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Get in the Repro Know: Abortion Abroad and at Home

Editorial Note:

This blog series offers accessible explainers on reproductive health, policy, politics, and social movements. Each post focuses on one aspect of reproductive health and provides an overview of the history, current conversations, and research on the topic. 

From the author: From environmental movements to the criminal legal system to new age instagram, reproductive health and politics covers a lot of ground! It is a full time job staying up to date and I should know because it’s my full-time job! I know not everyone can spend hours a week reading up on reproductive health, so I’ll boil it down to 800 words or less so you can get and stay in the repro know.

Get in the Repro Know: Reading List

Bans Harm People

Abortion is considered a human right under the United Nations human rights treaty. International human rights organizations document countries (including the US) who violate this right and lobby for changes in the law. Making abortions illegal harms people in a number of ways (non-exhaustive):

  1. people may be denied medical care leading to mental, emotional, and physical harm including death,
  2. pregnant people may use unsafe means to end a pregnancy,
  3. people who experience a miscarriage may be subject to interrogations and criminalization,
  4. people on the economic and/or social margins may be pushed into poverty or denied opportunities and resources (such as an education),
  5. medical workers may be surveilled, prosecuted, or harassed, and
  6. infant and child mortality rates increase for wanted pregnancies. 

Paradoxically, countries with abortion restrictions typically have worse outcomes for wanted pregnancies and higher rates of infant and child mortality. This is due to a combination of things—pregnant people may be less willing to seek care if pregnancy is surveilled and miscarriages are criminalized, medical workers may be more cautious to provide services to pregnant people (for fear of violating a restriction), and forced pregnancies are more prone to medical complications which impact the long term health of the pregnant person and any future pregnancies.

Whether legal or not, abortions are relatively common across the globe. (See the Guttmacher Institute for more on global abortion statistics and policies). Six in 10 of all unintended pregnancies end in abortion. The majority (55% globally) of abortions (whether legal or illegal) are safe although that is not the case for developing countries where 97% of abortions are unsafe. While I want to emphasize that not all illegal abortions are unsafe abortions, making abortion illegal introduces greater risks for pregnant people seeking healthcare. Safe abortions are often expensive in places where abortion and contraceptives are illegal. Unsafe abortions which are occurring disproportionately in the global South can lead to serious complications including death. People who undergo illegal abortions may not be able to seek medical care afterward for fear of being arrested. 

Bans Over Time and Place

In many (if not most) places, abortion was not regulated and was practiced as just another part of pregnancy care (note that cultural practices around pregnancy vary). Herbs, local remedies, and folk practices were used throughout history to end pregnancies for personal and health reasons. Even Christian societies in the Middle Ages permitted abortions under a considerable number of circumstances. In the late 1800s a wave of countries began formally banning abortions with a second wave in the 1930s-1990s. Broadly speaking, the first wave is tied to colonialism and fears of immigration and “replacement” while the second is related to increasing nationalism around fascism and countries seeking national identity post-independence. In addition, religion, mainly Catholicism in the 1900s, played a significant role in Irish and Latin American bans. It should be noted that the vast majority of MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) and Muslim majority countries do not (and never did) have abortion bans.

Abortion bans were seen by some colonizing Europeans as a way to ensure native and immigrant populations did not out number them. The United States is not the only country with anxieties about racial purity and nationalism (see the third blog in this series, Stop Inventing EcoFacism, for more on the US). In the 20th century abortion bans became part of national propaganda and rebuilding efforts. Reproductive policies often reflect national ideologies about race, political power, and authoritarianism. For example, fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini and Post-Soviet governments like Romania in the 1960s and Belarus in the early 1990s made abortions illegal and encouraged reproduction as a symbol of national prosperity. Nationalist ideologies regardless of the underlying politics link population growth and fertility to state power. 

These symbolically and ideologically driven reproductive policies have devastating effects on pregnant people and children’s welfare. Romania became infamous for it’s abortion ban following Stalin’s death (the Soviet Union and its satelites protected abortion access). Maternal and infant mortality climbed sharply, orphanages became overcrowded, families fell into poverty, and abortion advocates around the world used Romania as a haunting example of what happens when abortions are banned. While some countries (like Mexico and Ireland) are listening to activists, doctors, and voters by overturning abortion bans and decriminalizing the procedure; other countries, like the US, are moving backward. We have considerable evidence that abortion bans harm people and do not decrease the number of abortions performed

So, why do countries continue to ban abortion?

Abortion bans typically have little to do with medical standards or public health and safety, instead they are driven by authoritarian political ideologies and national symbolism. We can see this in some of the public discourse around abortion in the US. Anti-abortion politicians in the US frequently support nationalist policies and messages as well. You may recall the startling ad for a gubernatorial candidate: “Jesus Guns Babies.” The slogan succinctly ties Christian nationalism, militarism and authoritarianism, with abortion and reproductive health. We know abortion bans are damaging to public health, but they also raise concerns about the health of the body politic.

Browse the Full “Get in the Repro Know” Blog Series

Elle Rochford

Dr. Elle Rochford is a Researcher at the Center for the Study and Prevention of Gender-Based Violence at the University of Delaware. She also hosts Proofing and Lies, a social science podcast covering a new topic and new baking project every other week!