.

Second, abortion stigma and gender stereotyping are inextricably tied to abortion criminalization and other restrictive abortion laws and practices.

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The mere perception that abortion is illegal or unethical leads to stigmatisation of women and girls by healthcare providers, family members, and the judiciary, among others. As a result, women and girls who seek abortions face prejudice and harassment. When seeking abortion or post-abortion treatment, several women have reported being assaulted and degraded by health care personnel.

Abortion access is a question of human rights

It is a human right to have access to safe abortion services. Everyone has a right to life, a right to health, and a right to be free from violence, discrimination, and torture, as well as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international human rights law.

Human rights law clearly states that decisions concerning your body are solely yours – this is known as bodily autonomy.

Forcing someone to continue on an unwanted pregnancy or to seek an unsafe abortion violates their human rights, especially their right to privacy and physical autonomy.

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In many cases, those who are forced to have unsafe abortions suffer prosecution and punishment, including incarceration, as well as harsh, inhuman, and humiliating treatment and discrimination in, and exclusion from, essential post-abortion health care.

Access to abortion is thus critically tied to preserving and upholding the human rights of pregnant women, girls, and others, and hence to attaining social and gender justice.