IWD 2014: No equality without reproductive autonomy

Friday, 7 March 2014 22:33 GMT

Abortion rights activists (back L) demonstrate as state troopers stand guard outside the Texas House of Representatives in Austin after a bill mandating sweeping abortion restrictions passed on July 9, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Stone

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Politicians across the globe, including in Spain and the United States, often pay lip service to promoting gender equality and women’s health—while at the same time taking direct aim at access to basic healthcare services such as abortion and contraception to score political points.

Earlier this year, France’s National Assembly moved to amend its country’s laws to reaffirm women’s absolute right to end a pregnancy through the first 12 weeks and, furthermore, criminalize any attempts to obstruct this right.

 What is particularly commendable about this proposed amendment to the French abortion law is that it is not standalone legislation, but part of the even broader package of measures aimed at tackling many aspects of gender inequality. In addition to ensuring women’s access to a full range of reproductive healthcare, including abortion, the measure would also address a host of other issues such as paternity leave, beauty contests for young girls, and businesses and political parties that fail to respect gender parity.

 This move to place reproductive rights within their proper context as essential elements of gender equality stands in particularly stark contrast to what is happening in other developed countries like Spain and the United States—where an alarming number of politicians demonstrate daily their rabid commitment to rolling back women’s rights and access to essential health care.

Despite Spain’s historic move just four years ago to significantly liberalize its laws to allow abortion through 14 weeks of pregnancy for all women, without restriction, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is working diligently to unravel the rights of Spanish women. If he succeeds in banning abortion under the vast majority of circumstances—with only the narrow exceptions of rape and health—Spain will become the second country in Europe to make the regressive move from a liberal abortion law to a severely restrictive one, stripping women of a right that, for most other European women, is well established as fundamental.

 And, of course, it’s no secret that years of legislative assaults across the United States have brought about a healthcare crisis for millions of women whose access to the full range of reproductive health care now depends in large part on whether or not their state legislatures have been overrun by politicians hostile to their rights and indifferent to their health and safety.

Take Texas as just one example. Just a few days ago, two more abortion clinics joined more than a dozen others that have been forced to close their doors, now leaving huge swaths of East Texas and the entire Rio Grande Valley without a single reproductive health care provider who offers abortion services. These closures were a direct result of underhanded abortion restrictions passed by politicians last year with the explicit goal of regulating reproductive health care providers out of practice.

 Texas women are not alone in facing often insurmountable barriers to safe and legal abortion in the United States. Politicians in nearly every single state attempted in 2013 to restrict women’s access to their constitutionally protected right to decide for themselves whether to continue or end a pregnancy—considering nearly 250 pieces of anti-choice legislation, and enacting more than 30 as law.

 Politicians across the globe, including in Spain and the United States, often pay lip service to promoting gender equality and women’s health—while at the same time taking direct aim at access to basic healthcare services such as abortion and contraception to score political points.  But as France’s National Assembly recently recognized, these two simply cannot be separated if the goal is to support women’s true equality in society—not to mention their well-being in daily life.

We all depend on reproductive healthcare in one way or another, whether it’s the contraceptives that enable us to plan our families or the maternity care that’s needed to ensure the health of our children, the fertility treatments when we experience difficulty in expanding our families or the counsel and care of trusted medical professionals when we are confronted with the decision to end a pregnancy or carry to term.

Access to safe, legal, high-quality reproductive health services is essential to who we are as individuals and as members of our families, our communities, our society, and our world.  That is what is at stake. That is what will be lost if those who presume to know better than we do how we should make these very personal, private decisions about our health, our families, and our future are allowed to continue running roughshod over our rights, and to foreclose our access to critical health care.

On this 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, we must remind all leaders worldwide that true gender equality will never be achieved without the full recognition of reproductive autonomy as a fundamental human right.

 -- Nancy Northup is president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights